Kokoschka on the look-out

Because of the First World War, the painter Oskar Kokoschka’s awareness has fundamentally changed. In the documentary Oskar Kokoschka: Ein Selbstporträt (1966) he explained how, living in the stinking trenches, he had felt trapped like a rat. In these terrible circumstances he made a pledge: when I will come out of these trenches alive, with my eyes and my right arm intact, I will climb the steepest hill to paint from there what I see; and I will observe from this elevated position what the people – all these insane people – are up to. Indeed, Kokoschka would make several paintings of cities, seen from a distance and from a high viewpoint. These paintings celebrate space. He intended them to be the opposite of the muddy holes that had enclosed him as a soldier.

When as a cavalryman he was shot in the head, his sense of balance had for some time been severely upset. One late evening in Vienna, after the war, when the white moonlight was stroking the cobble-stones in the street, he re-experienced that wartime sensation of completely losing his equilibrium. It felt as if he were elevated, floating above the street. Afterwards he knew it must have been a hallucination, but what really impressed him was the intense sensation of moving around in space freely, at least for some moments. Kokoschka is generally seen as an expressionist painter, who brought his inner feelings to the canvas. His own testimony, though, suggests that his work is mainly about regaining space.

Oskar Kokoschka

It had to be regained, he felt, because modernity somehow seemed to fear space: the technological civilisation of modern times is a cage (Kokoschka explains in the documentary), because it shuts us up in a very limited repertoire of actions and things, which are all goal-oriented, subordinate to whatever is trendy, and tied to the simple and uniform truths of a surface reality. At this point Kokoschka connects his cultural analysis to the many portraits he painted: they were deliberate attempts to restore the classical view that a human being is intimately related to space. This ancient truth can be rediscovered when a man, like Kokoschka, climbs on a hill to paint a distant city, outstretching; or when that man paints the face or the body of another person, and tries to catch that person’s inner feelings, as well as his own. He then adds the space of the inner dimension to the body’s surface. Skin and traits become a manifestation of the inner space. Inner man is a dimension, our ‘deepest’ reality is space. Look again at Kokoschka’s famous ‘tiger-lion’ from 1926: you can see straight through it, right into the space in and behind it.