Punks hate fascists!
And as a teenager growing up under Reagan; falling asleep every night to secretly listening to a late night Public Radio show that played the works of The Clash, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and The Damned; my die was cast and after High School I became a card-carrying member of the punk subculture. So when I finally made the decision to go back to University for my degree in the 90's, only some of those frayed punk exterior edges had been trimmed but the rebellious core remained intact.
First year art students are unavoidably influenced by their professors. (I guess that can be said in any field.) My Drawing and Painting 101 professor was born and bred in Northern California so in hindsight her enthusiasm for Richard Diebenkorn makes perfect sense and I gladly fed on that enthusiasm forming my own connection to his work.
Diebenkorn serves up everything a young developing painter needs to learn. How to fully utilize the under-painting to set the overall tone and feel of the painting that will follow. The use of color temperature to define three dimensional characteristics of a space. Hell, even how to properly mix colors -- his work has all of these bases covered.
If you compare a detail from one of my paintings below to that of Richard Diebenkorn's "Tomato and Knife" above, the influence I carry with me today is undeniable.
And so it went for the next year or two. A new professor a new influence and a path directed like bumper pool. I think back on that time now and wonder what if I had taken that professor instead of this professor? Would how I paint and draw now be completely different? Maybe. However, I equally entertain the idea that maybe those influences would have completely sucked. After all, I have seen beautiful paintings in styles covered by those professors, I can appreciate them, but I secretly am glad I did not paint them. But I digress.
It was in my third year that I first learned of "Degenerate Art". I mean if Hitler hated it then it must be GREAT and as a long-time hater of fascism I dug in deep. The history of Expressionism. How the origination of the "degenerate" label coming from the Nazi distaste for anything disobedient and non-patriotic. One so-labelled degenerate artist that I could not keep my eyes off of was Oskar Kokoschka. Through his images I was schooled in Expressionism.
A full fifty years before Diebenkorn and here was a man that was painting with such reckless abandon and every canvas felt like freedom. The principles of color defining a space were still there but were not the primary goal of the painter and in fact at times those "rules" were broken to deliberately flatten the space. How the viewer feels while looking at paintings like "The Power of Music" are clearly one of his goals and for me, very much achieved. As a child I do not recall ever making finger-paintings -- that must have been a post 1970's invention -- but when I view Kokoschka paintings I am finger-painting in my mind. My imagination is digging into the piles of color and putting them on the surface with intent and playfulness. Kokoschka's painting style had so much to teach me.
If you look at the side of his face, the one in shadow in his self-portrait from 1923, you will notice dabs of extremely warm orange laid on top of dirty cool browns which seems counter intuitive as we associate only coolness in the shade. Next time you are sitting with a friend and their face is in the deep shade from the sun, look closely and carefully and with concentration you will see the warm colors of the blood beneath the skin. OK, they might think you are just a weirdo, but seeing the warmth amidst the cool colors is how Kokoschka really taught me how to see.
Here is a another key example of his exploration of this technique in a later self-portrait. He goes all the way with this one with hot orange and crimson red on bold, frigid ultramarine blue.
His painting style also taught me how to be brave. I now begin my painting sessions with not small piles, but BIG piles of paints and mix large pools of colors to start and quite often blend and mix colors directly on the canvas with a palette knife or wide brush. Before Kokoschka my paintings were conservative and controlled and after, like my figure study below, I used paint liberally and it felt like delicious anarchy to paint outside the lines. (Please forgive the low-res image... it is the only copy I could find at the writing of this article, but you get the idea.)
So yes, my favorite "Degenerate" is Oskar Kokoschka. I have painted copies of other masters as a learning tool like Chardin and Van gogh, but now I am finally, after many years of adoration, embarking on making a copy of my favorite Kokoschka painting -- his portrait of Marczell von Nemes from 1929.
I am fascinated by this piece as it is somewhat an anomalous work for Kokoschka. The forehead of the subject is so, well, so traditionally and realistically defined during a period in Kokoschka's career were he was at his most experimental and expressionistic. There is plenty of brilliant and lavish expression with the brush strokes and thick heavy-handed use of paint, but the unique "realism" is undeniable by comparison.
I have begun my studies and I believe I am getting close to the shape and form of the subject. Time to break out the paints.