“Existing on the Barricades of Culture”

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

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

26 Comments

26 thoughts on ““Existing on the Barricades of Culture””

  1. Kokoschka’s Portrait of a Degenerate Artist, definitely displays qualities that could be considered degenerate; however, the war was a loss of desirable qualities in society as well. I think this is symbolic of the state of the world at the time. His expression is rather solemn and indifferent. His posture suggests he is uncomfortable, which mirrors the emotions of civilians during war. The fact that Hitler has this piece in his collection goes to show that someone who is considered corrupt and immoral is attracted to like qualities. Though the technique used in this piece is very emotional and nuance, this portrait seems to have an awkward energy to it that may make some views shy away.

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  2. The painting Portrait of Degenerate Artist has a sense of “existing on the barricades of culture.” The image is still identifiable, but he has developed his own particular style that looks surreal and not true to life. He is very expressive with his strokes. He found the line between being safe with realistic like proportions, but also with an experimental style of his brush strokes and color use. I feel like this self-portrait is not degenerate. I feel this way since I have been exposed to so much more “risqué” imagery from other artists that would be considered “degenerate. It honestly seems a lot tamer compared to Egon Schiele in my opinion. Although, back in that time it was probably considered degenerate.

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  3. Degenerate defined in the dictionary as “Having lost the physical, mental, or moral qualities considered normal and desirable; showing evidence of decline. I would not use the term degenerate to describe Kokoschka’s self-portrait. I want to say that degenerate is a little harsh for describing Kokoschka but if you go strictly off the definition, then yes, Kokoschka himself was a degenerate. I say this because at this time he was doing things that were absolutely not considered normal. A perfect example is the Alma doll. This was not normal behavior at this time, heck, even now it is not considered normal behavior, even though people are trying to make it normal. Kokoschka definitely was on a different level then other artists and people at this time. And I think that, to deal with what he had to deal with, along with the impeding war, it would seem normal to me, that someone would act so ‘abnormal’.

    However, I would agree with Huges’ notion that Kokoschka and his vision “Existed on the Barricades of Culture.” For this point in history his work is like nothing we have seen before. Especially in the piece Bride of the Wind. The colors and expressive strokes, really give us the emotions he is feeling at the time. This style is darker and more expressive then we have seen as of yet.

    I also find it very unsettling that the Portrait of a Degenerate Artist ends up in an exhibition by Hitler. But, to be honest it makes sense. If you look at the image, you can see the emotion that was put into this piece; the heavy brush strokes, the use of color. But you can also see the tension in the subject; the straight face almost appearing to be holding back emotion, the crossed arms, and the slumped posture. It really shows the emotional state of Kokoschka, and also reflects on the troubles in society at that time.

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  4. I find his style to be quite wishy-washy. I like how he spreads his color all around the work, but I dislike Oskar’s figures always have an awkward anatomy. His strokes are feverish as if he always wants everything done right away. The fact that this was even near the vicinity of Hitler is rather fascinating. He was considered a failed artist, even though I thought his art was nice. Both Hitler and Oskar exhibit erratic qualities. Oskar shows this through his art and Hitler shows this through his actions and way thinking. The piece itself gives off that solemn feeling of impending war. Oskar did exists on the barricades of culture. His work is radically different compared to previous works we have seen in class. A lot of people seem to have adopted this style of painting today. I don’t consider his portrait degenerate. It is different but degenerate is a strong word. I feel like it only applies to that place and time. Oskar is a weird guy when it comes to love, but even then, I have seen and heard worse. I think this portrait overall, though good in terms of color, is unsettling. I like Bride of the Wind better.

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  5. I feel as though he may have used the term degenerate for several reasons, maybe he felt like his life was in decline, or did not feel “normal” or average, as the definition implies. If he chose to include the word degenerate for his work, it was a his own reflection of himself, which I don’t necessarily think should be argued.

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  6. For it to count as degenerate, it would have to be something that breaks laws, or ultimately offends people. For Kokoschka’s portrait, there is nothing offending about it. What I want to know is, why did it end up in Hitler’s gallery when he thought that Oskar was the delinquent, or degenerate in this case, of the picture? Unless this is Oskar trying to express himself in that manner in which he feels like one.

    I also would not call it existing on the barracades of culture because it is his own style of painting and I just see it as a figure painted on a canvas with multiple strokes.

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  7. In my opinion Kokoschka’s Portrait of a Degenerate Artist and many of his other portraiture doesn’t seem degenerate at all. His work using broken up forms and colors are reminiscent of an abstract way of composing realistic depictions. Maybe the feeling itself seems degenerate to the artist but the actual work is not. I think Hughes’ quote “Existed on the Barricades of Culture” is relevant, especially when referring to the ending piece of his exhibition which includes Hitler who at the time during the war, was relevant in culture. As abhorrent and detestable as that man was, he did evoke a negative reaction on our community and affected many. It might have not been in the best taste to include someone so corrupt in an art exhibition but none can argue its effectiveness.

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  8. His work has always been kind of different to me. I feel that his work has a sense of being done quickly, yet it has a style to it. I’m sure he took his time and was very specific about it, but it’s the feeling I get when I see his work. I can see why some see it as degenerate, but I’m not sure if that’s the word I would use. I don’t think he wanted his work to be, “normal”. It’s very different from works of his time. however, I can see why including certain figures in his work to be controversial.

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  9. I think that while the portrait may not be seen as degenerate today, it definitely could have been hard for people to accept at the time because of how far removed it was from the traditional ideals of “proper” or “good” art. The word “degenerate” is actually defined as “lacking physical, mental, or moral qualities considered normal or desirable”. In the context of european art, I think that the tradition of the portrait was such a strong symbol of cultural and national pride that a deviation like Kokoschka’s would have easily been seen as lacking desirable qualities. The way he strayed from the normal conventions of graceful, dignified figures with idealized features certainly put him on the barricades of art and culture because it was most likely insulting to some that an artist would portray members of a graceful and dignified society such as theirs in an undesirable fashion. The degenerate part comes from the twisted faces and odd proportions used in Oskar Kokoschka’s portraits. While it is an understandable response, it is unfortunate that people went to such great lengths to criticize and defame his art instead of attempting to understand the beauty in the artist’s own freedom of expression. This kind of reaction may not be as severe today but I think that people are still reluctant to accept art that they feel is too different or misrepresentative of themselves and their own ideas of art and culture.

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  10. In definition of a barricade, the function of one would be to prevent the passing of something else. In reference to Kokoschka’s work I think it acts more to be a marker of a totem to the era. Especially since Portrait of a Degenerate Artist was completed during WWII there is an important message that can be seen within the work. Again when speaking of the artist and identity Kokoschka is displaying himself in the eyes of himself as an Austrian during a polarized war. Austria was carried along in the negativity because of their cultural relationships to Germany. However Kokoschka was seen as a “degenerate” by the Nazi party which set him away from his social group and forced him to adopt that of another. His work shows the varying colors, forms, and implications of interpersonal interpretation which can be used as a reflection of how he saw himself during this time as neither German/Austrian nor the opposite fighting party.

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  11. This piece is very expressive in nature. I don’t think that this piece is a “degenerate” in my opinion. Kokoschka’s art was very different at that time and it shows in the artwork. I can see why Hughes would say that this existed in the barricades of culture because it was Oskar’s style of painting at the time. He was very expressive with his strokes. It is also uneasy to me that this painting came across Hitler’s possession.

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  12. I don’t consider Kokoschka’s portrait to be degenerate. I can understand why it might have been considered degenerate during his lifetime. The painting appears to be composed of very quick expressive brush strokes. The proportions aren’t “perfect” but that was his style. I don’t see how someone embracing their own unique style could be considered degenerate today. Whether Kokoschka considered himself degenerate or not is a different question.

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  13. Considering the background of this image, Kokoschka felt that seeing was an act of the conscious mind and through his work, he portrays someone in a manner that is not typical compared to art produced in that time period. His style in this image gives a specific mood and shows a defiant man in the foreground. As a viewer, you try to find the connection between a man that looks proud and bold to the what the meaning really is of degenerate. In that time there a few different interpretations of the word according to notable psychiatrist such as Freud and Bleuler as new interventions for mental illnesses were introduced. I cant say this portrait is degenerate but its relevant to the stereotypes perceived through one’s art. I do feel as though his work sticks true to Hughes notion for it was different in that time and I suppose “straddled” the barriers of cultural art.

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  14. By calling this self portrait “Portrait of a Degenerate Artist” I think that this was an act of defiance rather than Kokoschka internalizing the label of degenerate. I believe that it was a defiant act because the painting itself is a unified and complete portrait on its own, and it simply reflects the (probably) positive and confident attitude of the artist toward himself. To call it “ugly” and reduce it to a subjectively “bad” painting is dangerous because that would mean you miss the point, which is of course what I think happened in the minds of the people who labeled it as degenerate. To me, whether he was being criticized or praised, the defiant attitude I feel from this portrait means that Kokoschka was not just existing but thriving within the barricades of the culture.

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  15. Being a part of the avant-garde in itself is existing on the “barricades of culture”. To me this means that you aren’t producing work that is seen as acceptable to society but instead, producing work with a style that has never been seen before. Oskar Kokoschka was criticized for his works because those who saw it, didn’t have the eye to see the beauty within his art. To call this portrait degenerate would be like saying this is a lesser form of art because of the style. If that were the case, then all forms of art would be similar and boring.

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  16. In terms of Kokoschka’s work, and the Portrait of a Degenerate Artist, to me there is a sense of qualities and direction that are appreciated to many people. The colors seemed to be carefully chosen and serves as one of the key qualities that makes this portrait have its charm. For it to be labeled degenerate, it isn’t painted in a way where it loses its touch with the viewer whatsoever. Like similar comments, degenerate could be used to describe the artist himself in the process of the work. There is a unique way that is shown with the strokes but it seems more of a style. There may be the messages that are being misunderstood by Kokoschka or feelings that cannot be described or explained as an artist during the time.

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  17. I think that Kokoschka’s painting could be considered degenerate but as others have said, it is still identifiable. I think it can be appreciated by many people. I think it doesn’t deserve the degenerate title that it got. Others have pointed out that it might be Kokoschka’s style and not the painting itself. I feel like they might’ve had the wrong idea on this painting.

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  18. When I view Kokoschka’s painting I feel that a lot of passion went into this piece. Each stroke has so much emotion, but to call it “degenerate” doesn’t seem right. It is a unique piece from the colors to the separate strokes that all come together to create this portrait. Kokoschka’s style was different for its time and may have been seen as declining or non-desirable. It has an uneasy look to it because of the stance and angle. Even though the proportions and anatomy of the self-portrait aren’t normal, it makes it Kokoschka’s. It is strange that Hitler included this portrait into his exhibition, but because of how intense this painting was it makes sense that it caught his attention.

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  19. I can definitely understand why Hughes felt Kokoschka’s vision “Existed on the Barricades of Culture”, especially given the state of the world and society at the time. With World War II looming and Adolf Hitler’s attack on “degenerate” artists, Kokoschka’s work indeed existed on the barricades of culture. Hitler stated, “works of art which cannot be understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence will never again find their way to the German people”, and Kokoschka’s work fit the bill. Kokoschka’s painting weren’t abstract but were still the antithesis of what would be considered mainstream art at the time. While I don’t see anything “degenerate” about Kokoschka’s work, I understand why it would have been labeled “degenerate” at the time.

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  20. Hughes’ notion that Kokoschka existed on the barricades of culture is somewhat correct. Kokoschka’s personality and artistic style was perceived negatively, especially compared to other artists during that time period, so I can see why Hughes described him as a degenerate. However, I feel like his odd style makes him who he is, just as all artists have their own style that makes them who they are. I don’t think it was fair for people to criticize his work just because it wasn’t their personal taste.

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  21. I agree with Hughes’ notion that Kokoschka and his vision “Existed on the Barricades of Culture.” Kokoschka’s “Portrait of a Degenerate Artist” is unique to his own perception. The details that only he can pick out are highlighted to set him apart from others. This is how one stays on the verge of “what’s next?” This self-portrait cannot be a degenerate in my opinion. Objects are nothing without the viewer, much like baterangs don’t hit bad guys, I hit bad guys.

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  22. I like Kokoschka’s Portrait of a Degenerate Artist, because it has the different feeling of art. “Degenerate” is such a word that shows how the artists degenerate after times or he used if for what he felt. He chose to use the word “degenerate” but it was his own reflection of himself, so i wanted to show people that he is degenerate. Title of an art piece by the artists are what the artist want to put and it should not be argued because art is such a creative or field that can everyone takes or feel different. His work seems different art style to me and I think that is something the artists want to appeal.

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  23. Any artist who strays from what is deemed “commercially viable” is existing upon the barricades of culture, and I believe this is due to the fact that things that are contrasting to what is often seen as civilized as well as what is popular among the masses achieve this goal. Any stray from a perceived social norm is looked at as “uncultured” or foreign and it often can jar at the sensibilities of those incapable of accepting someone’s differences.

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  24. In this self portrait he doesn’t look like a degenerate to me. However, for 1937 he definitely doesn’t hold himself like most men did during that era. He looks like an artist would look today. I think Robert Hughes just saw it wrong, as do lots of critics, very one sided view points. As an artist, specially during that time period, I would think one would want to stay current and up to date, so “existing on the barricades of culture” would have to be a must. I don’t think there is anything wrong with presenting yourself that way. Current and modern is the only way to see the problems and change them to create new ways of doing things. We learn the past and present to create the future.

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  25. I believe that Hughes was implying that Kokoschka’s work was ahead of his time, Kokoschka’s painting Portrait of a Degenerate artist was possibly his representation of how he saw the world at the time. We were on the brink of another world war which could have had an influence on artists at the time. True expressionism. Adding to the emotion that the piece invokes is it’s title. The piece feels degenerate and I think that was Kokoschka’s intention.

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  26. Perhaps it would be considered degenerate for that era, but in my eyes it isn’t. However, the strokes and his expressionism is unique, it is what makes him and his style. The portions of this portrait look well symmetrical but it still seems a bit off. I appreciate the brush strokes that are aggressive yet the colors seem to have a sense of calmness. The man himself, looks uncomfortable or there’s something unsettling about his posture. Arms are folded which would be that he isn’t very inviting. Overall, Robert Hughes could’ve been viewing it in a sense that didn’t fit what he would consider appropriate for that time. I believe people on that time were not as accepting, as we are now of what is considered beautiful or what is labeled as “art”

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