Eugen von Kahler (1882–1911)
Oil on canvas, 105 x 60 cm
Note on stretcher: “E. K. Angefang. Seblstportrait, München 1911”
Provenance: acquired by the Jewish Museum in Prague from a private collection in Prague in 1965; March/April 1931 – exhibited at the Prague venue of Kahler’s retrospective organized by Kunstverein für Böhmen (by that time probably still owned by the Kahlers), ownership between 1931-1965 as yet to be determined
On December 13 this year exactly one hundred years will have passed since the death of one of the most remarkable Czech painters of the period preceding World War I, Eugen von Kahler. Similar to his contemporaries Max Horb (1882-1907) and Bohumil Kubišta (1884–1918), an untimely death denied his work the opportunity to mature in such way as to leave it with a distinctive style, a more or less consistent oeuvre that might easily be divided into periods of the artist’s development and subsequently placed into the respective chapter(s) of art history. Taking a traditionally schematic approach to the interpretation of Czech modern art, it is difficult to get a handle on the fragments of Kahler’s work (oil paintings, watercolors, gouaches, pastels, and tiny sketches in pen and pencil), today dispersed largely amongst private collections. While the work does display a wide thematic range, one notices as well quite a high degree of formal instability, suggesting a painstaking search for such mode of artistic expression that would correspond to his rich inner life dominated by highly developed literary and visual fantasies and intellectual affinities.
Kahler’s work is indeed uneven (quite logical given his youth) and reflects a whole range of impulses he soaked up from the intimate setting of his family home (the chateau Svinaře just outside of Prague, which became his parents’, Otilie and Max, permanent residence in 1900), as well as from his stays in Berlin, Munich, Brussels, and Paris and travels to Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria. Despite his short career as an artist he nevertheless had arrived at a surprisingly consistent painterly expression, one that drew more from an inner imagery that was grounded in his exceptional visual memory. Kahler created a distinct quasi-literary repertoire of orientalizing motifs (he was influenced in this not only by his extensive reading but also by his trip to Egypt in 1908, taken on the advice of his doctor due to his worsening health; as he revealed in his handmade postcards sent to his family, he felt as if ancient, buried memories had been awakened activating a strong sense of belonging with the land and culture there). In regards to his formal approach, Kahler came up with his own unique method for applying layers of pigments, juxtaposing complementary colors, and alternating smooth, almost cloisonné-like surfaces with rough textures. Yet despite the uniqueness of his brushwork, Kahler’s work is not entirely insulated from influences coming from those artists he felt close to who were associated with Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, or some of the prominent French post-impressionist, such as Paul Cézanne. Kahler’s first retrospective exhibition was held at the very end of his life. It opened in October 1910 at the Heinrich Tannhauser Gallery in Munich and later that year it traveled at the Ludwig Schames Art Salon in Frankfurt am Main. After Kahler’s death, his family organized two more retrospective exhibitions of his work, custody of which was now their responsibility. The first of these posthumous exhibitions was held in 1913 at the Miethke Gallery in Vienna and the second again at Tannhauser’s gallery in Munich (this exhibition was later shown at five other progressive galleries in Germany, including the Paul Cassirer Gallery in Berlin). The greater part of Kahler’s work would remain his family’s property until Chateau Svinaře was confiscated by the Nazis and the Kahler brothers were forced to emigrate in 1939.
Kahler’s tragedy is not just that of a forgotten artist who, before even reaching the age of thirty, was struck down by pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease that left him utterly exhausted during the last years of his life even though he continued to paint with remarkable vitality and self-denial virtually right up to taking his final breath (ample evidence is the unfinished self-portrait exhibited here, which, judging by the note on the stretcher, he began to paint at some point during his last stay in Munich, likely between January and May 1911). Though he himself did not experience either of the two world wars or the racial persecution suffered by his family, most of whom decided in 1939 to emigrate (brothers Felix and Victor as well as his beloved cousin Erich, all with their respective families), his legacy as an artist met the same cruel fate at the hands of the Nazi regime as did that of many other Jewish artists, and maybe it was even more cruel because he was no longer around to personally look after his work. The majority of his paintings concentrated in the possession of his family, particularly at Chateau Svinaře, where according to one of the Kahler’s nieces his mother Otilie had installed an improvised gallery as a memorial to her beloved son, were most likely seized and the unique collection dispersed when the Nazis confiscated the property (this occurred already in 1939 when Otilie von Kahler, by that time already a widow for twenty years, was forced to move out practically overnight; she died soon thereafter).
Individual works from Eugen von Kahler’s oeuvre are owned by the descendants of his family in the USA. Several works were presented as gifts by Kahler to his friends and made their way in their families’ private collections (Hans Purmann, Martin Buber, Judith Köllhofer, Lotte Schwarz, Alfred Kubin, Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky). A total of five paintings were donated by his family before the Second World War to the Gallery of Modern Art in Prague (Moderní galerie / Moderne Galerie, whose collections later became part of the Prague National Gallery’s collection of art of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries). Prewar acquisitions of Kahler’s work that were in German public collections were mostly lost during the 1933–1945 period when they were deaccessioned in the course of the infamous campaign against “degenerate art” – “Aktion entartete Kunst” (this is the case for three paintings that were once part of the collection of Neue Pinakothek in Munich, one painting from the Museum of Art in Kassel, etc.). A similar fate – that is, removal – was probably met by other Kahler paintings that at one time had been in Vienna (at the Wiener moderne Galerie). The greater part of Kahler’s work found in private collections (particularly in the Czech Republic and Germany, and in regards to the latter primarily in the collection of The Morat Institute for Art and Art History (Morat-Institut für Kunst und Kunstwissenschaft), thanks in large part to the purchases made by Franz Armin Morat, the Institute’s founder, in the former Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s) has thus far not been subjected to a thorough provenance research that might very well determine the last known lawful owners of the individual artworks. Given the number of works and the circumstances surrounding their acquisition, it could be assumed that at least some have come from the confiscated “gallery” at Chateau Svinaře. After all, the provenance of both paintings presently in the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague – Portrait of a Young Man from 1908 (Merete Cobarg identified this painting as a portrait of a prominent Prague photographer Otto Schlosser) and the unfinished self-portrait from 1911, acquired by the JMP from a private collector in Prague in 1965 – has thus far not been firmly established, though it is quite certain that these are works confiscated from their last lawful owners during the 1939–1945 period. Who these owners might have been has still not been determined with anything close to certainty, yet like all works of uncertain provenance in the JMP’s collections, these cases remain open to investigation until the identities of the original owners have been reliably established.
Cobarg, Merete: Eugen von Kahler (1882-1911): Leben und Werk, 1989, Vol. II, p. 379, Ö 89 (doctoral thesis, Karlsruhe University, Karlsruhe, Germany).
Rousová, Hana: „Český příběh – malíř Eugen von Kahler a jeho rodina“, in: Art & Antiques, February 2005, pp. 106-115.
Cobarg, Merete; Vykoukal, Jiří: Et in arcadia ego: Eugen von Kahler (1882-1911), Cheb: GVU Cheb, 2006 (exhibition catalogue published on the occasion of the eponymous retrospective of Eugen von Kahler’s work organized by the Gallery of Fine Arts in Cheb [July 13 – September 17, 2006] as part of the Festival at the Heart of Europe [Uprostřed Evropy / Mitte Europa]).