In Tune > Arts > Seeing the Inner Person: The Art of Carl Köhler
by Maureen Buja | January 8th, 2017

standard Seeing the Inner Person: The Art of Carl Köhler

Carl Köhler: Mahler

Carl Köhler: Mahler

Swedish artist Carl Köhler (1919-2006) has left a body of art in the neo-modernist style that was virtually ignored at the time of his death. His son, Henry, has taken up his father’s legacy and over the past decade has succeeded in getting exhibitions of the work across the world. At the time of his death in 2006, Carl Köhler was unknown outside of his native Sweden and, according to Henry, had isolated himself even from the Swedish art world for over a decade.

Photograph of Mahler

Photograph of Mahler

One of his inspirations in his studio was classical music played very loudly. Henry estimates that his father did some 15 composer portraits. For us, these portraits are important because the composers’ images are not quite what we expect.

In his portrait of Mahler, for example, we have the classic turned head we’re familiar with from numerous photographs.

Carl Köhler: J.S. Bach

Carl Köhler: J.S. Bach

Yet, in Köhler’s image, the angle of the turn of the head is more extreme and the characteristic wrinkles on his forehead and around his mouth are missing, yet we can recognize that inner energy that all Mahler images seem to hold.

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major: IV. Sehr behaglich (Lucia Popp, soprano; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Klaus Tennstedt, cond.)
E. G. Haussmann: Bach, aged 61 (1748)

E. G. Haussmann: Bach, aged 61 (1748)

Köhler’s J.S. Bach image is even better for making us rethink what we believe the composer to look like. This isn’t the 60-year-old composer holding out a fugue that we know from the 1748 Haussmann painting, this is a young, smooth-faced composer, placed in the context of his Well-Tempered Clavier score, with his name from a cover of what looks like the Peters Edition in the bottom left corner. Everything about him in this portrait is simplified, even while he’s surrounded by some of the most complex music he created. The mixed media portrait takes us beyond the usual iconography of an aged composer and lets us reimagine him as a youth.

Carl Köhler: Stravinsky (early 1990s)

Carl Köhler: Stravinsky (early 1990s)

Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Fugue No. 1 in C Major, BWV 847 (Glenn Gould, piano)
The Stravinsky portrait takes a familiar aspect of the composer, his heavy glasses, and shows us the working composer with his more usual two pairs of glasses worn concurrently – one for distance and one for close work. The layers of paper pasted on top to create his hair, the planes of his face, even the reflections in his lenses, seem to catch that two-sidedness that Stravinsky always seems to embody, as in the innovative composer who used music from other sources (as in The Rite of Spring).

Stravinsky in 1966, photographed by David Hume Kennerly

Stravinsky in 1966, photographed by David Hume Kennerly

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: Part I (Adoration of the Earth): The Augurs of Spring / Dances of the Young Girls (London Symphony Orchestra; Robert Craft, cond.)
Along with other composers such as Mozart and Sibelius, Carl Köhler also did at least three portraits of an unusual musical icon: Michael Jackson. In the work entitled “A Head – Michael Jackson The Inspiration” we have to look very hard for the performer. We see his eye and perhaps his ear, and then, gradually, we see his jawline and he starts to emerge into recognizable form.

Carl Köhler: A Head – Michael Jackson the Inspiration

Carl Köhler: A Head – Michael Jackson the Inspiration

In the other two portraits, recognition is much easier but then we look at that sculpted nose, the thin lips, and the mask-like quality of the skin and we have a very different portrait. The face itself is seen only through a central opening – are we looking at his face through a window or are those the surgical bandages of a face-lift?

Carl Köhler: Michael Jackson

Carl Köhler: Michael Jackson

The second image brings forth the same questions: it’s the full face, but bisected as for an analysis of the face’s construction.

Michael Jackson: Smooth Criminal (2Cellos)

Michael Jackson Second Portrait

Michael Jackson Second Portrait

When we look at these composers through a modern artist’s eye, it gives us the ability to look both at the image and to examine our own thoughts about this composer. Carl Köhler has given us an introspective Mahler, a working Stravinsky, and a young Bach. He exposes the surface artificiality of the King of Pop Music. These are tremendous and important contributions to musical iconography and we are grateful to Henry Köhler for bringing them to the world’s attention.

Official Website

More in Arts:

Latest Articles:

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *