Tuesday 24 October 2017

What lies beneath... Self Portrait with Crossed Arms

Self Portrait with Crossed Arms by Oskar Kokoschka, oil on canvas, Private Collection

Self Portrait with Crossed Arms by Oskar Kokoschka
Self Portrait with Crossed Arms by Oskar Kokoschka

Niall MacMonagle

Every art work of any worth contains the energy that goes into its making, but if the artist is half-hearted then the art work is a dud and the whole thing falls flat.

Austrian-born artist Oskar Kokoschka was once giving a live drawing class and things were dul, ordinaryl: the students were listless and bored, their work lacked energy and spark until Kokoschka whispered in the model's ear to wait a little while and then collapse. This he did, right in front of them. Then Kokoschka, kneeling by the body, pronounced him dead. Shock. Horror. Silence.

Moments later, the model stood up, resumed his pose, and Kokoschka suggested to his students that they now draw him as if they knew he was a living being before them not a dead presence.

That certainly livened things up.

The subsequent work has more of a buzz to it; the classroom too, I bet.

Kokoschka himself practised what he had urged his students to do.

His figures, and he is known especially for his nudes, are definite presences. This Self Portrait, completed in 1923 when he was 37, is of a man in his prime, a man very much alive.

In the following decade, in 1937, the Nazis denounced Kokoschka's work as degenerate and removed it from German collections.

But this artist is here to stay. The thin, blue-suited figure with white and red tie looks at us directly.

His face is serious, the eyes are beautifully sad and the expressive hands that created the portrait, the long elegant fingers, the crossed arms suggest a relaxed pose. That said, his right thumb looks as if it's twitching for a paintbrush.

The background palette is strong and though there's something absurd-sounding about using blobs of ochre, red, green and blue for flesh, in this instance such colours suit hands and face so effectively and pick up on and complement his chosen backdrop.

For Kokoschka painting has four dimensions: "three dimensions are based on what both eyes see, the fourth is a projection of myself." He died in 1980, aged 93, but what he projects here is a living, alive work and very much his own man.

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