Henry Koerner's Magical Realist work "The River"
By Beth Hamilton
We are grateful to Dr. Joseph Koerner for providing insight and scholarship regarding this work.
Austrian-born Henry Koerner was a master of Magic Realism, a style that proliferated in the United States during the 1940s among a small and vibrant group of American artists. Born in 1915 to Jewish parents, Koerner was raised in Leopoldstadt, a district within Vienna. He absorbed the city’s rich cultural environment of fine art and music during the interwar years. As a budding young artist, Koerner studied and admired the frescoes of Giotto and Old Master painters Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch. Koerner was also attracted to the more lurid and tawdry side of Vienna found in the Prater, an amusement park located near his childhood home. Here, he was intrigued by the sense of fantasy and performance and cited this pleasure ground as a great source of visual inspiration during his career.
Koerner was educated at Vienna’s famed Training and Research Institute of Graphic Art and worked briefly as a graphic artist before the German annexation of Austria in 1938. He then fled to Milan and later Venice, and finally settled in Brooklyn with the help of a great-uncle. In New York, Koerner found employment as a commercial artist, designing posters and book jackets for detective and mystery novels. In 1942, his poster, “Someone Talked,” earned an award from the Museum of Modern Art National War Poster competition. That same year, he joined the Office of War Information where he met artists Ben Shahn, David Martin, and Bernard Perlin. Shortly after this experience and through the influence of his peers, Koerner turned from graphic design to painting.
In 1943 Koerner joined the army and was sent to London. After the Armistice, he was tasked to sketch the Nuremberg trials and spent time in Berlin documenting the destruction of the war. Returning to Austria, he discovered that nearly his entire family was killed during the war. The physical and emotional destruction that he observed in Europe, and in particular Berlin and Nuremberg, fueled the ideas behind his first series of surreal paintings from 1946-47 that established his reputation: My Parents (1946), The Skin of our Teeth (1946), and Vanity Fair (1946). These early expressionist Berlin works are characterized by surreal distortions and clear symbolic references to the war and his family. Koerner linked the series together with an illustrated novella titled, “The Unfinished Sentence,” which chronicled an exile through war-torn Europe. The paintings earned public and critical acclaim when he exhibited them at his first major solo exhibition at the Haus am Waldsee in Berlin in 1947. It was the city’s first major art exhibition and the first to show the work of an American artist after the war.
When Koerner returned to the United States in 1948, he was considered one of the leading postwar American artists of his time. That year, he exhibited the Berlin works again in his first solo American show at the Midtown Galleries, which represented him until the mid-1960s. In New York, Koerner went on to create a new group of paintings in the manner of Magic Realism, a style that is defined by a sharp delineation of forms, minute rendering of detail, flattened perspective, an absence of shadows, and a precise manner of execution. The stylistic term was first defined after a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943, however its roots can be traced to the German Neue Sachlichkeit movement of the 1920s and the surrealism of Dali and Magritte. Koerner encountered the works of fellow American Magic Realist painters George Tooker, Jared French, Paul Cadmus, Phillip Evergood, and Charles Rain through the MoMA exhibition and at the Midtown Galleries. Through works such as The Pigeons (1948-49) and The Showboat (1948) (fig. 1), Koerner juxtaposed realism with unreality in a unique stylistic manner. Koerner’s Magic Realist works were often painted in urban settings or with the carnival backdrop of Coney Island.
By 1949, Koerner experimented with another dramatic stylistic shift with the emulation of Giotto, the master of the early Italian Renaissance. According to Dr. Joseph Koerner, son of the artist and the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University, the work from this period constitutes the artist’s “second series” of paintings, the first being the group of works painted in Berlin in 1946-47. Dr. Koerner elaborates on this group of paintings:
“For this second series, then, my father oriented his paintings towards the individual paintings in Giotto’s image-cycle. The stories were not biblical ones, in my father’s case, but suggestive narrative situations as if observed in everyday life, with mysteries akin to the sacred ones, but without a Scripture to guide their interpretation. Like the earlier series, these paintings were meant to belong to a larger story, like episodes. Unlike the earlier series, however, my father never—wrote anything like the “Unfinished Sentence,” linking the images together in a first-person plot about travel and return… But the plot of the second series he left open. The images of these stories took their cue from Giotto also in formal ways, being built up architecturally as structurally solid, almost box-like stage setting, with figures generally shown in full length and objects and figures all at a generally consistent distance from the viewer, throughout the series. Most of the series are oblong in format, like Giotto’s, though some were vertical but of the same approximate size. The paintings were painted in a deliberately “Renaissance” style, with brushstrokes hidden, the flesh tones grayish brown, like the flesh in early Italian frescoes; details were rendered in painstaking detail.”
The River belongs to this important series of works painted by Koerner between 1948-1950. Depicting what appears to be an everyday scene, several unrelated figure groups move across the river, passing beneath a footbridge overhead. A coxswain and coach shout orders into megaphones to a burly rowing team, a water bicyclist gazes down at an oblivious young couple in a rowboat, and at lower left a small dog circles a pair of ducklings in the water. Dr. Koerner states, “The painting’s interest is in the everyday, but an everyday that harbors mysteries, some comical, some deeper.” The unusual perspective and distortions of scale convey this sense of mystery and intrigue. This is especially evident in the large scale of the bicyclist at the center of the composition, juxtaposed with the diminutive scale of the coxswain.
Dr. Koerner continues, “My father’s principle device—according to his own account—was juxtaposition: the unexpected, ominous, enigmatic, placement of figures together in a single scene. Here juxtaposition comes naturally as the different figure groups drift past each other, with their boats constituting separate little worlds joined only by the titular ‘river.’ Crucially, though the painting invites viewers to find meanings in the juxtapositions, my father was at pains to show that what he captures is also taken from life: he documents quite deliberately how the coxswain’s megaphone attaches to his mouth, and how he steers the boat. Moreso than in his early works, this is ‘found’ Surrealism—ordinary life rendered strange only through the intensity of its portrayal.”
Unlike the Berlin series, Koerner’s second series explores the American scene. The River, The Pond, and The Overpass (fig. 2) depict dense foliage of the countryside, while The Arcades (fig. 3) and The Sea (fig. 4) showcase Koerner’s fascination with Coney Island. Dr. Koerner comments, “Most of the paintings feature scenes in New York, especially Coney Island; but several depict rural scenes, like the one in The River. These pastoral pictures recorded a trip my father made by Greyhound bus through the United States. Although he crossed the whole country, it was the American South that attracted him the most, especially the landscape of Tennessee… It’s possible that The River represents the environs of some southern town.” Although likely based on a scene observed in Tennessee, Koerner often inserted personal memories of the Old World into his paintings; The River may reference the public beaches of the Gänsehäufel and Alte Donau, an island with waterways frequented by Viennese on hot summer days.
The River was first exhibited in 1950 at the Midtown Galleries along with others from this important series. Works from this period are extremely rare, as Koerner shifted his style again in the early 1950s, abandoning Surrealism and Magic Realism for the Impressionistic style of Cézanne.
Cover image: Henry Koerner (American, 1915-1991), The River, 1949, oil on masonite, 30 x 36 inches.