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A Modernist For The Long Haul : Tracking 70 Years Of Kokoschka Prints

May 27, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

SANTA BARBARA — This is the year after the year of Kokoschka. So what is "Orbis Pictus: The Prints of Oskar Kokoschka 1906-1976" doing at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art?

Instead of heralding the centennial of the Austrian expressionist's birth in 1886, the exhibition of 185 prints from the collection of Reinhold, Count Bethusy-Huc echoes the Kokoschka retrospective that was launched last year by London's Tate Gallery and only traveled as far west as New York. But before we grumble about our role as perpetual flag twirlers at the end of the art world's parade, we should be reminded that artists as long-lived and productive as Kokoschka aren't particularly well served by the Great Moment approach to art.

OK, as he signed his work, had one of the lengthiest careers in the annals of art and, as we see in the generous assortment of prints currently on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum, he was more than OK for a very long time.

A modernist who was born early enough to have been denounced as a rebel, Kokoschka hit his stride in time to have the Nazi cultural police pronounce his art degenerate, and lived long enough to be considered reactionary by those who had moved on through Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism to cool abstraction and Pop art. By the time he died in 1980, at 93, his persistently expressionistic humanism had been overtaken by a dozen styles--including a new brand of Expressionism that renewed interest in the original movement.

Through it all, Kokoschka continued to produce affecting art, first in Austria and Germany, then moving to England during World War II and finally settling in Switzerland in 1950. His late work didn't fulfill the fiery promise of his early years, but neither did it run completely out of steam. Unlike Picasso who churned through a daunting variety of styles and constantly reinvented his art, Kokoschka peaked early, then simply evolved from passionate youth to visionary old age.

The crisp folk style and pastoral themes of his early woodcuts and lithographs (1906-1908) seemed to explode into anguished expressionism around 1909. Too bad the most pungent examples of this--his "Pieta" poster for his play "Murderer, Hope of Women" and drawings related to that production--are not in this show. Also missing are the early cycles of prints on troubled male-female relationships that were sparked by his turbulent affair with Alma Mahler.

Fortunately, a group of portraits from the 1910s and '20s, the strongest work at Santa Barbara, illuminate the intense side of Kokoschka. These likenesses seem to grow inevitably from deep-seated eyes as dense knots of line fly into gestural strokes. Without these compelling faces, the exhibition would portray Kokoschka as more of a worried observer than a passionately engaged man.

He was engaged, traveling widely, exploring mythical and biblical themes and considering all aspects of the human condition in both art and writing. Though not an important innovator and rarely a producer of images that pack an unforgettable punch, he created a large volume of touching work with a gestural vocabulary of smudged shadows and wayward lines.

The show gets its name, "Orbis Pictus," from a 17th-Century illustrated volume of teachings for the young in which Czech humanist Jan Amos Comenius set forth everything he knew about the world in pictures, explained in four languages. The ambitious book had a lasting effect on Kokoschka, who wrote, "I learned not only what the world is, but how it should be in order to become fit for human beings to live in."

If the exhibition levels off the peaks of Kokoschka's achievement (better represented last year in the County Museum of Art's sampling of Kokoschka's graphics from the Robert Gore Rifkind Collection), it accurately portrays the middle ground of his mature style and breadth of inquiry. We find dreamy views of "London From the River Thames," vases of blushing flowers and several series based on mythical and biblical themes, along with introspective portraiture.

His "Concert" lithographs examine Camilla Swoboda's shifting moods as she listens to her art historian husband playing the piano. Greek "Kouros" statuary, set forth in clusters of scratchy colored line, assumes a human presence. Despite their casual look, Kokoschka's portraits of an international assortment of literary and political leaders such as Golda Meir, Ezra Pound and Konrad Adenauer are sensitive psychological studies as well as believable likenesses.

At least half the show is composed of cycles that illustrate literary themes. As Jaroslaw Leshko notes in his evenhanded catalogue essay, Kokoschka used prints primarily as a storytelling medium. Individual images often seem disappointingly gray and visually confused, but they can't be defined as bloodless illustrations. Poignancy and anguish flicker through these works rather like the patches of light that illuminate their form.

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