Oskar Kokoschka

The Crab


Oskar Kokoschka 1886–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 634 x 762 mm
frame: 858 x 987 x 85 mm
Purchased 1984

Display caption

The view is from the artist's house in Polperro, Cornwall, where he lived between 1939 and 1940. Two related oils depict a similar view of the harbour, but the addition here of a crab lends a particular air of menace. Kokoschka said that the swimmer (a self-portrait) represented Czechoslovakia, and the crab Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister of the day, who 'would only have to put out one claw to save him from drowning, but remains aloof.' Kokoschka remarked that paintings had the habit of turning into political allegories if brought back to London unfinished, as in this case. This work with its transition from landscape to allegory proclaims Kokoschka's committed style of the early 1940s.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T03834 The Crab 1939–40

Oil on canvas 25 × 30 (634 × 762)
Inscribed ‘OK’ b.l.
Purchased from the estate of the late Sir Edward Beddington-Behrens through Marlborough Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) with the aid of the NACF 1984
Prov: Lady Knott; Major (later Sir) Edward Beddington-Behrens, by 1946
Exh: Unesco: Exposition Internationale D'Art Moderne, Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne, Paris, November–December 1946 (‘Artistes Réfugiés de l'Europe Centrale’ 10); Oskar Kokoschka, Kunsthalle, Basle, March–April 1947 (83); Oskar Kokoschka, Kunsthaus, Zürich, July–August 1947 (54); Oskar Kokoschka, Haus der Kunst, Munich, March–May 1958 (112, repr. p.76); Oskar Kokoschka in England and Scotland, Marlborough Fine Art, November–December 1960 (14); Kokoschka, Tate Gallery, September–November 1962 (124); Oskar Kokoschka, Kunstverein, Hamburg, December 1962–January 1963 (62, repr.); Oskar Kokoschka, Kunsthaus, Zürich, June–July 1966 (80); Oskar Kokoschka, Cityscapes and Landscapes. A 90th Birthday Tribute, Marlborough Fine Art, March–April 1976 (12, repr.); Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980), Memorial Exhibition, Marlborough Gallery, New York, May–June 1981, Marlborough Fine Art, June–July 1981 (39, repr. p.62); Oskar Kokoschka, Galerie des Beaux Arts, Bordeaux, May–September 1983 (39, repr.); Oskar Kokoschka 1886–1980, Tate Gallery, June–August 1986, Kunsthaus, Zürich, September–November 1986, Guggenheim Museum, New York, December 1986–February 1987 (87, repr. in col.)
Lit: Edith Hoffman, Kokoschka, Life and Work, 1947, pp.224, 232–3, 336, no.294, repr. in col. pl.2; Hans M. Wingler, Oskar Kokoschka. The Work of the Painter, 1958, p.328, no.319, repr.pl.102; Richard Calvocoressi and Richard Morphet, ‘Three Mid-twentieth Century Acquisitions’, National Art-Collections Fund Annual Review, 1985, p.97, repr. in col.

This picture was painted while Kokoschka was living in Polperro, Cornwall at the outbreak of the Second World War. The crab which dominates the composition has been described by Richard Calvocoressi in the catalogue for the 1986 Kokoschka exhibition at the Tate Gallery as having:

a malevolent human appearance, towering over the harbour and threatening the tiny, vulnerable figure of the swimmer struggling to reach the safety of the pier.

In his autobiography, Look Back, Look Forward, 1963, Edward Beddington-Behrens recalled that Kokoschka told him that the swimming figure (a self-portrait) represented Czechoslovakia and the crab, Neville Chamberlain, who ‘would only have to put out one claw to save him from drowning, but remains aloof’. (At the time, Kokoschka held Czech citizenship, and had arrived in England as a refugee in 1938.)

Kokoschka also told Edith Hoffmann that what started off as a straightforward realistic landscape had the habit of turning into a political allegory, especially if he brought the painting back to London unfinished.

A crab first appears in Kokoschka's ‘Polperro I’ 1939 (Courtauld Institute Galleries). The view of the jagged rocks in the background, known as The Peak, is close to that in the watercolour ‘Polperro IV’ 1939 (Lord Croft), which also includes a female figure sitting underneath the cliff at the extreme right and a shell or lobster pot in the foreground to the left. ‘The Crab’ is also related to the oil ‘Polperro II’ 1939 in the Tate's collection (N05251), a non-allegorical representation of almost the same land- and seascape. A watercolour study for ‘The Crab’ (16 × 20 1/8ins., private collection) is reproduced in colour in the catalogue of the Tate's Kokoschka retrospective of 1986 (204).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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