In 1909 the Viennese art historians Hans and Erica Tietze asked the twenty-three year-old Kokoschka to paint a marriage portrait for their mantelpiece. Mrs. Tietze recalled that she and her husband were painted individually, a fact suggested by their separate poses and gazes. Kokoschka used thin layers of color to create the hazy atmosphere surrounding the couple, and added a sense of crackling energy by scratching the paint with his fingernails. The Museum bought this painting from the Tietzes in 1939, just one year after the couple immigrated to New York.
Gallery label from 2006.
The Tietzes were socially prominent art historians. The attention Kokoschka gave to their nervous, sensitive hands is a clue to the characters of the two, whom the artist described as “closed personalities so full of tension.”
Gallery label from German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, March 27–July 11, 2011.
The Tietzes were socially prominent art historians, but Kokoschka ignores their public personas to find a mysterious delicacy in their private relationship. Erica gazes out toward us; Hans looks at Erica’s hand, and reaches for it without touching it, so that his hands and her left arm form an arch that is broken at its summit by a narrow gap, a space with a psychic charge. The couple emerge from a shimmering ground of russets and dim blues into which their outlines seem to melt in places. Scratches in the thin oil—made, according to Erica Tietze—Conrat, with the artist’s fingernails-create a texture of ghostly half-marks around the figures, a subtle halo of crackling energy.
Like his Viennese compatriot Egon Schiele, Kokoschka tried to transcend academic formulas with an art of emotional and physical immediacy-an art, in his words, “to render the vision of people being alive.” Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat is one of his “black portraits,” in which he tried to penetrate his subjects’ “closed personalities so full of tension.” (His Vienna was also the home of Sigmund Freud.)
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 62.