Paint a saint?
Can I do that ...
Oskar Kokoschka and Vinzenz Pallotti
"May my painting open your eyes, may my painting of the saint take a look inside yourselves, awaken you!
From a hand full of ashes, a death mask, came to me the courage to plea."
Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) only painted living persons. Vincent Pallotti was his only exception. And so the artist had to a less extent the real portrait of Pallotti, his actual facial expressions and appearance captured on the canvas, much more than a helpless seer and fighter for a better future for the church.
The strong use of colour, predominantly Kokoschka’s favoured blue, indicates the far off looking "Apostle of Rome”, fascinated with God, pervaded from strength and passion for his ideas.
The striking, yet not too hard lines of his face, the striking form and the mighty, forwardly facing, at the same time blessing hand challenge - more than a charming image. They challenge to reflect, to confront and last but not least, to determine the consequences.
Origin of the painting
Former economist of the Pallotines, Father Rudolf Mitterer SAC, remembers:
"For decades Leo Samberger’s portrait of Pallotti was the predominant painting. At the end of the fifties, before the canonization, I thought that we needed a new painting of Vincent Pallotti. We had no money, but we could still try. I asked our art teacher father Hiller: “Who is the leading portrait artist?". Immediately he replied "Oskar Kokoschka", even though he was considered an expressionist.
Back then Kokoschka lived in Villeneuve by Lake Geneva, but in the summer he was in Salzburg, where he directed the "Schule des Sehens" (School of seeing). For many years he had lectured courses for young artists up in the fort. Should someone not simply go up there? I heard there was some literature on him. In the gallery Welz, in Sigmund Haffnergasse in Salzburg, I bought a book on Oskar Kokoschka. When asked if he thought we could speak to the artist, the book seller answered: "Just go on up to the fort." Kokoschka would receive us.
As we went on up, he came across, on his own and we made our request. He opined: "Let us go into my working rooms, I'll lead on!" We told him all about our founder. Then he said: "Show me a painting of him some time". One week later we returned to the school and took a painting with us, one that is otherwise unknown, but with a charming expression. Kokoschka laughed: "A pretty face."
Later on we gave him the death mask. At the time he gave us something of an acceptance and invited us to: "Come and see my school!" We saw students at work. Most were painting landscapes or flowers. Some courtyards were being used as art rooms. In front of one of the rooms where nudes were being painted, he said: "Stop, I must enter first and make sure they put something on!" He corrected his students’ paintings and occasionally called out "This won't ever work!" Towards the end of the tour we asked him: “May we have an answer, or is it still too soon?" He answered: "Paint a saint - I'm not sure if I can!"
About two years later we visited Kokoschka in Villeneuve by Lake Geneva. On this occasion he showed us the painting; it was half finished! We had to hold ourselves back, because we still did not have the confirmation from the provincial rectors that we could purchase it.
On our second visit to Villeneuve the painting was finished. Kokoschka said: The Tate Gallery in London is interested in displaying it! Could we bring it there? The advantage is that they would frame it." On our third visit to Switzerland he gave us the painting. I said surprised: "It's not been signed!" Kokoschka turned the painting over and showed us the back: "Sanctus Vincentus Pallotti, O.K." I t is the only painting he ever signed on the back - in reverence of the saint.
He also said: “I always used to paint - mostly cities - from the top. That is something I swore after the war, because I saw the whole world from underneath, from the trenches. You however, have tempted me to look up at this Vincent Pallotti from below."
Kokoschka was in hospital in Lausanne, there he confided in us: "I am pleased that I did the Pallotti painting; I now know where I belong. Now I am on the way up." When we questioned him on the price Kokoschka said: "For saint I can accept no payment. But you could do something for the children!" We had the painting valued in Munich in the House of Art. They told us back then it was worth 100,000 German marks. With his understanding we transferred 40,000 marks to India. He himself took no money. In some letters to us he spoke of that.
P. Poieß, one of our brothers at the High school of Theology in Vallender later said: "Mitterer, that was pure genius! What pleases me most however is that Kokoschka discovered his path."
In these eyes burns a holy ember
From these eyes shines a pressing desire
In this face there is a resolute determination
From this face there radiates a kindness and love
In this robe it pushes a step further forward
From these robes comes the fighter for
Gods infinite love
In the powerfully clenched fist is a restless energy
The blessed hand declares:
Courage for the future
Christ’s love compels
It tolerates no respite.