In: Ernst Krenek. Companion of the Twentieth Century.
Birthday Centennial. Vienna 2000, p.119-131

Ernst Krenek had trained his eye for panoramas during long walks in the mountains. He found horizons so suggestive that he let a mountain range determine the course of the notes of a composition in his Concerto Grosso no. 7 (op. 10, 192 1). In his impressive autobiography Im Atem der Zeit ('In the Breath of Time'), he frequently depicts landscapes in detail. These numerous literary descriptions resemble impressionist sketches. Yet, his taste was explicitly 'Gothic-Expressionist', as he understood his approach in the art historian Wilhelm Worringer's wake. As regards the old masters, he admired only El Greco and Francisco Goya. On his numerous travels, he visited museums and galleries. Rembrandt's Night Watch in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum disappointed him.

Krenek's interest in modern painters had nothing systematic. He pursued random impressions. He owned a Maurice Utrillo reproduction, for example, that, strangely enough, reminded him of Vermeer von Delft. Josef Albers, who had emigrated after the Bauhaus had been closed and taught at the Block Mountain College in North Carolina, gave him a trial print of the black-and-white abstraction Edged II (1934) as a present. And Paul Flora drew a Santa Fe Railroad comprising quotations from his works an the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. Such encounters were determined by personal contacts. Krenek has also left us a number of observations with somewhat unfair exaggerations, such as his remarks an the 'old-fashioned' Cuno Amiet or the 'lazy' Franz Wiegele. As his autobiogrophy ends with his emigration, we have only little information on his later contacts with American artists. Someone he really admired was Oskar Kokoscha, who had been admitted to the Austrian Werkbund together with him in 1933. Kokoschka portrayed Krenek as a young man bursting with vitality. Krenek set Kokoschka's Orpheus and Eurydike to music in 1923 (op. 21) and listened to OK's lantastic stories with his mouth open.

Apart from Tilman Riemenschneider's works, Krenek could make nothing of sculpture. He might have made an exception with Auguste Rodin, whose name he once used to impress his superior during his training as a soldier. His first wife, Anna Mahler, was also a sculptor after all. He did not make any comments on her works although she modeled a bust of her husband. He did not think much of her 'mediocre talent as a painter' and believed that she only painted to free herself from her dominating mother Alma. He considered dadaism and surrealism as droll phenomena of the times and left no doubt that he regarded Hans Arp's biomorphic sculptures as 'rather obscene'.

Though Krenek was versatile and creative in a sparkling way, it never crossed his mind to go for painting. Yet, he could imagine an alternative career as an author, even if he was not sure of his literary talents. He had already published a satirical weekly with 'supposedly biting jokes' and drawings as a pupil. His father also had a certain talent for drawing. The copies of the magazine, the Skorpion, which were decorated with uniformed figures, are kept at the Wiener Stadt- und Landesbibliothek. Though blank paper always seems to have been something of a challenge for his creativity, Krenek did not draw on a regular basis. He believed that sketches should accompany his travel accounts published in the Frankfurter Zeitung and perhaps did some himself. The Historical Museum of the City of Vienna keeps three watercolors dating from 1930. One motif was the so-called Landhof in Dölsach, Eastern Tyrol. Be that as it may, Krenek did compose the cycle of songs Journey Through the Austrian Alps (op. 62, 1929). The work begins with the characteristic motif: 'Ich reise aus, meine Heimat zu entdecken.' ('l set out to discover my home.') Krenek was deeply hurt when his Journey imbued with love for Austria was soon regarded as degenerate in the oppressive petit-bourgeois fustiness of National Socialism.

Krenek's paintings dating from the later decades of his life, which he has not described in any sequel to his memoirs, have something spontaneous and dashed off without any inner resistance. He did enjoy landscapes. He could not help comparing his new American home with Austria so that some of his 'doodlings' seem to have originated in memories - a notion that was not alien to him: he even called his 'musical doodlings' a 'means of escape', a 'facade' 'l had erected to disquise my inability for "real" life and to make me and others believe that I, being too busy fulfilling my responsibilities towards eternity, simply had no time for the trivialities of life.' (Im Atem der Zeit, 551) This is what he called his 'private version of the Freudian interpretation of art as a sublimation of the libido'. He was too harsh on himself in this regard. His work as a painter never resembles a 'facade' despite all its sketchy lightness. Looking for a common denominator that might also hold true for his musical and literary work, one will settle an this virtuoso lightness and 'bon goût' in the best sense of the word. He lacked the obsessive selfanalysis so typical for Arnold Schoenberg as a painter as well as an interest in other people he preferred to deal with in a literary manner.

More than eighty watercolors and some drawings have survived. Besides the Landhof already mentioned and the Styrian Erzberg he painted on his way to the Venice Krenek Festival in 1960, there are no other Austrian subjects. As for American landscapes and the expanses of his new surroundings, Krenek was mainly interested in mountain ranges or valley views apart from topographical features like houses, beaches and highways that are, oddly enough, seen from the middle. There are also three works showing flowers and a patch of green. He has painted a number of landscapes an the outskirts (Tehachapi Mountain) and in the environs of Los Angeles such as the Colorado Desert area south of Palm Springs and several views of the Anza Borrego National Park and the Salton Sea. Other inhospitable sites were Death Valley west of Las Vegas and the Colorado River south of the gambling town.

Death Valley from Dante's View, watercolor, April 1972


Though he probably also visited the Grand Canyon an his way to Arizona and Utah, Krenek apparently did not paint this spectacular landscape. He was especially interested in remote and snowy peaks like those of the White Mountains in Nevada. He undertook several travels into the Rocky Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains which he had seen for the first time when being invited to deliver guest lectures at various universities in New Mexico in the late forties. There are various versions of a San Antonio Mountain, though one not in California but in Mexico near Duarte. In some cases, Krenek was not only interested in the topographical features but also in the atmosphere. Death Valley fades in the haze, and in Storm over Borrego a sunbeam breaks through the clouds. In two other paintings, the moon shines like a pumpkin above the volley bathed in violet light (Moon
over Borrego Valley) or resembies a sickle hanging above Hollywood by night (Moon over Hollywood Boulevard).

There is no stylistic development. Krenek did not orient himself by current trends in art. He did not imitate any artists, not even Kokoschka, but took up his brush without a specific claim. Yet, there is something his endeavors do have in common. Krenek abstains from filling the paper, and his compositions have no boundary or frame, i.e. he never reaches the upper or lower margin, while the horizon might continue to the left and to the right like a panorama. His strokes are small and precise, and yet he never loses his verve regarding the structure of the whole. He makes use of the entire range of colors. Mostly, he adds the place and date next to his signature initials EK with a pencil in the right-hand corner at the bottom; about thirty works da not display an inscription. Krenek did not really paint much at any period of his life. While he finished up to ten works in some years, he did not find any time to paint in others. In the middle and in the late fifties, he did more watercolors than at any other time of his life. He devoted time to his painting especially in the summer months, in July and August, and during Christmas.

lt is obvious that he wanted to make the best of the opportunity Christmas and New Year offered and also tried something new during these days. Nearly all his numbered Abstractions in the seventies date from these holidays. lt is remarkable that the composer had not freed himself from mimetic constraints earlier in his career. He seems to have regarded abstraction as an opportunity for something special. Contrary to the landscapes, some abstractions show a certain frame structure. lt might be a coincidence, but while discs and spheres feature prominently in the abstractions he painted during Christmas, these forms recede into the background or disappear altogether in the New Year's Eve compositions (1972). In Abstraction 2 (Christmas 1971), a sphere rests an a light billowy surface in the right-hand corner. A yellow tone towers in the margin next to it, darkening to orange. The sphere is placed in some kind of landscape, the background of which displays a vegetable green spreading like a wood. Yet, the red blending with blue takes up most of the surface. A dark diagonal points in the direction of the sphere without touching it. In Abstraction 3 dating from 1 January 1972, Krenek makes do without a disk-like center. Above a green patch, a dark blossom radiating like a star becomes an energy center that sprays red embers to the right and blows black and gray ashes towards the upper left-hand side. There is also a blurred pair of small scissors that might serve as an instrument for cutting up this area. Also reminiscent of the gestural painting of Informel in the fifties, Abstraction 3 is to be considered the most interesting composition of the series from the point of view of painting.

Abstraction 3, watercolor, January 1972

In Abstraction 4 (29 July 1972), Krenek creates a balanced movement around some kind of landscape consisting of more tectonic elements: the impulse directed vertically upwards on the left and towards the right in the upper part of the painting is counterpoised by a hanging rod-shaped structure an the right that is directed towards the left. Again, a sphere is positioned within this parallelogram of forces; a red wedge either supports it or pushes it so that it may thunder down into the valley. These describable means of composition, the effect of which depends an their position in the painting, resemble principles like the ones systemized by Kandinsky in Point and Line to Plane (1926). In his later compositions, Krenek will add triangles, squares, grids and curving parallels. Although the viewer can always associate a landscape in the sense of an outword space, Krenek does not depict anything. He rather searches for a possible theory of pictorial composition. He might have pursued the issue if he had made up his mind to become a painter. As he did not, his attempts remained promising individual experiments. In Abstraction 7, which was the last, he escaped the schemes he had played with before. Two currents of color resembling temperature curves cross. The spaces beside and behind the bright rising red and sinking blue are filled with landscape elements. After this, Krenek had also lost his interest in painting landscapes.





Abstraction 7, watercolor, January 1974