Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Bride of the Wind

Alma Mahler, the Bride of the Wind

Serendipity is a wonderful thing … Columbus discovered America when he was looking for India, Osterloh discovered Viagra when he was looking for an anti-angina drug, and I discovered Oskar Kokoschka when I was looking for Gustav Klimt.

I went to the Leopold Museum in Vienna especially to see Klimt's "Death and Life". I was particularly keen to see the painting in the original, because when one sees reproductions of it, it is usually a detail: only the "Life" part is shown. Fair enough: the intertwining figures and Klimt's trademark "mosaic look" makes a beautiful composition on its own, but without "Death" leering at the oblivious group, the whole painting rather loses its point.

The Leopold Museum was established in 2001 with the private art collection of Rudolf and Elizabeth Leopold as its nucleus. It houses a magnificent collection of Austrian Expressionist art, including the world's largest Egon Schiele collection. I found "Death and Life", and I had a great time looking at lots more exquisite Klimts. Then I spent an hour overdosing on Schiele's disturbing prepubescent nudes and angst-filled self-portraits.

An hour of Egon Schiele has the same effect as a hefty dose of caffeine or sticking your fingers in a power point: eyeballs spinning and nerve ends twanging, I staggered towards the museum caff and a soothing cup of herbal tea, only to be brought up short by Oskar Kokoschka's huge "Bride of the Wind".

To one in my already debilitated state, the thing had the stopping power of a .375 Magnum. My whole hard drive went into overload and I stood there frozen like a rabbit in the headlights.

Enclosed in a shell of storm clouds, the couple seem to be adrift on the waves of a cosmic ocean. She is at the centre of the vortex, luminously pale and serene among the indigo and purple whirlwinds, slashed with crimson, that rage around her. She seems strangely remote from the male figure clasping her while his sunken eyes gaze into the distance with a sense of doom.

The canvas just explodes with dense, voluminous, frenzied strokes: the emotional tension erupting into vibrant whorls kept screaming "Van Gogh!" at me. I had to keep telling myself this can't be Van Gogh: the frenzy is there, but the colours are all wrong … and besides, this is clearly about the woman. Van Gogh's insane angst is not sexual.

But what woman had the power to inspire this desperate, tempestuous passion?

She was born Alma Schindler in 1879, and was the belle of fin-de-siècle Vienna. She was a fabled femme fatale of her era, but she was not merely a pretty face. She had a gift for music and was a noted composer and poet in her own right.

Before she was eighteen, she had an affair with her music teacher, the composer Alexander Zemlinsky, which ended when she took up with Gustav Klimt. Klimt fell in love with her beauty and painted her many times before the affair petered out.

After queening it in Viennese society for three years, she married Gustav Mahler, 19 years her senior, when she was 22. Mahler insisted that she give up her music and stop composing. He was extremely possessive, and she soon started an extra-marital relationship with the famed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius.

After Mahler's death in 1911, she had a fierce three-year affair with the Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, but she threw him over to marry her former lover Gropius. She divorced Gropius in turn, to marry the acclaimed writer Franz Werfel, best known for his "Song of Bernadette".

Along the way she found time, in her fifties, to have a fling with Enrico Caruso, "close friendships" with Giacomo Puccini and Maurice Ravel and an intense relationship with a 37-year-old Catholic theologian, Johannes Hollnsteiner, who was, at the time, the frontrunner to be Vienna's next cardinal. Clearly Alma wanted no truck with losers: whoever wanted to enjoy her favours (and clearly, many did!) had to have a top-of-the-line CV.

Johannes Hollnsteiner was also the author of the impressively titled "The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages: The Popes During the Carolingian Empire, Leo III to Formosus", which is today a valuable antiquarian collector's item.

Alma rented a small apartment where they could meet in private for matinéé performances of her skills, which were undoubtedly virtuoso if not virtuous. His employers certainly took a dim view, because Johannes didn't score a red hat after all. However, there must have been keen competition among the clergy for the job of being his confessor: whenever word got out that Johannes was on his way to the confessional, there would have been sharper elbow work than at the Myer Boxing Day Sales to get to the absolution-dispensing side first.

If you could bottle and sell whatever magic it was that Alma had in such abundance (even in middle age and after four children!), you could knock Bill Gates right off the top spot. Always provided Alma didn't get to him first – nothing she liked better than the top-spot guy! Contemporaries cattily called her "The Widow of the Four Arts", referring to music, architecture, painting and literature: she had certainly dealt herself four aces in those fields. The composer Gustav Mahler loved her too much, painter Oskar Kokoschka was unable to get over losing her, architect Walter Gropius was putty in her hands, and poet Franz Werfel wrote: "She is one of the very few magical women who exist!"

In the Sixties, the iconoclastic Tom Lehrer had a bit of fun writing a rather cheeky song about Alma's fatal charms:

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well
Once you picked her up on your antenna
You'd never be free of her spell

Her lovers were many and varied
From the day she began her beguine
There were three famous ones whom she
And God knows how many between

Alma, tell us
All modern women are jealous
Which of your magical wands
Got you Gustav and Walter and Franz …

(If you want to read the whole thing, just Google lehrer alma lyrics)

Oskar Kokoschka, whom she refused to marry, was obsessed by his passion for her. His intense feelings for her found expression in a series of paintings, often including himself, the most important of which is "Bride of the Wind". She was never as committed as he was to the relationship, and he was devastated when she aborted their child rather than marry him.

In 1913, just in time for WW1, Kokoschka joined the army in the aftermath of his break with Alma and rapidly advanced to officer's rank. Sadly, he came close to death on the Russian Front, shot in the head and with a pierced lung. After a period of convalescence in Vienna, he was sent back to the front and returned from his second tour of duty suffering from severe "shell shock", or what we now call post-traumatic stress. He moved to Dresden to recuperate in a peaceful milieu.

He needed to recuperate from more than the effects of the war: he was still suffering from the traumatic stress of Alma's rejection as well. His behaviour became quite unhinged and he skirted close to insanity. He commissioned a life-sized doll in the likeness of Alma Mahler, complete down to the most intimate anatomical details. Bizarrely, except for the face and pubic area, the skin of the body was not smooth, but made of polar bear pelt. He dressed the doll in fashionable clothes, used her as a model and took her to the theatre and restaurants, his maid Hulda carrying her and moving her limbs.,,311987,00.html

At last he came to his senses and no longer needed the doll – as he told an interviewer in 1932:
"Finally, after I had drawn her and painted her over and over again, I decided to do away with her. She had managed to cure me completely of my passion. So I gave a big champagne party with chamber music, during which my maid Hulda exhibited the doll in all its beautiful clothes for the last time. When dawn broke - I was quite drunk, as was everyone else - I beheaded it out in the garden and broke a bottle of red wine over its head.” Small wonder that he was nicknamed Der tolle Kokoschka (Crazy Kokoschka)!

Alma and her Jewish husband, Franz Werfel, emigrated to America just ahead of the Nazi anschluss. Werfel became a succcessful screenwriter in Hollywood, and died there in 1946. Alma bought an apartment in New York, where she continued to move in cultural and artistic circles and had many friends among the foremost artists and musicians of the day, including Thomas Mann, Eugene Ormandy and Leonard Bernstein. She died in her New York apartment in December 1964, at the age of 85.

"Kokoschka", edited by Klaus Albrecht Schroder and Johann Winkler, Prestel-Verlag, Munich, 1991
"Art in Vienna 1898 - 1918" by Peter Vergo, Phaidon Press, 1993

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