Oskar Kokoschka, having finished the commissioned portrait of nine-year old Hans Reichel, looked around to see how he might occupy himself during the rest of his stay at the home of his powerful Viennese patron, Hans’s father, the wealthy Dr. Oskar Reichel. It was right before Easter in this secular Jewish household, and perhaps as a gesture to their non-Jewish guest, lamb was on the menu for the Sunday feast in the spring of 1910. Ironically the twenty-four year old Kokoschka was appalled. He wrote in his autobiography, upon seeing the skinned lamb “the thought that this dead thing was now to be roasted and consumed! … I had had enough.” He knew then he could never eat it—but painting it was another matter. He dragged it off the kitchen table, took it into the adjoining storage room and went about setting up a still life, grabbing things from both the kitchen and Hans’s playroom: an antique oil jar and a tomato; a tortoise and a salamander and a white mouse—all alive. At the last moment he merrily added a flowering hyacinth ‘as an accent.’ Despite the blitheness with which Kokoschka tossed the objects together, critics and historians like to point to the imminent decay of the still life’s objects, symbols of decomposition. Given the painting’s dark palette and its composition, the morbidness I have to admit is hard to ignore. But to my mind many of his early portraits around the same time don’t appear to be much happier. So what was Kokoschka possibly thinking?
In 1908 and 1909 Kokoschka had been invited to participate in the famed Internationale Kunstshau. The colorful flat and rather primitive images of his lithographs in the 1908 show left the critics divided; they called him a ‘pioneer’ and they called him a ‘savage’ for his nervous Expressionist line. He became a sensation overnight, and by the 1909 exhibition, he had come to the attention of Adolf Loos, the acerbic modernist architect to the Viennese cultural elite. Loos saw in Kokoschka a like-minded and talented young man, a rebel; he saw in his work an alternative to the ever-popular Secession and their ‘obsession with ornamentation.’ (Think Gustav Klimt.) At the 1909 show Kokoschka displayed his first oil portrait as well as a clay bust of himself. The portrait’s background was ill-defined, startlingly giving no indication of the sitter’s social status, while the sitter himself had only four fingers on his left hand—Kokoschka said later, details like a fifth finger were of no interest to him. As for the sculpted self-portrait, the art establishment and the public were aghast at its daubed on patches of painted clay in colors of bruised flesh, and its gaping exaggerated mouth. Loos weaned Kokoschka off the Werkstätte—the workshop of the Secession and for whom he was still working—and pushed him in the direction of portraits that the architect commissioned and financially underwrote, giving Kokoschka the artistic freedom to follow his vision if not their shared mission. For Kokoschka, as Loos had understood, his art was a renunciation of the superficial decorative works of the Secessionists, nothing more than flattering the bourgeoisie; he wanted to get beneath the skin of his subject, to capture his sitter’s inner life, the psychological truth; he wanted to jolt Vienna out of its stagnant and provincial state.
And so as he was standing in Dr. Reichel’s storage room that “Good Friday” of 1910, this was what was on his mind. The artist saw in the objects he had impulsively gathered, reminders of death. Still Life with Lamb and Hyacinth, his memento mori, was all about Vienna: stale and tired and on the verge of collapse.
Sources: Oskar Kokoschka, My Life, 1974 (English translation); Neue Galerie, Oskar Kokoschka, 1909-1914, 2002; Ashley Bassie, Expressionism, 2008; Peter Selz, German Expressionist Painting, 1974 (NB: many dates that appear have since been re-examined and corrected); Patrick Werkner, Austrian Expressionism, translated by Nicholas T. Parsons, 1993.
(Image Stillleben mit Hammel und Hyazinthe (Still Life with Lamb and Hyacinth) by Oskar Kokoschka, 1910, the Belvedere, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)