oskar kokoschka - orbis  pictus

by domenico ermirio

december 2015

people in riviera

...I have lived in the space not in the time.
It is one of the most significant sentences in Oskar Kokoschka's autobiography. The great 20th century's painter almost 90-years-old, writes about himself as simply as a young boy discovering life. But it was a difficult life, intense, side by side both with the terrible events of modern Europe and the great personalities who make its history. It's a compelling book, clean, passionate and so deep. His eye clever as a scientist, at the same time open as a detective and looking forward as a prophet makes him able to dig deep both into his models (doesn't mind if they are human beings, animals or landscapes) and into reality. His comments seem to refer more to our present age than his one. He connects this ability to see with the first gift received by his father. It was a book, the Orbis pictus by Jan Amos Komensky, Czech philosopher and educator. In the late 17h century he understood that the simplest way to help children in the knowledge of the world is a picture book. The young Oskar finds a treasure in its pages: he will never stop to observe and learn using the sight.
Even Kokoschka's art was influenced by many styles oh his age (among them jugendstil, expressionism and cubism), it doesn't join exactly any of them. His independence reflects his own beliefs (he is a catholic and even far from the Church he never abandon the Christian ideas), his love for ancient painters (he especially admires Tiziano and Rembrandt and their "inner light"), his three-dimensional view of the space (forgotten by the early century graphic art), his defending the individuality of human beings, considering "man is the measure of all things" and his indictment of the large-scale modern society.
During the First World War and in the following ideological confusion which opens the way to a new and frightening future (and brings to the totalitarian systems), he observes the defeat of human reason, the end of ancient values and cultures. He understands that his solution is not to live forgetting what's going on or believing in an artistic sense totally separated from Human, but to search the "light" which still remains in the world. He travels following the idea of Comenius and giving to his sight the key of the knowledge of the space. He wants to meet the great ancients, moving from space to space and completely forgetting the time. He is around Europe, the North Africa, the Middle-East, Prague, London, US, and at the end he settles in Switzerland: in the summer of 1933 he is in Rapallo.
I met a rich Dutch man, a gay, who invited me in his property in Rapallo. I painted a great portrait of his wife, who was pregnant, and then one of himself, posing as Bacco. But I didn't convince him to pay my ticket for Wien. When one of my friends lent me the money for the ticket, I said goodbye to the Dutch with a slap, the only slap I gave in all my life.
The Dutch he refers to is Bob Gesinus-Visser, a painter himself, but above all, even not so famous, one of the last patron of the artists. In "Villa Olimpo" in Rapallo (one of the ancient houses along Via Aurelia), as in his other residences in Europe, he wants to be surrounded by famous artists. In Riviera he hosts at the same time Kokoschka and Rudolph Levy, a German expressionist escaped because of the anti-Semitic laws. During his period in Rapallo Kokoschka, apart from the three Gesinus-Vissers' portraits (two of Bob and one of his wife), paints other four works en plein air. They represents the landscape of the bay, large views, his favorite subject during his travels. From a balcony of a Grand Hotel or from the top of a rock - whichever one it may be - he wants to observe the multitude of things and people and represent it on the canvas. They're not fixed images, but full of life and movement.
After a long period of travels, spending time to see, to look to the world, he wants to come back to teaching (he taught in Dresda before the Nazi and it's one of his great passions). The School of Sight (Schule des Sehens) has been one of the high points of his career. For ten years young artists coming from all over the world, reach him in Salzburg and learn, in a not-academic way, to observe the reality. They're attracted by such a great man, someone who has broken the lines between space and time being with his life part of the common history. Only in Rapallo he meets the photographer Marianne Breslauer (wife of his future art dealer Walter Feilchenfeldt), the American journalist Dorothy Thompson (reporter for the NY Tribune) and he knows Gerhart Hauptmann (1912's Nobel Prize for Literature). That's the history of an Europe not so far from us, where the life of one cross the ones of many big personalities (Loos, Casals, Furtwängler, Trackl, Altenberg, Lagerlof, Pound… just to name someone).

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An English edition of O. Kokoschka, My life is edited by MacMillan Publishing Company
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