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Oscar Kokoschka Thames Riverscape for Bonhams Impressionist and Modern Art Sale

Oscar Kokoschka’s magnificent riverscape, `London, Chelsea Reach’, a view from Lindsay House looking towards Battersea was done when the artist was 71 years old in 1957 having fled Prague in 1938 to escape Hitler’s invading army. Bonhams are selling this picture (estimate at £700,000 to £1m) at its Impressionist and Modern Art sale on 23rd June in New Bond Street.

oscar-kokoschkaFor Kokoschka cityscapes such as London, Chelsea Reach are not simply topographical delineations, but are invested with the history of the place, reflect the artists own biography and are imbued with his observations on the development, decline and fall of civilization.

These issues were particularly resonant in the aftermath of the Second World War, which had a devastating impact not only on Kokoschka’s faith in the nature of mankind but its very future. Kokoschka acknowledged the multi faceted dimension of his cityscapes when he wrote ‘When I come back to town the landscapes turn into political pictures.’ Yet Kokoschka was able to transform serious and often painful themes into beautifully executed expressionistic compositions which radiate with an energy which the artist termed as spirit.

Kokoschka was drawn to the bustling and vibrant metropoli of London, New York, Istanbul and Prague. Arguably the appeal of the city as a subject matter lay in Kokoschka’s experience of combat during the First World War. Indeed the austerity, proximity of death and suffering and sheer misery of the trenches filled him with a profound appreciation of life, which is reflected in his recollection to Forge that ‘I thought…if I ever come out of this rat-existence alive, I will paint landscapes, because I have seen so little of the world, so I want to see everywhere’.

‘His WWI experience as a soldier lying severely wounded, half buried in mud, awakened in him a determination to paint the world from a high viewpoint with great breath and immensity of space. With this commitment he travelled throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East painting vast landscapes in which the visionary tensions of space remind one of El Greco’s Toledo.

In a bid to see ‘everywhere’ Kokoschka painted panoramas with high horizon lines. London, Chelsea Reach, painted from a balcony at Lindsey House, allowed Kokoschka to depict Battersea Power Station and the Thames from the right hand southern bank, looking downstream. Jan Tomeš described this spatial arrangement as ‘one of the most remarkable of all Kokoschka’s panoramas of London’ and because of this London, Chelsea Reach must be considered as one of Kokoschka’s iconic London views, in a homage to the city which began in 1925 with London, Tower Bridge.

Kokoschka wrote ‘Perhaps I am setting my readers’ teeth on edge by this attempt to bring words like ‘beauty’, ‘goodness’, and ‘happiness’ back into fashion’.ix Although such intense emotions were unfashionable at a time of high modernism they do reflect Kokoschka’s love of the river, an affection which seems to permeate the canvas. In his memoirs Kokoschka wrote ‘This river has always caught my imagination, it stimulates me, like the patriotic dreams that others have in their warm beds. My Thames!’.

The artist wrote with nostalgia ‘Those were the days when the merchandise of the whole world was still shipped up this river, where London was still a mother-city- as the ancient Greek cities had been…It was the metropolis of world trade, the founder of colonies on all five continents’ In London, Chelsea Reach we see nostalgia layered upon reality, anxiety merging with hope and the powerful and energetic brushstrokes acting as a vehicle to express Kokoschka’s ambiguous feelings about humanity in the 20th Century.

Other interesting items in this sale include a Bonnard, Étude pour profil de femme au noeud papillon, oil on canvas. £80,000-120,000.

Man Ray, (Lot 64), La Tour Blanche, oil on canvas, £30,000-50,000

Renoir, (Lot 7), Paysage, executed between 1910-1914, oil on canvas, £70,000-100,000

Victor Brauner, (Lot 51) 51 ‘Jardiniers’, oil on canvas, £45,000-55,000

Egon Schiele, (Lot 41), Portrait eines jungen Mädchens, pencil on paper, £50,000-70,000