‘Beautiful Pictures’

It's always an adventure to open a book dealing with someone of supreme talent about whom you know little or — better still — nothing at all. Each time you do so, it makes you acutely aware of how many noteworthy writers and artists have fallen through the cracks during every period of history. And when you consider women artists of any sort, the bulk of the neglect is magnified a thousand-fold — perhaps even more so.

I knew nothing at all about the painter Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, who lived from 1906-1996, and whose creative period covered 70 years, until the handsome Prestel volume bearing a striking self-portrait on the cover appeared on my desk. The book, filled with a generous sampling of her Max Beckmann-inspired artwork, has been edited by Jeremy Adler and Birgit Sander, with essays contributed by Sander, Jill Lloyd and Ines Schlenker. This tribute to the artist was published in celebration of what would have been her 100th birthday.

Before the work proper begins, a quote from the artist is printed: "My longing is to paint beautiful pictures, to become happy in doing so, and to make other people happy through them." The detailed essays that follow chart how well she held to her plan.

According to Schlenker, whose piece is titled "An Outstanding Artist in Troubled Times," von Motesiczky's "oeuvre" includes more than 300 paintings and several hundred drawings. She also managed to fill some hundred sketchbooks with ideas. And yet, for most of her career, she never received the kind of attention her work deserved.

In Schlenker's opinion, "This was mainly due to the radical political changes brought about by National Socialism. The political developments in Central Europe destroyed her highly promising career before she had reached full maturity. In addition, all her life she found it hard to expose herself to the public gaze and even had difficulty parting from her pictures. She always wanted to produce new and better works, and not spend her time and energy in achieving a fame that might prove ephemeral. For many years, therefore, her painting was able to mature out of the public eye and away from the critical debate surrounding modern art. She always held on to her independence and refused to follow any fashions. Marie-Louise von Motesiczky was herself aware that working in relative independence from the art scene and trusting to one's own artistic judgment can be of advantage, and she proved this fact with her fascinating body of work, which she produced in several different European countries, often under difficult circumstances."

As Schlenker tells it, the artist came from the "Jewish aristocracy" that flourished during the end of the reign of the Hapsburg monarchy. Her large extended family included many bankers and academics, several of whom were at the heart of intellectual life in Vienna, and had close contacts with painters, poets and musicians.

Von Motesiczky was trained in some of the best schools in the Austrian capital, then moved on to The Hague, Frankfurt, Paris and Berlin. As Schlenker notes, "The painter Max Beckmann, whose master class in Frankfurt she entered in 1927, became a formative influence. In the years of intensive work that followed, she discovered her own artistic style and also took part in her first exhibition."

But whatever plans she had for a career in Austria were dashed when the Nazis invaded in 1938. Her mother and she — her father had died when she was a child — went into exile, first in Holland, and then in 1939, in England, where she lived for 50 years. As Schlenker puts it, though the artist had significant solo shows, she was always seen to be in the shadow of great men: as a student of Beckmann, as a friend of the painter Oskar Kokoschka and the lover of Nobel Prize winning writer Elias Canetti. It was not until the last years of her life that she gained the recognition equal to her accomplishment.

Writes the essayist: "In her works — mainly still-lifes, self-portraits and portraits [of which she is a master] painted in an ever-changing and later increasingly lyrical Expressionistic style — Marie-Louise went her own way. The paintings bear witness to various aspects of her life and confirm the central role that family and friends played for her, and, in the process, they evoke a picture of her century."


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