Der Tolle Kokoschka
Oskar Kokoschka—His Life and Work. By Edith Hoffmann. (Faber and Faber. 25s.) Miss EDITH HOFFMANN has written the best study of a living painter that has appeared for many years. This is not indeed the book's only claim to attention. Many readers will turn to it who have no particular concern with the main subject, for it is also an introduction without rival to the fevered and complex intellectual life of Austria and Germany before the wars. Figures that have remained for thirty years just beyond the horizon of the English reader are brought, with the aid of the painter's incisive and substantial record of them, to life at last, and restored to their places in the brilliant, doomed constella- tions. The Viennese circle, ranging from the classic Bohemianism of the poet Altenberg to the refined satirical violence of Karl Kraus of the Fackel, revolves round the progressive architect and Anglo- phile Adolf Loos. In Berlin there is Der Sturm under the less idealistic direction of Herwarth Walden and a multitude of " men with long curly hair, wild ties and secessionist socks." Between them and Dresden, the cauldron of Expressionism, Miss Hoffmann's subject oscillates, with his long, open face, his simplicity, his charm
of which he is not unaware, fanciful, versatile, uncontrollable, the mad Kokoschka.
The portrait that emerges is in many ways unexpected. Kokoschka remained a little apart from the original Expressionists. His dis- tinguishing style is romantic, comparatively tender, even humanistic. He. has said, "The man I meet in life is my problem," and in the series of portraits which he painted before he was thirty we can watch him coming to terms with it. He never needed to occupy himself with the " quite conscious striving after emancipation from the French school " which Miss Hoffmann acutely diagnoses as characteristic of organised Expressionism. It is in fact possible that the mannerisms of the Tubutsch illustration of 1911 which she reproduces are a temporarily direct reflection of Cubist influence. Kokoschka's later discovery of the. masterpieces of Impressionism in 5924 certainly contributed to the comparatively objective direction which his later work has followed. All this, and the-essential contribution embodied in his portraits, at once lyrical, penetrating and passionate, which was complete when he at length took up the challenge of Expressionism in 1918, Miss Hoffmann analyses admirably. And she adds some observations based on her own acquaintance with the painter which will be of the utmost value when finally the typical mentality of avant garde artists in the twentieth century comes to be studied. " His argument with the authorities has, so to speak, never come to an end, and in spite of all success and official recognition, he has never been free of the suspicion that he might at any time be once more the subject of philistine attack. In his own eyes he remained and still is the powerless youth of thirty-five years ago, misunderstood by the majority, persecuted by those in power, and grateful for the devotion of a few tested friends." Few artists have been discussed in their lifetime with such a combination of sympathy and detachment.
Miss Hoffmann provides extensive lists of works, whose annotations lack only the important data of dates of entry into public collections, and a bibliography of two hundred items. The name of a delightful Amsterdam canal which provided Kokoschka's fermenting style with perhaps the most unsuitable of its subjects is misspelt—a symbolical slip—but the abundance of exact information with which her study has been documented, under the most difficult conditions, sets a new standard for work of the kind. The book is prefaced by that practised introducer, Dr. Herbert Read, who gives his explana- tions of the neglect of Kokoschka in this country. In the first place our taste is commercialised and corrupt, and sordidly subservient to the venal pens that guide it. In the second we anyway hate the truth when we see it ; " we feel abashed by such relentless realism." On the way he rounds on El Greco for masochism, and on us for admiring it ; a taste for self-punishment does, indeed, seem to con- tribute to the gusto of Dr. Read's exposition. It is doubtful if England's continued loyalty to traditions that are Mediterranean in origin is a matter for shame. The imponderable systems of internal correspondence which remain the formal substance of Western art, as a comparison of the most apparently disjointed of Picasso's recent work with Kokoschka's illustrations to Hoffnung der Frauen (which so remarkably anticipate it) sufficiently indicates, have never found a place in German painting. The faults which Dr. Read uncovers are doubtless prevalent enough. But it is unlikely that they are solely responsible for the limited interest which the " indocility to the classicist Italian conventions of harmony," that the choir-boy Kokoschka admired in the frescoes of Maulpertsch, has always held in countries fortunate enough to inherit a more genial habit.