In the second half of the nineteenth century, the medieval walls heretofore surrounding Vienna’s inner city were replaced by a broad circular boulevard, the Ringstrasse, lined with civic monuments attesting to the glories of the industrial age. Alongside these public buildings stood the enormous private homes (many occupying an entire city block) of the largely Jewish families who had helped finance the nation’s industrial expansion: across from the University, the Palais Ephrussi; next to the Burgtheater, the Lieben mansion; down the road, near the Hofgarten, the Schey palace; and the grandest of all, opposite the Opera, the Palais Todesco. The Wertheimstein family maintained its villa, with grounds so vast they are today a public park, in the garden district of Döbling, and the Todescos had a second summer Palais in Hinterbrühl, some twenty kilometers south of Vienna. These and other illustrious Jewish families, such as the Rothschilds and Gomperzes, had risen to prominence over the course of the preceding century, established banks throughout Europe and in many cases been elevated to the nobility. Some converted to Christianity, but anti-Semitism limited their social options, and they tended to marry amongst themselves. This by the turn of the twentieth century, Austria’s Jewish aristocracy had become a dynastic clan, linked through a complex web of intermarriage.
Traditionally, the eldest son in each family was destined for a career in business, while the remaining males were free to pursue literary, scientific or other scholarly activities. Daughters learned to speak several languages, dabbled in watercolor, wrote poetry, sang or played the piano. Barred from pursuing their cultural interests professionally in the nineteenth-century, many Jewish women became celebrated hostesses. The salons organized by Josephine Wertheimstein and her sister Sophie Todesco (both née Gompers) played central roles in Austrian intellectual life, welcoming such notables as Johannes Brahms, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Franz Liszt and Johann Strauss. But dynastic marriage, often to a man older or simply duller than she, frequently proved frustrating to a clever wife. Divorce and infidelity—sometimes with another member of the extended family—were not uncommon.
Mental illness haunted the Todesco-Wertheimstein clan. Josephine suffered for years from chronic depression, which culminated in a full-blown psychotic break. Eventually, she took to her bed, overseeing her salon from this symbolic throne. Sophie’s daughter Anna, married to the banker Leopold Lieben, could not square her artistic yearnings with the prosaic realities of marriage and motherhood. She, too, withdrew to her bed, only rising in the evening to make after-hours shopping expeditions or wake the children on a whim. Afflicted with a range of hysterical symptoms and addicted to morphine, Anna became one of Freud’s first patients (under the pseudonym Cäcilie M).
Marie-Louise Motesiczky (1906-1996) was the daughter of Anna Lieben’s youngest child, Henriette, and Edmund Motesiczky, the illegitimate son of a Hungarian noblewoman. Edmund, a talented amateur cellist who once played with Brahms, had neither money nor any pressing desire to work. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that Henriette was nursing an adolescent crush on Hofmannsthal, the marriage was relatively happy. The family spent winters in Vienna, springs and summers at the Todesco villa in Hinterbrühl and autumns at the Liebens’ estate in Vazsony, Hungary. Henriette had little feeling for music, but she and Edmund shared a passion for hunting; in later years, she would rise early to shoot rabbits from the balcony of her Hinterbrühl bedroom. Marie-Louise was three, her older brother, Karl, six, when Edmund took ill while on a hunting trip in remote Slovakia. Edmund’s death, in December 1909, cast a long shadow over his family’s aristocratic idyll. Henriette and Marie-Louise developed a close, almost suffocating bond, from which Karl felt completely excluded, abandoned simultaneously by both mother and father.
In 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismantled, the monarchy replaced by a democratic republic and aristocratic titles abolished. Many wealthy families lost their fortunes, but the Motesiczkys, whose money was invested abroad, were relatively unscathed by the financial turmoil that followed World War I. Nevertheless, new laws intended to alleviate Vienna’s chronic housing shortage compelled Henriette to take boarders into the family’s spacious home. Like a seasoned salon hostess, she chose tenants with intellectual or artistic credentials, housing, at various times, the composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, and a girlfriend of the writer Arthur Schnitzler. The family tradition of patronage was also continued by Karl Motesiczky, who used his allowance to help support first the novelist Heimito von Doderer and later the outré psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.
By the early 1920s, Marie-Louise had become a statuesque young beauty, so tall she was nicknamed “Piz” (peetz), after the Alpine mountain Piz Buin. Henriette, who loved puns, nicknamed Piz’s friend Mathilde von Kaulbach “Quappi,” based on a conflation of her last name with the German word for tadpole, Kaulquappe. Both nicknames remained with the women for the rest of their lives. Piz met Quappi in 1922 while visiting relatives in Holland, and it was here that she first began to think seriously about becoming an artist. Exulting in the work of Vincent van Gogh, Piz noted, “If you could paint a single good picture in your lifetime, your life would be worthwhile.” At the urging of her cousin, Irma Simon (née Schey), Piz traveled in 1924 to Frankfurt, where she took drawing classes at the Städelschude. Irma’s husband, Heinrich Simon, was the editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung and an important early patron of Max Beckmann. Staying at the Simons’ Frankfurt apartment, Piz attended regular Friday lunches that included such guests as the ballerina Anna Pavlova, the writer Fritz von Unruh and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. But the guest who interested her most was Beckmann.
It is hard to tell whether Piz’s initial infatuation with Beckmann was artistic or also personal, just as it is unclear whether his encouragement of the fledgling painter was purely professional. In any event, over the course of 1924 it became evident that Beckmann was more interested, romantically, in Quappi, who was lodging with the Motesiczkys while taking voice lessons in Vienna. He married her in 1925, after divorcing his first wife (also a singer). Piz remained friends with the newlyweds, and Beckmann continued to support her creative ambitions. After honoring her artistic skills through further study in Vienna and Paris, Piz was invited to join Beckmann’s master class at the Städelschule in 1927. “Paula Modersohn-Becker was the best woman painter in Germany, and you have every chance of succeeding her,” Beckmann said. But he added, “Don’t get a swelled head. You aren’t there yet.”
Piz’s work in the 1920s was heavily influenced by Beckmann. His skewed perspectives, compressed spaces, muted palette and chunky plasticity are all evident in such early paintings as Small Roulette Wheel (checklist no. 12), Dwarf (checklist no. 19), Portrait of Karl Motesiczky (checklist no. 20) and Still-Life with Photo (checklist no. 25). Nevertheless, the artist always made these subjects her own. Whereas Beckmann’s portrait sitters seemed hidden behind the impenetrable masks of alienation, Piz tried to reach below the surface to uncover her sitters’ intrinsic humanity. Her work was less brutal, gentler, humbler; it was more Austrian. Like Beckmann’s, Piz’s still-lifes have allegorical connotations, but in her case the symbolism was strictly personal. She selected objects with autobiographical significance and, evoking the tradition of the memento mori or vanitas painting, combined them with flowers, clocks or other tokens of transience. In the end, Beckmann’s most important teachings were, for Piz, less matters of style than of existential orientation. “What Beckmann wanted was the most intense form of self-experience, which is at the same time the greatest responsibility toward oneself,” she recounted. Or as Beckmann put it, “The visible world in combination with our inner selves provides the realm where we may seek infinitely for the individuality of our own souls.”
The 1920s was the decade of the “new woman,” and Piz took full advantage of the freedoms that were suddenly available to her. After leaving Beckmann’s class in 1928, she traveled widely—to France, Italy, Spain, Holland and America—and set up a studio in Berlin. She was at once a privileged libertine, who had multiple lovers, attended wild costume parties and spent the major part of her allowance on expensive clothes, and (half in secret) a serious painter. Nonetheless, the Motesiczkys’ world of aristocratic entitlement was slipping away. In the mid-1920s, the Lieben bank failed, and in 1935, Henriette lost a substantial portion of her surviving investment. She let most of her servants go and, no longer able to maintain the grand villa in Hinterbrühl, moved her family and guests to a smaller cottage on the estate’s grounds. Perhaps to reduce expense, and also in response to the mounting Nazi threat, Henriette and Piz began making arrangements to leave Austria toward the end of 1937. Two days after the Anschluss in March 1938, they were already with their Dutch relatives in The Hague. Henriette, who had both directly and indirectly prevented Piz from marrying, would hereafter be irrevocably bound to her daughter.
The Motesiczkys' position in Nazi-ruled Austria was ambiguous. After 1918, Henriette had opted for Czech citizenship, and because she had converted to Christianity when she married Edmund, she and her children were not officially considered Jewish. Thus Karl was able to retain the family’s remaining assets and stay on in Hinterbrühl. Emboldened by a naive sense of immunity, he used his position to further the ant-fascist resistance and shelter other, less fortunate Jews. Eventually, however, he was undone by a scheme to smuggle Jews out of Austria. Karl was arrested by the Gestapo in October 1942 and spent several months in a Viennese prison before being sent to Auschwitz. He died there of typhus in June 1943.
Meanwhile, after a period in Holland (where they met up with Max and Quappi Beckmann), Piz and Henriette had decided to emigrate to England. They arrived in February 1939, staying first in London and then, in 1941, moving to the outlying village of Amersham to escape the Blitz. Given the flood of Central European refugees deluging England, it was not long before the Motesiczkys had recreated the salon-like atmosphere of their Austrian home. With furnishings sent on by Karl and a good Viennese cook, their household was like a time capsule from a bygone era. The Motesiczkys reconnected with such old acquaintances as the sculptor Anna Mahler (daughter of Gustav and Alma Mahler), the painter Oskar Kokoschka and the art historian Ernst Gombrich. But Piz’s most important contact in the émigré community was, without a doubt, the Bulgarian-born writer Elias Canetti, who would win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981.
Motesiczky met Canetti in late 1939 or early 1940, possibly through their mutual friendship with Anna Mahler. The painter and the writer developed an immediate rapport, based on a shared belief in art as a synthesis of memory, vision and personal experience. Having both lost their fathers at an early age, they were keenly away of life’s fragility, which they felt only art could transcend. For a time Motesiczky even imagined that Canetti had a godlike power to personally conquer death. There was only one problem: her new beloved was already married. At this point, Canetti’s relationship with his wife, Veza, was supposedly platonic, and certainly she tolerated decades of infidelity on his part. Veza even had an on-again-off-again friendship with Piz. Canetti was quite blasé about his need to maintain liaisons with several women at a time. “This one is mother,” he wrote, “that one is sister, and the third one is daughter, although each one thinks they are the wife.”
Motesiczky’s relationship with Canetti, while beset by many ups and downs, lasted for over fifty years. Once Henriette and Piz were comfortably settled in Amersham, Canetti sent his precious library—some two thousand volumes—to them for safekeeping. Hereafter, he always maintained a study in his lover’s home. After World War II, the couple shared flats in London and Hampstead, though Canetti also spent time with his wife and sometimes at a third apartment of his own. In 1958, Henriette, who had remained in Amersham, began to show increasing signs of frailty, and Piz bought a big house that they could share, Chesterford Gardens, in Hampstead. Again, there was a library for Canetti, and it was here that he completed one of his best-known books, Crowds and Power. Veza’s death, in 1963, should finally have brought matters to a head, but Motesiczky wanted to give Canetti time to mourn, and he showed no eagerness to marry her. It was only by accident, some ten years later, that Motesiczky learned that Canetti had, in fact, secretly married a much younger woman. For the artist, this was a “personal catastrophe” from which she never fully recovered, whereas for the writer it was just business as usual. The rift caused by the marriage was eventually, though not entirely, repaired, and Motesiczky remained in touch with Canetti until his death in 1994.
Beyond a common philosophical orientation, the Canetti/Motesiczky love affair was sustained by a fervent belief in one another’s art. “You are a very great painter,” Canetti told her, “and whether you want it or not, the world will hear of you. Every picture you paint will enter the history of art.” Shortly after meeting with the writer, when she was flirting simultaneously with Kokoschka and another potential suitor, Motesiczky wrote a fairytale about a fisherman and two fish, one male and one female. The story ends when a second angler, names Elias, catches the girl fish and throws her back into the pond. Elias was supportive of Piz’s vocation in a way that a husband probably would not have been. She knew well what marriage to a great man entailed: Quappi had given up her singing career to marry Beckmann (something his first wife had refused to do). The fish story suggests that Motesiczky subconsciously acquiesced to the trade-off implicit in the Canetti affair. Better an intellectual love match than the constraints of a conventional marriage.
Very few of the painters who dominated the art scene in prewar Austria and Germany survived, artistically, the upheaval of the Nazi period. Whether they went into actual or “inner” exile, the work they produced in the second part of the twentieth century seldom met the standards of what they had created earlier. Motesiczky is the great exception to this pattern: a painter who actually discovered her artistic identity in exile. In England, Beckmann’s influence gradually dissipated, and the solid, sculptural masses seen in Motesiczky’s prior paintings were replaced by more translucent, lambent veils of color. Just as this increased transparency allows one to see down through the structural layers below a painting’s surface, it allows more access to the interior life of the subject. With characteristic humility, Motesiczky once said that her intention was to depict women’s everyday existence: “Women at the hairdresser’s, girls sitting in the windows of dry-cleaning shops doing the invisible mending and gradually getting old, dying women, bathing women, laughing women, sad women.” In fact, what she achieved was a comprehensive meditation on life and loss, death and transcendence, seen through the eyes of a woman.
In accordance with the principles espoused by Beckmann and Canetti, Motesiczky’s art was grounded in reality but filtered through personal experience. Her self-portraits are revelatory and in some respects unique within the genre. The artist was keenly aware of her sexuality and of the ways in which the female figure has traditionally been arrayed (in art and in life) to attract the male gaze. At the same time, she knew that superficial beauty is fleeting and offers flimsy protection for the vulnerable being within. A combination of diffident elegance, pride and insecurity characterizes all her self-portraits, from youth to old age. In these works, she is both object and subject.
Motesiczky was not above acknowledging the humor of her complex romantic entanglements, as in the drawing Kokoschka Fishing for Two Nudes (herself and the artist’s wife Olda; checklist no. 34) and Canetti Weighing Two Women on Scales (checklist no. 65). In her oils, however, she depicted these relationships with more ambiguity and nuance. A triple portrait from 1948 shows Canetti, the artist and her slightly senile aunt in the garden at Amersham (checklist no. 36). Canetti was relatively fond of the aunt, but at the same time he resented his lover’s aristocratic family, so fundamentally at odds with his more plebeian background. Motesiczky’s own suppressed anger may be represented by the garden shears that she holds in her hands and that belie her benign facial expression. In a self-portrait with Olda Kokoschka, the two make polite chitchat, while the unseen husband’s shadow appears between them on the back wall (checklist no. 48). And in a final self-portrait with Canetti, it is clear that the couple’s bond has been strained to the breaking point: the writer, lost in his newspaper, is completely oblivious to the artist’s mournful gaze (checklist no. 64).
It is generally agreed that Motesiczky’s crowning achievement is a series of portraits she did of her mother, which span the five decades from 1929 until her Henriette’s death in 1978. In the tradition established by her own mother, Anna Lieben, and her great-aunt, Josephine Wertheimstein, Henriette had, already in Austria, developed the habit of luxuriating in bed for days at a time. And it is thus that Piz often depicted her: reclining like a regal pasha, eyes wide with childlike wonder, tyrannical in her imposing bulk, yet nonetheless eternally innocent. As Henriette ages in these portraits, the bed is transformed from an aristocratic throne to an emblem of mortal decline. Masculine symbols, like a gun or the pipe she habitually smoked, affirm Henriette’s authority, while her faithful dog (she always had one) acts as a spiritual familiar and link to the natural environment. When not in bed, Henriette is frequently shown in the garden at Amersham or Hampstead. The flowers that she loved (and that her daughter often included in still lifes) encapsulate simultaneously the beauty and the evanescence of daily existence. Visibly haunted by death, Henriette nonetheless retained to the last an irrepressible capacity for joy. “Despite her advanced age,” the artist recalled, “for me she looked charming.... I thought that if I could paint what I saw when she was in this decrepit state, without embellishment and concentrating on the genuine charm in her expression, then I would have done a great thing.”
Motesiczky once observed that, “Everything figurative, apart from a portrait, is a story for me.” As she acquired greater artistic confidence, she felt increasingly free to weave complex symbolic narrative around her subjects, or (as she put it) to “paint my dreams.” A dreamlike quality characterizes many of the mother paintings, melding personal associations, allegory and images culled from the unconscious. A 1943 canvas, Morning in the Garden (checklist no. 32), shows the artist and Henriette playing with a huge golden ball, whose radiance rivals that of the rising sun. In one of Motesiczky’s most famous paintings, The Old Song (checklist no. 52), Henriette is serenaded by a harpist. The harpist is in fact an Amersham neighbor, a fellow refugee whom Henriette found fairly annoying. The stunted eagle that hovers over the scene represents, according to Piz, the neighbor’s difficult husband. But a double-eagle was also the emblem of the Habsburg monarchy, and as the title makes clear, the harpist’s melody reconnects her listener with the past. The lost world of old Vienna provides a potent subtext for this painting, as it does for much of Motesiczky’s work. Conversation in the Library (checklist no. 45), a portrait of Canetti with his colleague Franz Steiner, has been called the quintessential depiction of genius in exile. However, even as the two subjects have been cut off from the intellectual tradition that nurtured them, they have recreated it in their book-lined refuge. Exile is loss, but it is also regeneration. This is especially clear in Motesiczky’s last, posthumous homage to her mother, The Greenhouse (checklist no. 71). Henriette, accompanied by the ghosts of her dogs, is here depicted in the Hampstead garden hunched over a rake. The artist was pleased when a viewer mistook the mother figure for a gardener. That is what she was, what both she an her daughter were: cultivators of beauty, believers in art as a lasting bulwark against mortality.
Toward the end of her life, Motesiczky became increasingly concerned about her artistic legacy. She had always been ambivalent about exhibiting: flattered and surprised that anyone should like her work, devastated if they did not. Nevertheless, she did have several successful exhibitions, most notably, at the Vienna Secession in 1966; the Goethe Institute in London in 1985; and the Belvedere in Vienna in 1994. Motesiczky’s relative wealth meant that she never had to sell her work, and she was loath to part with it. As time passed, the Hampstead house filled with paintings, giving the artist a sense of security, providing tangible evidence of the life she’d lived. The next phase of her career—sending the paintings out into the world—would, she recognized, need to occur after her death. “The paintings are meaningless when they cannot be seen,” she wrote. “I want their future to be secure, just as other people want this for their children.”
To that end, in 1992, the artist established the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust. Since Motesiczky’s death in 1996, the Trust has been actively engaged in fulfilling her mandate. Between April 2006 and December 2007, a retrospective exhibition was sent to the Tate Liverpool, the Museum Giersch in Frankfurt, the Wien Museum and the Southampton City Art Gallery. The Trust commissioned Jill Lloyd to write a comprehensive biography, The Undiscovered Expressionist, which was published in 2007. A catalogue raisonné of the paintings by Ines Schlenker followed in 2009. The present exhibition, Motesiczky’s first in America, is an organic outgrowth of the artist’s gradually expanding reputation.