The seminal Australian Art critic Robert Hughes referred to the work produced by the Vienna Secessionist artist Oskar Kokoschka as “Existing on the Barricades of Culture”. Such a description is quite curious and, at the same time, intriguing in its formidable implications. When it comes to modernism in the arts, especially in the early manifestations of experimental or avant-garde practices of Art making, wouldn’t you expect the artist to “exist” on the “barricades of culture”? At first glance such a label would seem appropriate for early modernism. Kokoschka occupies an enviable position at the first rung of early modernism. His painted forms, replete with their contained intensity projected into visual form on the canvas, vacillate between an artist’s rage as he glimpses with second-sight the approach of WWI and the creative cry for freedom long sought by the gifted class. In his 1937 Portrait of a Degenerate Artist, the “big-jawed self-portrait” ignominiously ends up included in Hitler’s infamous Degenerate Artist exhibition Entartete Kunst! In more recent times, Art critics like Robert Hughes see the work of Kokoschka as “the old dog could still bite” and the era’s growing fears of war and displacement seem especially valid today.
What are your thoughts on Hughes’ notion that Kokoschka and his vision “Existed on the Barricades of Culture” as seen in the painting Portrait of a Degenerate Artist? Is this self-portrait degenerate in your opinion?
Oskar Kokoschka, Portrait of a Degenerate Artist, 1937