Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Kokoschka was a classic ‘angry young man’. He stormed into the rarefied artistic world of haute bourgeois Vienna and set out to shock; a goal he achieved in 1908 when he was expelled from the Vienna School of Fine Arts for his explicit contributions to the Vienna Kunstschau. However, the avant-garde architect Adolph Loos befriended Kokoschka and helped the impoverished 23-year-old find his first commissions among members of the Viennese intelligentsia. The young rebel ironically found himself earning a living from perhaps the most bourgeois of all artistic genres: portrait painting. However in Kokoschka’s hands a portrait was not simply a display of position or wealth: it was a picture of the soul.
Kokoschka – who would become a leader of the Expressionist movement – stated that his portraits from this time (circa 1908–1915) came from his own feelings of alienation. He threw himself into portrait painting, he said, in an attempt to connect with others; to discover and illustrate their essence or consciousness in a bid to understand his own (this was, after all, the age of Freud). Kokoschka’s obsession with interior states was in pointed contrast to many of his successful Viennese contemporaries, like Gustav Klimt, who were fascinated by the two-dimensional beauty of surface ornament. Kokoschka wanted to transcend surfaces and, in his own words, ‘to render the vision of people being alive,’ penetrating the sitters’ ‘closed personalities so full of tension’; an ambition that is undoubtedly attained in this pulsating double portrait of husband and wife, Hans Tietze (1880–1954) and Erica Tietze-Conrat (1883–1958).
The young couple – both art historians who were prominent in Vienna’s avant-garde art circles and later helped organize the city’s Society for the Advancement of Contemporary Art – commissioned this marriage portrait for their mantelpiece from Kokoschka in 1909. Despite the static medium, the pair appears animated. ‘A person is not a still life’ stated Kokoschka and he often kept his sitters moving and talking to better capture their spirit: ‘From their face, from the combination of expression and movement,’ he wrote, ‘I try to guess the nature of the person, recreating with my own pictorial language, what would survive in memory’.
Erica Tietze-Conrat recalled that Kokoschka painted she and her husband separately; a fact supported by their individual poses and lost-in-thought gazes. Despite this autonomy, the pair occupy the same shimmering, multi-hued atmosphere. Kokoschka rarely included any background detail in his portraits; the ambience was to be created by the sitter’s psyche, or, as in this case, by the electric interaction between two individuals. Both seem to radiate a crackling energy or light, an effect enhanced by the thin layers of vibrant color and the scratches Kokoschka made (according to Tietze-Conrat) with his fingernails all over the surface. The result is that the couple – whom Kokoschka referred to ‘the Lion’ (Hans) and ‘the Owl’ (Erica) – seem to inhabit the same spiritual space; one feels that if their hands, which seem to reach towards each other, were to touch, there would be a spark, no doubt a symbolic reflection of their personal and intellectual relationship. For all his youthful anger and alienation, Kokoschka here creates a perceptive and surprisingly tender evocation of two kindred, yet independent, spirits.
The couple had married in 1905. As there were no academic positions for women at the time, the two worked together as a research team; for most of their lives their desks faced each other so they could more easily discuss ideas. Each, however, published separately as well as together. Many years later, after the Nazi annexation of Austria, the pair were forced to emigrate (both were of Jewish heritage). They settled in New York City where they would continue their art history work (Tietze-Conrat taught at Columbia) and, in order to fund their new life, they sold this portrait to the MOMA in 1939.
1909 Georges Braque: Château de La Roche-Guyon, Stockholm, Moderna Museet
1909 Albert Marquet: The Port of Hamburg, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum