Wednesday 17 January 2018

Macabre tale of the 'living' doll which has been made into an opera

Pauline Bewick was fascinated by the story of Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka who, spurned as a lover, created a grotesque doll which he later beheaded, She tells Donal Lynch how this strange tale has now been turned into an opera

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

IN a small storage facility tucked away in the deepest Kerry countryside Pauline Bewick is showing me some extraordinary art.

For once, however, it isn't hers. With barely disguised wonder she points to a page in a yellowing book which contains a photo of a man she speaks of almost as an old friend, the Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. He is flanked by a picture of what could be a monster or an effigy. Instead it the life-sized doll of his lover. Pauline looks at him kindly. The sheer weirdness of Kokoscha's story – composed of equal parts love and horror – enthrals her and brings her back through space and time, to 1989.

In that year the Kerry-based artist Pauline Bewick gave a lavish party at the Chelsea Arts Club to mark the launch of her latest exhibition in London. Her star was in the ascendant and as she looked around the table she felt elation wash over her. Artists mingled with actresses and academics in what seemed like some latter day salon.

On Pauline's right sat Bob Geldof, Edna O'Brien and Van Morrison were there, as was the gallery-owner Odette Gilbert, and the late, great Professor Anthony Clare, who opened the exhibition, spoke wittily. Albert Roux, of the Michelin-starred Le Gavroche restaurant, was there too, Pauline remembers, and brought party foods, which were served "by a team of flirtatious young waiters".

In "buoyant" mood, Pauline ducked out of the party and meandered down Cork Street toward Odette's gallery. On the lamp-lit street she happened to pass a shop which had the letters FMR written in gold paint on the sign above the door. The shop sold art magazines and one in particular caught Pauline's eye. The shop girl recognised her as the artist exhibiting in Cork Street, and gave it to her for free. Contained in the magazine was the full story of the love affair between Viennese artist Oskar Kokoschka, who had died only nine years previously, and the love of his life, Alma Mahler. Pauline pored over the story and was mesmerised by it. "It seemed such a strange and riveting tale to me. Kokoschka seemed in a way to have brought life and art closer together", Pauline tells me. "He lived in this fantasy and was able to keep the real world outside."

She shows me books and texts about Kokoschka and Mahler. They had met for the first time in April 1912, by which time both were society figures: he had earned renown for his intense expressionistic landscapes and she was the widow of the late-Romantic composer Gustav Mahler. Kokoschka fell deeply, madly in love with Alma.

She, ever the flighty muse, told him that his love for her would only ever be requited if he created a bona fides 'meisterwerk' or masterpiece. Inspired by Czeschka, his teacher at the renowned Wiener Werkstaette, Kokoschka began work on a series of fans, which he intended to present to Alma in the hope of fulfilling her demand. Czeschka gave Kokoschka a number of books showing different types of design, among which were reproductions from Irish works. Speaking in 1968, Kokoschka reflected: "there can be no doubt that at the time I was heavily influenced by Irish incunabula. This is especially evident in the ornaments of my earliest fans. They are intended not merely as embellishments but as the natural intertwining of men, animals, plants, spirits and birds, as in the Book Of Kells."

The fans depicted various stages of Oskar's torrid love for Alma. In the second of the fans the woman and artist are united "like a double being" to form the image of the signature which Oskar used in his letters: "Alma Oskar, – A and O, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end."

The third fan was not created until 1913. In that year Kokoschka and Alma took a journey through Italy, which Kokoschka would later depict in his work. His paintings had grown increasingly sombre as it dawned on him that Alma, while happy to play along for the time being, did not truly love him as he loved her. Only a month after the journey through Italy Alma, who said she had been feeling tired and unwell, went to Franzenbad in Western Bohemia for a "rest cure".

Kokoschka did not suspect the real reason for this: Alma was expecting their child and had sought an abortion.

The imagery of the fans became ever darker and torturous, culminating in the sixth fan, which shows Alma holding a bayonet, which has pierced his chest. He presented it to her for Christmas in 1914, by which time he had been drafted to fight in the First World War.

After a stint on the Eastern Front, he escaped the war with his life and devoted the years afterward to overcoming his obsession with Alma through his art. He wrote a satirical play and another which he described as a tragedy. But undoubtedly the most notorious way in which he attempted to get past his preoccupation with his former lover was to have a life-sized doll made in her image. It was to be constructed by the famous Munich-based doll maker Hermine Moos and Kokoschka carefully monitored every aspect of the process. He told her: "If you are able to carry out this task as I would wish, to deceive me with such magic that when I see it and touch it I imagine that I have the woman of my dreams in front of me ... then I will be forever indebted to your skills of invention." Kokoschka also told Moos that she must "use only the softest silks for the inner thigh. I must never be aware of seams" and, in a quivering voice, asked "will I be able to dress her?"

The doll, when it arrived in February 1919, was a huge disappointment. It was far larger than life and covered in hair, more Frankenstein's monster than a sensual effigy of Kokoschka's paramour. Despite this, the artist proceeded with his plan to breathe life into 'die puppe' and adopted the doll as his partner, taking it to parties, where he insisted that a place be set for it, and to the opera.

"Everyone in Vienna knew of Kokoschka's doll," Bewick tells me. "Every picture he had ever tried to paint turned out to be a picture of Alma and now he could use the doll as a still- life subject too. The doll was dressed in lingerie from Paris and silks from the Far East."

The story had the feel of an urban myth and people sought out Kokoschka to see the doll for themselves. Eventually the gossip around Vienna and Dresden, where he lived part of the year, became too much for him. Having drawn and painted the doll over and over again he decided to do away with it.

"It had managed to cure me completely of my Passion," he later wrote. "So I gave a big Champagne party with chamber music, during which Hulda (his servant) exhibited the doll in all its beautiful clothes for the last time. When dawn broke – I was quite drunk, as was everyone else –I beheaded it out in the garden and broke a bottle of red wine over its head." The next day a passing police patrol happened to look through the gates, and seeing what was apparently the body of a naked woman covered with blood, they burst into the house suspecting some crime of passion. "And for that matter, that's what it was..." Kokoschka remembered, "Because in that night I had finally killed Alma..."

With her mind racing at the strange resonances of this story Bewick wrote an opera synopsis, calling it Obsession, and also sketched and painted ideas for a possible stage set. She took these ideas to Jeremy Isaacs and Anthony Russell-Roberts of the Royal Opera House in London. They were excited by her concept and Bewick received a letter from Russell-Roberts telling her that it would be wonderful to work with her when she returned from the South Seas, where she intended taking a sort of sabbatical from her life and marriage.

Like Kokoschka himself, Bewick was filled with a restless yearning and explored her life through her art. She had once described the Yellow Man character, focus of one of her key works (and the title of a recently completed Maurice Galway-directed film on her life), as "my ideal being – complete without partner ... happy and content, alone with nature". It was a philosophy she embraced as she left her husband Pat – with whom she has been reunited – and went to the South Seas, taking her two daughters, Poppy and Holly, with her.

When she did return in 1991, opera seemed "unnatural and histrionic" – the furthest thing possible from her own earthy aesthetic. She began building the kind of reputation that would see her installed as one of Ireland's most sought-after artists (her paintings were recently sold from Anglo's collection for nearly €50,000).The Alma idea lay like a doll in an attic, forgotten for years. Then, one day in 2006, Bewick was driving up the country when she heard television producer and concert pianist Eithne Tinney talking about Alma Mahler on Lyric FM. Pauline contacted Eithne and they got classical music composer Raymond Deane to write music for a part of the story entitled The Arrival Of The Doll. Eithne eventually renamed the project Five Fans For Alma and she and Pauline were interviewed for the opera section of Lyric FM.

Between that point and this year scandals such as the Natascha Kampusch kidnapping and the Josef Fritzl saga, with their themes of obsession and possession in middle Europe, made international headlines. Somehow the Kokoschka story seemed to some to resonate down the decades.

Raymond Deane and playwright Gavin Kostick assumed the roles of 'puppe' masters. They worked to create an opera of the story, which they renamed The Alma Fetish, and which will be performed at the National Concert Hall later this month. The event will be staged as part of Deane's 60th birthday celebrations. Pauline, who last year suffered a small stroke, was re-engaged recently to contribute artwork to the set design, which will feature a compilation of some of her greatest paintings, (including one show-stopper entitled Death) and some new pieces created especially for the show.

"It's strange to think that out of the kernel of an idea 20 years ago will now, finally come to fruition," Pauline says.

"I am delighted that this vision of mine from the 1980s is taking place in 2013. I am looking forward to seeing how Raymond Deane and Gavin Kostick have made it happen. I'm going to put on my best opera dress, sit comfortably in the auditorium and enjoy this experience."

'The Alma Fetish' will be performed at the National Concert Hall, Dublin on Tuesday September 17, at 8pm. See: www.nch.ie

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