Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I was only once ever in Vienna before, just over forty years ago, when Ann and I made a trip from Paris to Greece and stopped in the old capital of the Austro-Hunagarian Empire on the way. Not a long visit, the main object to see the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which among many masterpieces has the best Brueghels to be found anywhere. Not to mention one of Vermeer’s greatest works, The Allegory of Painting. (That visit is mentioned in the poem “Seeing All the Vermeers,” in my most recent book Contradictions. The poem combines ecphrasis with autobiography, and works as a kind of résumé of my life from 1965 to the mid-1990s. Anyone interested in the topic of ecphrastic poems might check out some notes on the subject I wrote for the Academy of American Poets website:

I was out of the hotel this morning by 9:30 and took the U2 to the Karlsplatz stop. A short walk from there to the Staatsoper, but there doesn’t seem to be a ticket office open. I think Strauss's Capriccio is being done this week, a thoroughly Viennese work it would be a treat to see here. I’ll check at the hotel desk and see what they know. From there I walked to the Albertina Gallery, which I didn’t visit 40 years ago. No less than three large exhibitions were on offer. First, there was a collection of works by Oskar Kokoschka after 1934, when he exiled himself from Vienna (for the usual reason: first to Prague, then to London and Cornwall, and finally to Switzerland.) Only after the Second World War did the artist return for visits to Austria. I knew nothing about the late works, so different from the haunted dark brown, black and gray portraits of his early phase. These were generally highly colored, reminiscent of the Fauves, Bonnard, Nolde, Dufy. Kokoschka in exile doesn’t disdain from “postcards,” either; there were views of Florence from just above the Ponte Vecchio, of the Matterhorn, and of Salzburg—the sort of subjects modernists after Cubism abjured as banal or sentimental. We’re meant to read them as celebrations, clearly, and it seems cold-hearted to refuse to join in the artist’s pleasure in what he sees, especially when rendered with so much élan. Portraits were downplayed in this exhibition, but whenever one did appear, as the sole subject or else as part of a larger tableau, they never failed to leaven the picture. He had the ability to make the human face move and breathe, partly through carefully calibrated renderings of the eyes and other studied details. I never though of Kokoschka as a watercolorist, but numbers of the works were precisely that, engaging pictures of animals, landscapes, or flower pieces done with a wonderful lightness and economy, and lots of white space left around them to breathe in. The London oil paintings included a view (coincidence!) of the Tower Bridge, with the drawbridge aloft. After the Kokoschkas went to live in Cornwall, he produced some spirited pictures there. These are all sited in the coastal village of Pol Perro, which I remember with pleasure from a visit there in 1978. (Actually, after that visit I wrote a poem titled “Cornwall,” found in my selected poems, if you want to look it up. I've begun to feel a kind of kinship with Kokoschka.) His Cornish paintings are lovely evocations, sometimes including the fish, crab, and lobsters hauled in by the locals.

There are also many allegorical works, sometimes leaving the viewer with the mixed feelings stirred up in us when we look at Vermeer’s Allegory of Faith. So much skill, and so few precautions taken against laughter. Also, the artist was quite ready to produce artistic responses to political events like the bombing of Guernica, the Anschluss, the annexation of Czechoslovakia, or Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Kokoschka wasn’t as squeamish as his ars gratia artis colleagues; instead, was rather careless as to how his work would be received. There’s something great-hearted about that. I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way, but it always provoked a smile in me whenever I focused on his initialized signature “OK” down in the corner of a painting.

Next was a show of works by Paul Klee, recently donated to the Albertina by Carl Djerassi, who did the world the great service of discovering, in 1952, the birth control pill (a newspaper here designates it as the “Anti-Baby-Pille.”) I met Carl in the late 1980s when I was a resident at the Djerassi Foundation, an artists’ colony in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Palo Alto, California, where he lived with his wife the critic Diane Middlebrook, one of the most charming scholars I’ve ever been friends with. This past winter I got the sad news that Diane had died. I first met her in the early 1970s when she did a teaching stint at Rutgers and lived in New York; a former student of Harold Bloom at Yale, her specialty was poetry. I recall that her dissertation (later published) concerned Coleridge’s theory of the imagination and how it could be applied to Whitman’s poetry. Some of you may have read her critical biographies of Ann Sexton and Sylvia Plath. During my stay at the colony Diane and Carl came over and had dinner with the residents, and I got to like him too. I was aware that Carl collected Klees, though I never saw them. I think I did hear a while back that he contributed some of the collection the San Francisco Museum of Moern Art. And now another part is gong to the Albertina, in the capital of Carl’s native land, with which he now seems to have made peace. (It begins to sound like a broken record, but of course he had to flee Vienna at a young age when the Nazis came to power.) What I must ask Carl the next time we meet is why he developed a special enthusiasm for Klee, I mean, as opposed to, say, Chagall, Soutine or Steinberg. Well, the work speaks for itself.

Finally, an exhibition of a group of paintings recently placed on permanent loan with the Albertina by the Batliners, a husband and wife who have been collecting modern painting for many years. About one hundred works, beginning with the Impressionists and moving forward, with stops for Monet, Vlaminck, “Der Blaue Reiter,” “Die Brücke,” Matisse, Bonnard, Vuillard, Magritte, Mirò, Chagall, Picasso, Braque, and Rothko. One of the less known artists, placed in a room with other avant-garde Russian artists of the 1920s, was Natalia Goncharova, a Russian émigrée whose work I don’t ever recall seeing before. I mention her because, among other things, she was the teacher of Sara and Gerald Murphy when they came to live in Paris in the early Twenties. I won’t go into that story now, but interested parties should see an article I wrote about the Murphys for the 60th anniversary issue of The Hudson Review, published earlier this spring. Artistic themselves, the Murphys were also great patrons of the arts. And so long as we have societies where massive disparities in personal wealth exist, the rich can take steps to compensate for their larger share of economic power (sometimes acquired, after all, because of unusual talent and hard work) by philanthropy. A beneficiary of the Djerassi Foundation myself, I’m glad to see it make a generous contribution to the cultural life of Vienna and to the world at large.

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