Illustrated companion

Kokoschka was an important painter of biblical and mythological subjects, landscape and still-life. But he first made his reputation, in Vienna before the First World War, as a painter of portraits that were exceptionally strongly characterised, and often appeared to reveal the mind or spirit of the sitter, as much as their physical appearance. Throughout his life Kokoschka was frequently his own sitter, producing many self-portraits, a number of them of a strange and disturbing character. This, the last of his self-portraits, painted when he was eighty-five years old, is one of the most striking of them all.

The subject is clearly the approach of death, and the setting would appear from the inscription to be an English pub. Kokoschka lived in England from 1938-46, becoming a British citizen, and visited the country regularly thereafter. The ritual calling of time in British public houses at the legal closing hour, must have struck him as an apt metaphor for the final summons of death, all the more striking for its association with preceding wordly pleasure. He may even have known Samuel Johnson's celebrated remark that 'There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.' The pub, then, becomes the metaphor for this world. A figure, possibly Death or Time, is holding open the door, but the artist seems to be refusing to go, staring intently upwards, perhaps in appeal towards the source of the words, among them 'time' heavily emphasised, which are painted in such a way as to appear floating in space, suggesting that they have only just been uttered. His hand gestures backwards as if to say 'just one more?' The vigorous paint handling, bright colours and intensity of facial expression make this painting a particularly moving example of Kokoschka's late work, akin in its mixture of animation and desperation to the late work of Picasso.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.208