Alma’s Alter

Gabriele Annan

  • Oscar Kokoschka: Letters translated by Mary Whittall
    Thames and Hudson, 320 pp, £24.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 500 01528 7

This book is beautifully designed and printed, and very well translated by Mary Whittall. The English sometimes sounds a bit gnarled, but so does Kokoschka’s idiosyncratic German: not because Czech was his first language, though; his father was a German-speaking Czech from Prague, his mother Austrian; he was born in Lower Austria in 1886, grew up in a suburb of Vienna, and trained at the famous School of Arts and Crafts there. Whittall even manages the puns: in a letter of June 1930, for instance, Kokoschka jokingly compares his own indigence to that of Der arme Heinrich (‘Poor Heinrich’), the hero of a Medieval epic and a recent play by Gerhard Hauptmann. The passage ends er im Kreuzzug an leitender stelle (ich im Bummelzug von Gabes nach Reval). Literally this means: ‘he is a leading position in the crusades, I on a slow train from Gabes to Reval.’ Whittal renders it: ‘he in the vanguard of a crusade (I in the guard’s van from Gabes to Reval).’ She must have been pleased with that, and quite right too.

The book is not user-friendly, however. Even an affectionate introduction by Professor Gombrich can’t quite reconcile one to the struggle of trying to extract the basic information one needs before coming to grips with Kokoschka’s pleading, flirting, raging, pontificating, whimsical, conceited and generally unbuttoned and Expressionistic letters. ‘You most not overlook the fact,’ he wrote in 1921, ‘that almost as long ago as 1907!!! I invented, and am the leader of, a movement in the intellectual and spiritual dimension which is called Expressionism.’ The notes are at the back, unnumbered, and printed very close together, so it is quite an effort to find the addressee and date one wants. One also has to consult the biographical notes to Kokoschka’s correspondents which leave out information one would very much like to have and include some that seems irrelevant – like the careers, even after Kokoschka’s death in 1980, of people not really very important in his life or otherwise interesting to the reader. Finally, there is a chronology of Kokoschka’s career. So one needs four different markers altogether and ends up with strips of paper fluttering all over the house.

A more important gripe is about the selection of letters, which is in fact a selection from a selection. Like the original four-volume German selection, it was made by two people. The first is Kokoschka’s widow, Olda. Kokoschka met her after he moved to Prague in 1934 to get away from the Nazis; not because he was Jewish (he wasn’t), but because he hated them; in 1937 they included his work in their infamous exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’. Olda Palkov sky was the daughter of one of Kokoschka’s Prague patrons. She was well-heeled, well-educated, practical and considerably younger than he was. In 1938 she fled with him to England. They married in 1942 in the air-raid shelter where the Hampstead registry office had taken refuge.

The second selector is Alfred Marnau. His biographical note tells us that he is a ‘poet, novelist, and translator, born in Pressburg (now Bratislava). Marnau and his wife Senta formed a close friendship with Oscar and Olda Kokoschka in London during the Second World War. Kokoschka designed the jacket for one of his earliest books.’ It is not surprising, perhaps (and maybe prurient to regret the omission) that the widow and friend did not include Kokoschka’s letters to the dollmaker from whom he commissioned a life-size rubber model of his mistress, Alma Mahler, after she left him for her old flame, the architect Walter Gropius. This was after Kokoschka had been seriously wounded in the First World War. He insisted that every detail of Alma’s anatomy should be correct, and when he finally took delivery of her replica, it accompanied him everywhere: to restaurants and even to the theatre, where he would book a seat for it. This weird episode is relevant to a letter of 17 April 1928 to Anna Kallin:

My friends in Morocco tried various arguments to persuade me to become a Muslim. Perhaps Allah will help me, since Jehovah and our god, created by Charles V (my personal emperor), do damn all for me. I’ve come across Charles V in every sphere my interests have taken me to date, really the last great man to be a monarch, as I imagine one. His mother was Joanna the Mad, who also fascinates me, because she shares my necrophilia and passion for dolls with her whole family, and passed it on to her heirs. Perhaps I inherited it from her, for I am, as you know, a Habsburg bastard like Don John of Austria, through Franz I and my grandmother – things like that often crop up much later.

All the notes have to say about this rich and strange passage is that Kokoschka’s ideas about Joanna the Mad and Charles V are expounded in his play about Comenius (he wrote several plays and had them performed); and that the theory of his Habsburg descent is unfounded.

The letter tells one something not only about Kokoschka’s sexual proclivities, but also about the sense he frequently expressed of being a child of the old Habsburg Empire. ‘The three stars in my old Austrian heaven’, he said, were Charles V, Maria Theresia and Prince Eugene. He was even proud to claim artistic descent from the very minor Austrian Baroque painter Franz Anton Maulbertsch (‘the great master of murals’) whom he puts in his heaven for painters along with Titian (‘how can a mere mortal be such a great artist?’) Velazquez, Breughel, Grünewald, Dürer and Munch. His artistic hell included all non-figurative painters, but was otherwise quite catholic, with places in the eternal fire for Schiele, Grosz and Picasso. Kokoschka was rarely generous about contemporaries. He was a jealous man, not only in sexual matters (all through his affair with Alma Mahler, he resented her male acquaintance, and most of all her dead husband Gustav) but also over artistic success. Not that he underrated himself. In 1941 when he was a refugee in London he feared that the English might ‘bore to death the greatest living painter’ and in 1954 he complained: ‘Now there is no one of my calibre left in the world, brrrh.’ These remarks are only half-jokes. There are no jokes at all in a letter of 12 May 1958, by which time, it is true, Kokoschka had become yours disgusted, Villeneuve, Lake Geneva – where he and Olda had settled in 1953 – on most artistic and political issues:

In our ‘non-objective’ epoch, especially now that they have the action painters from the USA to add to the chimpanzee shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art, it [his painting The Power of Music] is the last to breathe the spirit of Western art. It may even mark the completion – i.e. the end – of the European mission in art, because no new life is going to grow from technological civilisation, that’s for sure!

The Power of Music and Strength and Weakness were both titles I gave the painting. Strength and Weakness referred to the colours, yellow, red, orange, hot, blue-cold, feminine colours. The Power of Music to the subject, because a trombone fanfare, yellow, shoots out of the painting, and the immense, radiant mass of colour (radiant as stained glass, Rouault never manages to do anything like it, Van Gogh is matt and whitish-grey by comparison!) begins to tremble like a living organism in action. This is ‘action painting’ in the true sense of the word, and there are no other examples of it in the whole history of art, except for Grünewald in Colmar, Dürer’s Apostles in Munich, Titian’s Pieta in the Venice Academia. The painting is in fact the outcome of the whole series of my Dresden experiments to draw hear and cold from colour.

I have quoted almost the whole of this letter because it encapsulates an extraordinary number of Kokoschka’s intentions, hates and loves, including his loathing of ‘technological civilisation’. He often looked like a revolutionary, but he was really a maverick traditionalist.

The letter is also exceptional in containing one of the very few analyses of his work. ‘Maybe,’ says Gombrich, ‘a reader who takes up this book in search of a commentary on the artist’s individual paintings, will be disappointed ... but what this selection really offers is the record of a spiritual Odyssey that led a lonely rebellious painter to [an] exalted conception of the artist’s mission.’ The illustrations in the book reflect the absence of Kokoschka’s art from the text: there are no reproductions of his work except for portrait sketches of a few of his correspondents; plus a clutch of photographs which explain – much better than the often rather over-insistent, over-the-top letters – why he had so many and such illustrious friends (including many musicians like Schönberg, Furtwängler. Klemperer and Kempff: he had a strong feeling for music). The charm of his facial expressions, the vitality of his gestures must have been devastating.

No wonder he excelled as a teacher, first in Vienna, then in Dresden – an important artistic centre during the time he was professor at the Academy there (1919 to 1923) – and later at the School of Seeing which he founded and ran at Salzburg from 1953 to 1963: the object of this summer school was to counteract abstract art, with its ‘experiment or technical jiggery-pokery or any of those tricks which are deriguer in Paris’. ‘Art,’ Kokoschka said in a letter he wrote encouraging one of his former Dresden pupils after the war, ‘is a means of feeling our way forwards in the moral sphere, and it is neither a luxury of the rich nor the rigid formalism that comes out of the theories of the academies. The modern art of the present time also tends towards arid formalism. Art is like grass sprouting from the frozen earth at the end of winter, like growing corn, and like the spiritual bread in which the human inheritance is passed on to future generations.’ Still, in spite of his high purpose and the seriousness of the young people who flocked to his School of Seeing every summer, he was glad that ‘there are always some very pretty little dolly birds amongst them.’

He loved women and they seemed to have loved him. Before his marriage, he usually had at least two concurrent mistresses, except, possibly, during his affair with the man-eating celebrity groupie Alma Mahler. She was seven years his senior and an established queen of the intellectual and artistic world when he was only just beginning his career; but even a nicer woman might have been turned off by his demanding, jealous, egocentric letters. He was always begging her to rest so that she would be fresh for him – a form of erotic valetudinarianism quite common but not often documented as it is here. Their affair ended in tears; but, as far as one can see, all the other mistresses remained friends and confidantes long after the affairs were over.

Alma got the most and most painful letters, but the one who got the best was Anna Kallin. Together with Kokoschka’s tender drawing of her they reflect her own grace and amusement. He met her in 1921. She was a Russian-Jewish music student – not a bohemian like him, but a jeune fille bien élevée whose struggle between dutiful devotion to her parents, on the one hand, and Kokoschka, on the other, is reflected in their correspondence. She settled in London, and eventually became a producer on the BBC’s Third Programme; her room there was the nearest thing in London to a table at the Deux Magots.

The selection of letters includes many to other mistresses, but none to Kokoschka’s mother, father, brother and sister, to whom he was as devoted as Kallin was to her parents. Gombrich regrets this just a little: ‘he surely never wanted to conceal the place his own family occupied in his heart and his thoughts throughout his life. Though this selection does not include his actual family correspondence, the letters here printed suffice to document one of his most lovable traits, his unswerving loyalty to his parental home.’ Well, yes, up to a point: but the fact that a whole chunk of correspondence is omitted unbalances the rest. Kokoschka comes across as a good man, but one gets impatient with his sermonising and his fulminations about the state of the world, even when one totally agrees with what he says: against the Nazis, against war, against expelling the Sudeten Germans, and against being beastly to the defeated Germans of the Reich. Kokoschka was important after the war: he painted portraits of Adenauer and Heuss, he was decorated, won international prizes, and had numerous retrospective exhibitions.