Art Thug

Oskar Kokoschka, self-portrait 1917 © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka/VBK, Wien 2008

 In later life, had Pevsner ever compiled a single contacts list it would have read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the world of art history, with supplementary entries branching beyond art, architecture and academia into politics, planning and philosophy. Many of these contacts came through his activities as a campaigner for conservation and a representative of the arts on public bodies, and his social life as a Grand Old Man of art history. Some, however, dated back to his earliest years. 


Oskar Kokoschka, for instance, he may well have met at the age of eight, at the house of  Auguste Forel in the Swiss village of Yvorne, south-west of Lake Geneva. (Hear Kokoschka talking about his life.) 

Forel, a fanatical teetotaller, socialist and authority on the behaviour of the ant, was also a sexologist and psychiatrist, whom Pevsner’s mother consulted regularly. So dependent did she become on him that she persuaded her husband to let her buy a cottage near his house, to which she took the children on holiday visits. She was there in January 1910 when Forel was visited by ‘a mad young painter’. Kokoschka had been brought to Switzerland by the architect Adolf Loos, whose plan was for him to paint portraits of titled consumptives and other wealthy individuals seeking cures in Swiss clinics. 

Auguste Forel portrait by Kokoschka, 1910. Photo Kunsthalle Mannheim.

 Whether or not this scheme worked, Kokoschka certainly painted Forel himself.  (An intriguing article by two Dublin gerontologists explores the relationship between the painter and his subject, and suggests that the portrait predicts the strokes that Forel was shortly to suffer.) 

Although Pevsner did not much enjoy the atmosphere at Yvorne, he would remember the family link with Kokoschka. Fifteen years later when he was working as an unpaid assistant at the Gemaldegalerie in Dresden and making a little money on the side as a freelance art critic for the Dresdner Anzeiger, Kokoschka was one of the artists whose work he praised most highly. What Pevsner valued in Expressionism was what he later described as ‘the direct outpouring of feelings which is often so uncomfortable to English observers of German art’. Kokoschka’s work had all the qualities to which he could most easily respond –  directness, vitality, richness of colour, joy in paint, and a warmth which atoned for the quite obvious self-regard. 

Anna Kallin Photo: Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

Pevsner may have been suspicious of Kokoschka the man: Lola later maintained that he had prevented Kokoschka from painting her portrait, because he was afraid that the ‘Art Thug’ –Georg Grosz’s phrase – would seduce her. (Pevsner would have been reminded of the Thug’s track record by his long association at the BBC with producer Anna “Niouta” Kallin,  an acquaintance from his childhood in Leipzig who had been the painter’s mistress in the mid-1920s, after Alma Mahler and before Marguerite McBey.) 

But this did not stop him from collaborating with Kokoschka in the 1960s on a monograph devoted to the man who had brought them together in the first place. Adolf Loos : pioneer of modern architecture (Thames & Hudson, 1966) by German authors Ludwig Munz and Gustav Kunstler, appeared ‘with an introduction by Nikolaus Pevsner and an appreciation by Oskar Kokoschka’.  







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