Oskar Kokoschka

Time, Gentlemen Please


Not on display

Oskar Kokoschka 1886–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1300 × 1000 mm
frame: 1545 × 1245 × 75 mm
Purchased 1986

Display caption

The closing-time call, so familiar in British pubs, signals for the artist the arrival of Father Time, personified by the bearded figure whose hand is on the latch of the door. Walking towards the door as death beckons, Kokoschka turns momentarily and faces the viewer with one last, agonised stare, confronting the inevitability of his death. The vigorous paint handling and intensity of facial expression make this painting a particularly moving example of Kokoschka's late work, akin in its mixture of animation and psychological urgency to the late works of Picasso. Begun when Kokoschka was eighty-five years old, this is the last of his many self-portraits.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T04876 Time, Gentlemen Please 1971–2

Oil on canvas 1300 × 1000 (51 1/4 × 39 3/8)
Inscribed ‘OK’ b.l. and ‘TIME, gentlemen | please.’ t.l.
Purchased from Marlborough Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Exh: Grosse Kunstausstellung, Haus der Kunst, Munich, June–Sept. 1972 (226, repr. p.65); Oskar Kokoschka: Gemälde und Aquarelle seit 1953 Zeichnungen, Druckgrafik, Mosaiken seit 1971: Das schriftliche Werk, BAT-Haus and Kunsthaus, Hamburg, Feb.–May 1975 (36, repr. p.16); Oskar Kokoschka, Juan March Foundation, Madrid, May–July 1975 (39, repr. no.15); Oskar Kokoschka, Künstlerhaus, Bregenz, July–Sept. 1976 (37, repr. front cover in col.); Oskar Kokoschka 1886–1980: Memorial Exhibition, Marlborough Gallery, New York, May–June 1981, Marlborough Fine Art, June–July 1981 (63, repr. p.86); Hommage à Oskar Kokoschka 1886–1980, Musée Jenish, Vevey, April–June 1984 (50); Oskar Kokoschka 1886–1980, Tate Gallery, June–Aug. 1986 (114, repr. in col.), Kunsthaus, Zürich, Sept.–Nov. 1986 (118, repr. in col.), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Dec. 1986–Feb. 1987 (91, repr. in col.); Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980): The Late Work 1953–1980, Marlborough Fine Art, June–July 1990 (21, repr. in col.); Oskar Kokoschka, Kunstforum Länderbank Wien, Vienna, March–June 1991 (87, repr. in col.)
Lit: Heinz Spielmann, ‘Ecco Homo - Ecce Homines’, in Oskar Kokoschka, exh. cat., Kunsthaus, Hamburg 1975, p.76, repr. p.16; Frank Whitford, Oskar Kokoschka: A Life, 1986, p.199; Tate Gallery Report 1986–88, 1988, p.82, repr. (col.); Merlin Ingli James, ‘London: Kokoschka and Hofmann’, Burlington Magazine, vol.132, no.1049, Aug. 1990, p.592; Mary Rose Beaumont, ‘Varieties of Expressionism’, Art International, vol.29, no.13, Winter 1990, p.69; Sean Rainbird, Oskar Kokoschka, Tate Gallery broadsheet, 1990, [p.7], repr.; Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, 2nd ed., 1991, p.208, repr. (col.); Johann Winkler, ‘Leben aus dem Feuer der Farbe’, in Klaus Albrecht Schröder and Johann Winkler (eds.), Oskar Kokoschka, Munich 1991, p.47, repr. no.87 (col.). Also repr: E.H. Gombrich, Kokoschka in his Time, Tate Modern Masters, 1986, repr. front cover (col.); National Art-Collections Fund Review, 1988, p.41 in col.

‘Time, Gentlemen Please’ is Kokoschka's final self-portrait. It depicts the artist, naked, at the threshold of an open door which is held open by a small figure. The artist's body is contorted: his hips and legs are seen side-on while his shoulders and face are turned toward the viewer. His hands cross at the wrist: his right hand is closed, while the fingers of his left hand are splayed, possibly pointing back behind him. The second, smaller figure appears to be an old man with a beard, who is also naked. Although there are areas of impasto, particularly around the faces of the two figures, the paint in T04876 has generally been applied thinly, in single strokes of unmixed, brilliant colour. The lighter shades of yellow, green and white on the left-hand side of the image appear balanced by the darker blues and reds of the door on the right. T04876 was painted in the artist's studio at his home in Villeneuve, Switzerland.

There are two drawings which relate to T04876. Both are listed, although not illustrated, in the Hamburg catalogue (Hamburg exh. cat., 1975, p.56 nos.66–7). ‘Self-Portrait in an Open Door’, 1971 (ibid., no.66) was sketched by the artist, together with a Christmas greeting, on the half-title page of a childrens' book owned by Claudia Spielmann. It depicts the clothed figure of the artist walking through a door and holding a flower in front of him. ‘Self-Portrait with a Demon in an Open Door’ (ibid., no.67) is a larger sketch, also dated 1971, in which the first idea for ‘Time, Gentlemen Please’ was conceived. This sketch was presented to the Tate Gallery by Olda Kokoschka in 1991 (T05848). In a letter to the compiler dated 16 May 1992, Professor Spielmann reported that he had not photographed the second sketch at the time of the exhibition in 1975, but that he was virtually certain that no.67 in the Hamburg catalogue and T05848 were the same work. In a letter to the compiler dated 6 December 1992, Olda Kokoschka confirmed that T05845 was the same work as had been exhibited in Hamburg in 1975 as ‘Self-Portrait with a Demon in an Open Door’. In a conversation with the compiler at the Tate Gallery on 5 December 1990, she said she felt that the main figure in the second sketch (T05848) could not be identified conclusively as a self-portrait, adding that she was unclear what the second figure was doing. She suggested it might be wielding a sword or perhaps dragging the taller figure by a cape or robe around its shoulders. She said that the starting point for this small figure was a toy skeleton given to Kokoschka by someone who had acquired it in Mexico. The puppet was intended to be manipulated by strings and made to dance, and relates to the Day of the Dead festivities celebrated annually in Mexico. In a letter to the compiler dated 6 December 1992 Olda Kokoschka suggested that, beyond demonstrating a certain preoccupation with death, the Mexican figure had no direct links with the smaller figure in ‘Time, Gentlemen Please’. The skeleton figure, its strings now entangled, is currently with Olda Kokoschka. An alternative description of the sketch was given by Professor Heinz Spielmann in a letter to the compiler dated 16 May 1992: ‘the person on the left is a man, OK [Oskar Kokoschka] himself (even if not to be identified as a portrait in the sketch). The title [‘Self-Portrait with Demon at an Open Door’ given in the 1975 Hamburg catalogue] is mine, the description “self-portrait”, however, originates from the artist.’ He suggested, that the figure on the right, which he described as a demon, is not holding a sword, but rather, is operating the latch on a door, as in ‘Time, Gentlemen, Please’.

Kokoschka is not known to have commented conclusively on the identity of the smaller figure in this painting and several different, though related, identifications have been suggested. Richard Calvocoressi suggests that he represents a personification of Death inviting the artist to step into the afterlife (Tate Gallery exh. cat., 1986, p.328). Lord Croft, whose friendship with the artist dated from Kokoschka's arrival in England just before the Second World War and who collected the artist's work, suggested in conversation with the compiler at the Tate Gallery on 23 January 1991 that the smaller figure was probably a demon figure rather than Father Time, as has been suggested by other commentators. In a letter to the compiler, written on 9 March 1992, Olda Kokoschka concurred with this view. The figure of the devil or demon occurs in ‘Self-Portrait’ of 1969 (repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat., 1986, no.111 in col.), where the artist depicted himself between a woman on the left and two creatures on the right, one of which is a small red devil. According to Katharina Schulz (Marlborough Fine Art exh. cat., 1990, no.20):

Kokoschka began this self portrait with woman and devil on New Year's Day 1969. The figures of the woman and the devil had already been preoccupying him in December 1968; they should probably be interpreted as two diametrically opposed constituents of his own nature. The woman, the personification of security and warmth, is close to him, affording protection against the magic powers and temptations of the wicked demon. The tension on Kokoschka's face indicates that he is uncertain of the outcome of the confrontations.

While an exact interpretation of T04876 is difficult, especially as the identity of the smaller figure has not been conclusively established, most commentators have suggested that Kokoschka's reflections on his own mortality at the time of his eighty-fifth birthday exhibitions in Vienna and Munich in 1971 stimulated him to paint this late self-portrait. In a letter to the compiler dated 29 March 1992, Professor Spielmann said the theme was so obvious that he never discussed the work in detail with Kokoschka. Frank Whitford (1986, p.199) suggests that T04876 was painted at a particularly poignant time in the artist's life, when he realised that his health and sight were slowly worsening because of the inevitable processes of old age:

Kokoschka continued to travel every spring until his ninetieth year. Not until then did he yield to the inevitable pressures of old age and especially failing sight. Already in 1972 he suspected that he would not be able to continue working for much longer and painted ‘Time Gentlemen Please’, a full-length nude self-portrait, its title ironically alluding to the call at closing-time of every pub landlord in Britain.

Dr Oscar Sandner (Bregenz exh. cat., 1976, p.xxii) supports the suggestion that the two self-portrait sketches mentioned in the 1975 Hamburg catalogue directly inspired T04876, and shares the view common to all commentators that the title relates to the publican's closing-time call. Unusually, Kokoschka inscribed this call in the upper left-hand corner of the painting. Kokoschka rarely painted inscriptions on his works. However, a work that is related to T04876, ‘Ecce Homo’, 1972 (repr. Hamburg exh. cat., 1975, p.77) also has its title inscribed on the image (see discussion below). Many years ealier, Kokoschka had incorporated inscriptions in two allegorical works, ‘The Red Egg’, 1940–1 (repr., Tate Gallery exh. cat., 1986, col. pl.90) and ‘Anschluss - Alice in Wonderland’, 1942 (repr. ibid., col. pl.91).

As Kokoschka lived in Britain between 1938 and 1953, his familiarity with the closing time call can be assumed. He refers to a public house in his autobiography My Life (1974, p.162). Olda Kokoschka, in a letter to the compiler dated 6 December 1992, recalled that Kokoschka liked to go to pubs for a quick drink with friends. Professor Spielmann suggests that the title was suggested to Kokoschka in conversation with Professor Hodin, a longtime friend of the artist. The compiler was unable to receive Professor Hodin's confirmation of this point. In catalogue notes to the 1981 memorial exhibition mounted in New York and London, Olda Kokoschka linked the painting's title to the artist's new preoccupation with his mortality: ‘in 1971 there were several large exhibitions in honour of Kokoschka's eighty-fifth birthday. He knew then that he could not go on working very much longer and that one day the door would close - that it would be time, gentlemen, to go home!’ (New York exh. cat., 1981, p.22)

In an interview with the compiler on 15 May 1990 Olda Kokoschka said that ‘Time, Gentlemen Please’ was ‘painted over a matter of days rather than weeks, really quite quickly’ (Rainbird 1990, [p.7]). T04876 has been dated, however, 1971–2, as she could not recall the exact month it was painted, only that her husband worked on it sometime during the winter following the celebratory exhibitions to mark his eighty-fifth birthday. In the same interview Olda Kokoschka added that the artist had not believed in an after-life: ‘he found that, for himself, it was better to stick to what he knew rather than consulting ideas of the hereafter in other creeds. His outlook was humanitarian rather than particularly religious.’

Klaus Albrecht Schröder (Vienna exh. cat., 1991) describes T04876 as typical of Kokoschka's late oils:

The wild handling and the expressive colours are characteristic of Kokoschka's late work. Also, the physiognomy, crudely and quickly laid down in few brushstrokes and thus enormously expressive, is typical for the last period. Kokoschka painted this picture as an 85 year old. It can be compared to a painted epilogue and is simultaneously his last self-portrait.

Professor Spielmann believes that the composition of T04876 was initially conceived as a mosaic (Hamburg exh. cat., 1975, p.48). In a letter to the compiler dated 29 March 1992, Professor Spielmann recalled the circumstances when he and Kokoschka discussed making a mosaic:

In 1970 the museum for applied arts in Hamburg exhibited Kokoschka's Gobelin tapestries on the subject of the ‘Magic Flute’ [the opera by Mozart]. Kokoschka said to me that we should do something new together; ‘that will make me live longer.’ I answered, ‘if it is that easy, why don't we make a mosaic?’ He was very taken with the idea and said shortly after that he would choose the theme of a self-portrait. As everyone believed that a mosaic was two-dimensional, he planned to make one in relief to give real spatial depth. Soon he began talking about a self-portrait in a doorway, an implicit ‘memento mori’ theme. He showed me the drawing that has since disappeared [subsequently identified as T05848]. This must have been sometime between the autumn of 1970 and spring 1971. The self-portrait in Claudia's illustrated book [repr. Hamburg exh. cat., 1975, no.66; Claudia is Professor Spielmann's daughter] was from several months later and was all the more touching, because of these circumstances, than any of us realised at the time. In any case, OK still thought of the motif in late 1971 in connection with the mosaic.

Professor Spielmann believes that the idea for a mosaic containing related motifs continued to preoccupy Kokoschka at the end of 1971 and into the following year. He drew the compiler's attention to a large charcoal drawing, ‘Ecce Homo’, 1972 (private collection, on loan to Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmuseum, Schleswig, repr. Hamburg exh. cat., 1975, p.77., no.152). ‘Ecce Homo’ was drawn on 31 March 1972 or Good Friday. Kokoschka began by drawing a doorway, transformed the image by drawing a Crucifixion scene over the initial sketch. In the final composition the right side of the door frame remains clearly visible. In an unpublished letter to Professor Spielmann written a few days after that Easter, Kokoschka said that it would have been a pity to change the composition by overworking the image. Thus, the horizontal top member of the door frame became the crossbeam of the crucifix, while the two vertical stanchions of the frame, either side of Christ on the Cross. A further set of lines, rising vertically from the head of Christ, then joined at right angles with the right-hand, top corner of the door frame (just above the inscription ‘Ecce Homo’), indicates the open door. While Kokoschka, did not try to cover any of the preliminary drawing in ‘Ecce Homo’, he may have decided to reserve the motif of the open door for another work. Later that summer, Kokoschka worked on a second large cartoon this time using colours the work was titled ‘Ecce Homines’, 1972 (private collection, on loan to Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmuseum, Schleswig, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat., 1986, p.328 no.115 in col.). However, no similar preliminary drawing is evident on this second cartoon, which depicts only the Crucifixion. The specialist mosaicists in Ravenna prepared mosaics from the cartoons in 1974. The mosaics were installed in the Nikolai Church in Hamburg and the old church tower of the destroyed church of the same name about five miles away.

According to Professor Spielmann, the theme of mortality, central to Kokoschka's late self-portraits and to the depiction of ‘Ecce Homo’, had also preoccupied Kokoschka during the period which led to his making the large charcoal drawing ‘Ecce Homo’. Professor Spielmann (Hamburg exh. cat., 1975, p.76) described Kokoschka's speech at the unveiling of the colour mosaic in Hamburg on Good Friday 1974:

He had been preoccupied for a little time before with drawings and watercolours of a dead woodpecker which he depicted alive. At the same time, the large cartoon [the drawing for ‘Ecce Homo’] stood on its stretcher in the studio. The cartoon, he explained, had been a temptation and he had thought that the bird had been alive and now he saw it alive once more - on another level: ‘of course, what should I make on Good Friday - a Crucifixion!’

The black and white mosaic was unveiled in the ruined tower of the Nikolai Church a year later in 1975.

Kokoschka made frequent self-portrait prints and drawings, including several during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hans Wingler and Friedrich Welz list three drypoint etchings and one lithograph self-portrait from the period Kokoschka was working on T04876 in their catalogue raisonné of Kokoschka's prints (Hans Wingler and Friedrich Welz, O. Kokoschka: Das druckgraphische Werk, Salzburg 1975, p.262 no.465, p.263 no.468, p.263 no.469, p.273 no.492). Professor Spielmann lists two further self-portrait sketches of 1973 (Hamburg exh. cat., 1975, p.56 nos. 64–5). None of these prints or sketches relate directly to T04876: none are full figure self-portraits and in each the artist has been depicted alone.

Kokoschka painted many self-portraits throughout his long career with the first dating from some sixty years before T04876. In many of these the artist depicts himself alone, sometimes holding a brush or in the act of painting, but a number of his self-portraits include other figures and suggest a narrative or allegorical content. There is one other self-portrait in which the artist is depicted naked: ‘“Himself” - Self Portrait by the Sea’, 1925 (repr. Hans Maria Wingler, Oskar Kokoschka: Das Werk des Malers, Salzburg 1956, no.205), painted by Kokoschka while in Biarritz, France. This self-portrait is a pendant to a painting (now also lost) called ‘“She” (“Herself”)’, 1925 (ibid., no.206). The artist is not known to have commented on any links between the two naked self-portraits of 1925 and 1971.

Johann Winkler (Vienna exh. cat. 1991, p.48) has discussed the place of T04876 in the body of self-portrait oils that Kokoschka painted throughout his life:

‘Time, Gentlemen Please’ is a painting whose deepest strata lead far back to Kokoschka's earliest youth. The archetypical characteristic of ostracization reminds one of the painted clay bust ‘Self Portrait as Warrior’ (1908), of the blood-covered Christ figure in ‘Pieta’ (1909) and of the pitiless self-exposure in the poster for ‘Der Sturm’, made in 1910. The homeless wanderer of the ‘Bach Cantata’ treads before our inner eye and we recognise in the distortion of the proportions and their effect of intensifying the figure of the ageless old man also the painter of the self-portrait ‘The Painter II’ (1923–4) and the sad, lost desires of the man bearing Kokoschka's features, who surreptitiously approaches his ‘Slave’ [1921]. Time is suspended in a continuity which does not merely denote forward movement, but one that finds in finality beginnings, because they suddenly give a ‘face’ to those phenomena sunk deep in the recesses of consciousness.

Winkler (ibid., p.48) referred to a passage from Kokoschka's speech given at the opening of the Rembrandt exhibition in 1956, in the Westerkerk, Amsterdam. Winkler suggests that Kokoschka's story of his confrontation with Rembrandt's late self-portrait in the National Gallery, London, just before the outbreak of the second World War, related in Kokoschka's speech, can be compared to his later confrontation with the ageing process and his acceptance of mortality in T04876. Kokoschka said:

I went to the National Gallery and looked around, as one does, when one is tired and dispirited. I suddenly saw a portrait, one of his [Rembrandt's] last portraits. I looked first as a painter looks; I see the form, I see the brushwork, I see depth and then I see that this curious man dared - he was sick, he had dropsy, his eye is red, his skin betrays traces of death - this genius dared to paint all this with such perfection, with such detachment, that I was suddenly startled. How is it possible, that one can stare death in the face; in oneself! And that was the great message for me. I was suddenly healed. When an artist is capable of looking truth straight in the face, so that he is able to grasp the transience of life and in spite of this give it form and in spite of this make the eternal invisible in the visible form, then he has done more than words can describe.

(Oskar Kokoschka, Aufsätze: Vorträge.
Essays zur Kunst, Hamburg 1975, p.111)

In his autobiography ‘My Life’ (1971, p.210), Kokoschka returned to this theme:

How firmly he [Rembrandt] studies in the mirror the end of his own life! The artist's spiritual objectivity, and his ability to draw up a balance-sheet of his own life and give it pictorial form, convey themselves powerfully to the beholder. To look at one's own physical decay, to see oneself as a living being in the process of changing into a carcass, goes far beyond the revolutionary Goya's Plucked Turkey, a dead bird in a still-life. For there is a difference, after all between being involved, oneself, and seeing it happen to another. A human spirit is about to be extinguished, and the painter records what he sees.

Kokoschka's interest in the human condition, as depicted through portraiture, was a central tenet of his artistic credo. In his essay of 1961 entitled ‘Ich male Porträts, weil ich es kann’ (‘I Paint Portraits Because I Can Do It’), the final sentence provides a summation of the artist's attitude to the possibilities presented by portraiture, including self-portraiture, and suggests the centrality of its role within his output:

I announce myself through painting portraits; because I can and because I see in portraiture the way to humanity - a mirror that shows me when and where and who and what I am.

(Heinz Spielmann, ed., Oskar Kokoschka:
Das schriftliche Werk, III, 1975, p.283)

Kokoschka is not known to have commented whether the brilliant colours he used in T04876, in particular, the use of white and yellow around the head of the self-portrait figure and in highlights on the face and arms, have a specific symbolic value. However, he did associate certain qualities with particular colours. A story he relates in his autobiography (1971 p.165), of the reactions of a visitor to his painting, ‘What We Are Fighting For’, 1943 (Kunsthaus, Zürich, repr. Wingler 1956, no.329), can be seen as having relevance to Kokoschka's approach to colour in general. In particular, it throws light on his choice of the brilliant yellow surrounding the head in T04876:

One visitor who saw the finished picture remarked on its sadness, despite the presence of so much yellow. ‘Yellow should be a happy colour; the sun is yellow’, he said. But for me yellow has an effect similar to that of white; it is like the dead moon, in opposition to red, the colour of life. For the Chinese, yellow represents death. Black, the colour of mourning, I consider no colour at all: it does not exist in life. Colours always have values to me, like warnings or traffic signs; but this has never consciously influenced my painting, nor has it anything to do with colour symbolism. It is simply that I conceive of life and death in terms of colour. When that visitor, who was no art expert, appeared to be so downcast by my picture, I felt that I had been understood.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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