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Expressionist Portraits

Expressionist portraits reveal more than just what people look like.

Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat

Oskar Kokoschka
(Austrian, 1886–1980)

1909. Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 53 5/8" (76.5 x 136.2 cm)

In 1909, the Viennese art historians Hans and Erica Tietze asked 23-year-old Oskar Kokoschka to paint a marriage portrait for their mantelpiece. The Tietzes were strong supporters of Viennese contemporary art and together helped organize the Vienna Society for the Advancement of Contemporary Art. Erica Tietze recalled that Kokoschka painted her and her husband separately, a fact suggested by the sense of separation between the couple and their strikingly distinct poses. Kokoschka used thin layers of color to create the hazy surrounding atmosphere and added crackling energy to the composition by scratching into the paint with his fingernails.

Oskar Kokoschka, My Life, translated from the German by David Britt, New York, Macmillan, 1974, p. 36.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

The way a figure is positioned.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

Primates and Portraits
Oskar Kokoschka’s interest in portraits arose, in part, from his fascination with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which “reduced too shockingly the distance between us and the related species of primates,” the artist wrote. “The sense of familiarity and intimacy within mankind gave way to a feeling of alienation, as if we had never really known ourselves before,” he continued. “I myself was more affected by this than I would admit, which is why, to confront the problem, I started painting portraits.”1

On Private and Public View
Despite Oskar Kokoschka’s attempts to borrow his portrait of the Tietzes for inclusion in exhibitions of his work, the painting was not shown publicly until after MoMA acquired it in 1939, a year after the Tietzes immigrated to New York.