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Sep 2008 Journal

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Painting Kokoschka

My mother was 19 years old when she moved from Berlin to Vienna to marry her cousin. Berlin versus Vienna has always been a subject for mutual derision – Prussian rectitude against easy-going Habsburg. My future parents were perfect stereotypes: she, serious, motivated by the moral imperative from an early age – at 15 she volunteered for work in an institution for ‘fallen women’; my father, playful, witty, at home in the literary and musical culture of the day. He opened my mother’s ears to Wagner and Schoenberg and her mind to treasures of German literature from Goethe to Stefan George. And, although the visual arts loomed smaller in his sights, he had eye enough to have his writing paper and bookplate designed by a prominent artist and his house decorated and furnished by the iconic Adolf Loos. But his interests reached beyond the arts to the beauty he saw in the harmony of numbers, in great feats of engineering, and he wondered about the new psychology taught by Freud – so much so that he attended Freud’s lectures while studying for his law degree and asked for his views on the marriage of first cousins. Unfortunately, Freud’s letter in reply – my birth certificate as it were – was not kept by my parents, but he did not advise against, confining himself to the opinion that it might reinforce in their offspring the characteristics common to both parents.

At the time of my parents’ marriage, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, their closest friends in Vienna were the family Scheu: husband Gustav, an advocate, far richer and more successful than my father; his wife, Helene Scheu-Riesz, a minor literary figure but a major society hostess who maintained a salon in which artists, writers, intellectuals and politicians met and sparkled. It was in their home that my parents met Vienna’s finest such as Kokoschka; Eugenie Schwarzwald, the noted educatrix; Alban Berg, the avant-garde composer; Max Reinhardt, man of the theatre; Loos, the architect; and even literary figures from abroad, Thornton Wilder among them.

Once war broke out, my father quickly joined up (anything to get away from lawyering), but the Scheus were able – for a time at least – to carry on life as before, Gustav being too old (or too clever) to be called up. My mother was left behind with her first child and no longer on the A-list for the big parties. But when she found out that the Scheus were giving a dinner for Loos, a notorious party animal, she asked Helene for an invitation. It had, after all, been the Scheus who, having had their villa (still a place of pilgrimage for students of architecture in Vienna today) built by Loos, had suggested to my parents that they have Loos design the interior of their house, which my grandfather had bought as a wedding gift for the young couple.

Helene had worked out her seating plan and there was no room for my mother. Seeing her disappointment, they hatched a plot whereby my mother was to dress up as one of the waitresses, in black with a white apron and cap, so that she could be present during the meal and miss none of the dinner-table conversation. My mother was up for the joke and had no sense of what I, many years later, interpreted as a subtle, possibly even unconscious put-down on the part of Helene Scheu. Everything went swimmingly – too swimmingly perhaps – since at a crucial moment my mother managed to spill a whole sauceboat of zabaglione, painting Kokoschka’s shirt front a bright yellow.

‘Exactly the colour I would have chosen to go with my jacket!’, exclaimed Kokoschka. There was a great deal of laughter, which increased when my mother discarded her disguise and joined in the general merriment. Later, when she had helped to clean him up, Kokoschka, after a few more jokes about his ruined clothes, asked her if she would stand model for him as a caryatid for a painting he was working on. My mother was very tempted, as you can imagine, but, after sleeping on it, decided to turn down the chance of a lifetime. Kokoschka had a reputation for exacting services beyond the purely artistic from his models, and my mother felt strongly that it would be wrong to invite the possibility of gossip reaching the ears of a husband fighting at the front. Her friends thought her foolish – an over-scrupulous Prussian, who chose to forego a touch of immortality for fear of a whiff of scandal.

Twenty years later, there appears to have been an odd sequel: Kokoschka’s Werkverzeichnis, a catalogue of his works, lists in his own hand ‘Portrait of Dr. Valentin Rosenfeld’, painted around 1933. Neither of my parents ever mentioned the portrait; my father was neither grand nor vain enough to commission a painting of himself. I have never seen it and only heard about it a few years ago, long after both my parents were dead. Its origin and whereabouts are a mystery. If anyone out there has it hanging on their wall, I am willing to make a totally inadequate offer for its acquisition.
 

 

Victor Ross

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