Art Review: Marie-Louise von Motesiczky

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Emerging from Obscurity:
Artist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky

The Old Song (1959, oil on canvas, 40″ x 60-1/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

The name required pronunciation assistance (think “ch” for “cz”) and bore no hint of familiarity, but the image on the card announcing the first United States exhibition of the work of Austrian artist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky encouraged further investigation.  Accompanying the invitation, a brief biography of the artist written by Jane Kallir, the psychologically insightful co-director of The Galerie St. Etienne (the show’s host), provided more than enough reason to visit.

Greeting the viewer entering the room devoted to the story of Motesiczky’s relationship with her mother, The Old Song (1959) depicts the 77-year-old woman in the bed where she’d spent many daytime hours over the course of her life.  With one of her loyal greyhounds watching from under the bed, Henriette von Motesiczky listens to her neighbor strum a harp while an eagle floats nearby.  The harpist, with ashen face and bright red nails, portends approaching death, though Henriette went on to live another 19 years and to inspire other paintings and drawings by her daughter, many of which joined this work in the gallery.

Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1937, oil on canvas, 21-7/8″ x 15-1/4″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Paradise Lost & Found, the exhibit’s title, refers not to any one particular painting, but more broadly to the life of Motesiczky.  Born in 1906 in Vienna into an aristocratic Jewish family inextricably linked to other wealthy Jews through bloodlines and social standing, the artist fled with her mother first to Amsterdam and ultimately to England when the Nazi onslaught began decimating the world they had known.  More immediately, young Marie-Louise’s life changed dramatically with the sudden death of her father in 1909.1

Henriette, devastated but emancipated after the death of her husband, and with ample means to live large with few restraints, glommed onto Marie-Louise and never released her.  The other child, six-year-old Karl, remained invisible to his mother but benefited from the close friendship and comforting of his loving sister.  He would die in Auschwitz in 1944, several months after his arrest by the Gestapo for helping Jews escape from Poland.

To insure her daughter’s continued availability, Henriette intervened whenever romance threatened to shift attachment elsewhere.  When 16-year-old Marie-Louise fell in love with her cousin, her mother shipped her off to Holland for a few months and when six years later she wanted to marry a man with whom she shared a serious relationship, her mother forbade it.

Despite her mother’s narcissistic dependence on her, Marie-Louise enjoyed remarkable freedom, perhaps better described as not-so-benign neglect.  In early adolescence, she could choose to drop out of school and begin pursuing her interest in art, taking drawing lessons privately.

After World War I ended, new laws designed to ease housing shortages mandated owners of large residences to take in borders.  The Motesiczky family, mostly insulated from the upheaval of World War I, became host to a steady stream of paying guests, many with intellectual and/or artistic credentials, who provided illustrious company for the very young Marie-Louise.  One, an American architecture student, became a first lover.  The tender age of the girl and the laissez-faire attitude of her mother raises troubling questions about the nature of that liaison.

Fräulein Engelhardt (1926-27, oil on canvas, 24-5/8″ x 23-3/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

During the summer of 1920, the German artist Max Beckmann, introduced by a family member, paid a visit to the Motesiczky’s.  By playfully entertaining the teenager with an impromptu dinner skit involving a piece of straw dipped in wine, he enthralled the 14-year-old Marie-Louise with his personality, and later his art, laying the foundation for their deep and lasting friendship.

Motesiczky’s educational travels during her teens and early twenties brought her into contact with Dutch art in The Hague and the avant-garde in Paris.  Spending time in Frankfurt am Main, she studied directly with Beckmann, already a strong influence on her early art.

As the young artist gained skill and experience, she developed her own unique and emotionally powerful style, evident in the 1926-27 portrait of Henriette’s close friend, the elderly Fraulein Engelhardt.  The work blends the angular, flat planes of color and thick application of paint favored by her teacher Beckmann with Motesiczky’s own balanced composition, subtle color, and empathic rendering of the woman’s likeness.  Sitting on a cushion-backed chair, the subject of the painting gazes at and points toward a brown, autumnal leaf that rests on the table upon which she leans, as if indicating to the visitor her awareness of approaching death.

Siesta (1933, pastel & charcoal on tan laid paper, 10″ x 16-3/4″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.
Hunting (1936, pastel & charcoal on paper, 18-1/8″ x 22-3/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

The painter did not intentionally set out to focus her art on charting the ravages of time but did so in the many portraits of her mother, whose omnipresence in her life and inclination to recline in bed made her a perfect subject.

At The Galerie St. Etienne, the viewer first meets Henriette at the start of the exhibit in a pair of pastel drawings, Siesta (1933, pastel and charcoal) and Hunting (1936, pastel).  In the first, the ample woman, wide-eyed and red-nosed, appears abed, partially covered, hugging her pillow.  In the other, Henriette engages in another favorite pastime, hunting.  Attired in blue dress, legs splayed to balance herself in a rowboat, she looks down the sight of a brown-handled rifle, intent on her prey.

Reclining Woman with Pipe (1954, oil on canvas, 28-1/8″ x 40″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

In the room with The Old Song, joining other portraits of the artist’s mother, Reclining Woman with Pipe (1954, oil) captures Henriette at 72.  Marie-Louise depicts her mother sporting a grey wig, propped up in bed, enjoying a pipe.  Though now much older, the woman appears robust and alert, enlivened by the bright yellow pillow upon which she rests and the red nightgown that slips from her left shoulder, exposing pink skin.

Mother in the Garden (1975, oil, pastel & charcoal on canvas, 32″ x 20″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Advanced age suffuses Marie-Louise’s Mother in the Garden (1975, oil, pastel and charcoal).  The shadow on the garden wall, cast by sunlight falling on the spectral figure, attests to the old woman’s substance.  Stooped over and almost bald at 93, Henriette continues to tend her beloved garden.  She would live another three years.

The Greenhouse (1979, oil & charcoal on canvas, 21-7/8″ x 32-1/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

In homage to her mother, Motesiczky created The Greenhouse (1979, oil and charcoal) a year after Henriette’s death.  At 73, as an accomplished artist with major portrait commissions and work displayed internationally including a 1966 multi-venue solo exhibition, she confronted not just her mother’s mortality but also her own.

The figure of the artist’s mother, now practically transparent, bends over to rake some fallen leaves in her garden.  Close by, two of her greyhounds look toward the barely visible third, a mere outline in front of the brown wood of the pictured structure.  A rising/setting sun in a high-value sky illuminates the glass of the greenhouse, less an actual reflection than an imagined one, with a blue stream flowing through bulrushes, a reference perhaps to Henriette’s love of hunting.

Canetti, London (1965, oil on canvas, 12″ x 10″), traveling exhibition, no. 63, Schlenker 200, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Although her mother succeeded in preventing Marie-Louise from ever marrying, she could not stop her from succumbing to the allure of fellow émigré Elias Canetti, a married writer she met in 1939 soon after their relocations to London.  Marie-Louise sustained this romantic obsession, with all its pleasure and pain, until her death.

Involved in an affair that afforded her the luxury of maintaining her own autonomy, after the war Motesiczky provided Canetti with a place to write in her new London flat, a great way to insure his company.  The arrangement lasted until 1957.  Expecting that her status as the other woman would finally change in 1963 when her paramour became a widower, Marie-Louise suffered a devastating shock when ten years later she learned from a friend that he had remarried and fathered a child.

Self-Portrait with Canetti (1960s, oil on canvas, 20″ x 32-1/4″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Her Self Portrait with Canetti (1960s) illuminates well Motesiczky’s plight.  Dolefully staring at the object of her affection, the artist portrays herself to the left of the items separating them: six paint brushes, two quills and a large flowering plant.  Canetti’s attention remains fixed on the newspaper he holds open on his desk; his bushy-haired head, on the right side of the composition, balances not with Motesiczky’s on the left, but with the vegetal display that sits on the table (perhaps representing the wife that Motesiczky blamed for Canetti’s unavailability).  Further highlighting their divide, two shining ovals hover in the open space between them.

As she aged, Motesiczky became more open to sharing her art with the world.  In 1985, the Goethe Institut in London mounted her first retrospective; others followed elsewhere.  The artist, who had always traveled widely, visited Egypt at the age of 84, spent her 87th birthday doing volunteer work in a prison, and continued painting and attending art exhibits during her later years.

In 1996, Marie-Louise von Motesiczky died in London, a few months before her 90th birthday.  Four years prior, she had established The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust in keeping with her initial impulse to create art:

My longing is to paint beautiful pictures, to become happy in doing so, and to make other people happy through them.2
1 All biographical information from Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, 1906-1996, The  Painter, Jeremy Adler and Birgit Sander, editors, 2006.

2 Ibid, dedication page.

Marie-Louise Motesiczky
Paradise Lost & Found

The Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019