Alfred Kornberger and his artistic environment

Kornberger's work spans from the mid-1950s to the late 1990s. This period of the Modernism after 1945, was shaped in its international context by the dominance of informal and abstract painting, by Pop Art and Conceptual art up to conceptually oriented work with New media art such as Photography and Video art. Although Kornberger experimented with some of these directions, such as is the case with his kinetic material pictures, his work was largely focused on the confrontation with the representational depiction on the traditional altarpiece. Especially in the years after 1945, the adherence to figurative painting was not self-evident. 

The main directions in Austria were shaped by the great currents of Informalism and Surrealism. The latter found its specific expression in Vienna through Fantastic Realism. In addition, Abstraction and Surrealism were afflicted with political connotations, they »bore witness to the identification with the politically welcome« Western art. Realistic painting, in contrast, was tainted with the odium of Socialist Realism, which was unsuccessfully propagated by the occupying Soviet forces. Hence, it was difficult for artists such Georg Eisler and Alfred Hrdlicka, to find recognition in the official art galleries in the 1950s. »The Austrian beginnings of a realist and critical art were easily demonized as ›Socialist realism‹ and artists who did not join with the abstract, were sidelined.«

The discussion became more acute, as a not negligible opposition formed against abstraction by the traditionalists. The latter insisted on continuity with the art of 1945. To these belonged representatives of the generation that had created an important life work before 1945 is an important life's work, such as Graz based Rudolf Szyszkowitz, who fought a battle against the younger artists around steririscher herbst. There were just as well the representatives of the younger generation, who completed their studies only after 1945, but who explicitly joined younger generations, such as the, Styrian-born, Vienna resident Karl Stark, who was known expressly supported the continuation of the Austrian Expressionist painting.50 The artist who worked with figurative art stood diametrically opposed to the those working with abstraction, both sides fought a veritable culture war. Symptomatic in this context are the »Kulturbriefe (culture letters)« that Karl Stark regularly sent to the public in which he defended the ethical value of traditional painting.

Ideas and the search for a personal style

Ideas of the international modernism played an important role in these early yearsUndoubtedly a large momentum was triggered by the first exhibitions of the west European avantgarde that were brought back to Vienna for the first time after the war years. Here the activities of the French cultural institutes were groundbreaking, who if not out of political motives then for the victorious power of the French culture in the then occupied country. In the Viennese Museum of Applied Arts, the French Ministry of Culture organized the exhibition »Classiques de la Peinture Francaise modernes« in 1945. In this exhibition the development of the French painting from Impressionists through Paul Cézanne up to Cubism and subsequently to late Picasso and Léger could be viewed. But Surrealism was also represented with the early works of de Chirico and Max Ernst or Salvador Dali.


The search for a personal style, orientation towards the divergent, and the then highly current simulations by the International Modernism were symptomatic of the young generation after 1945. Kornberger's style pluralism, denounced by his newspaper critics as eclecticism, was an expression of such an orientation towards the French modernism. If this erratic search for the contemporary styles was characteristic of Kornberger especially for his early work, with other artistic personalities it spanned their whole life's work. Thus Romana Schuler in the work of Karl Anton Fleck speaks of an »immense stylistic pluralism«, which reveals an »apparent disorientation and instability«. Fleck first turned to Informal and Tachism in the early years, before turning to abstraction with geometric shapes. Starting in 1960 there emerged a turn to figurative representation.

Paris, Pack, Picasso and Matisse

Few people from Kornberger's generation had the opportunity to learn about contemporary French art in Paris. One of these Paris-fellows was Claus Pack (1921-1997) was. Pack had studied at the Viennese Academy under Herbert Boeckl had moved to Vorarlberg in 1946, where he lived as painter and literature- and art critic. In 1949 he was able to hold an exhibition at the Salon de Mai in Paris. By participating in the Internationale Hochschulwochen (International High School Weeks) in St. Christoph at Arlberg he came into contact with Maurice Besset, head of the French Cultural Institute in Innsbruck and initiator of the Hochschulwochen. In 1950 Besset helped Pack with a six-month scholarship for painting in Paris in 1950.

Claus Pack was deeply influenced by the formal language of Pablo Picasso and specially adopted the Cubist style of the great master. Even after his return from Paris the examination of Cubism remained the dominant theme of his painting style. Like Kornberger, Claus Pack was intrigued by Picasso up to his later works. According to Pack the art of Picasso creates a synthesis of space-time representations. »The object, still life or the figure appears beyond time and permanence.«53 Characterized in the eyes of Claus Pack is also Picasso's ability to shape in various forms. A metamorphosis of symbolic forms is developed. »A bicycle seat and bicycle handlebar turn into a bull's head, and the bull's head turns into a guitar.« Kornberger uses these same motifs when in his cycle »Zeus harassed a woman« he lets Zeus approach a woman in the form of a bicycle and mutates the bicycle seat into an erotic object.

Claus Pack had this in common with Alfred Korngerger that for both of them the Eros became the main theme of their late work. Even in this respect Pack and Kornberger found their legitimacy in the work of Pablo Picasso. Picasso's late work was entirely occupied by the male fascination for female eroticism. According to Werner Spies no other artist wanted to demolish taboos in such an exhibitionistic manner as Picasso did. Only, according to Werner Spies, Egon Schiele's Obsessions push aside the Spaniard's work in this respect.

In addition, for Pack and Kornberger Picasso's late work was a justification of representational painting. The aesthetic discussion of the 1960s, which dealt almost exclusively with analytical theories and conceptual art rejected, a sensual, figurative painting, as Picasso practiced his later works. A painting that still clung to the traditional means of spontaneous pictorial gesture and a sensuous color in the objective illusion did not reflect the mainstream of the time. It was the more difficult for the painter Alfred Kornberger to hold onto representational painting pallet and produce a markedly sensual expression.

Especially in the drawing style, Alfred Kornberger oriented himself often towards Picasso's sweeping, not ending-endless line or shorthanded, almost emblemic drawing style of the late Henri Matisse. Just as the two French masters Kornberger also tends to widen the biomorphic body. »The curvilinearity of the outline is continued in the echo chamber of the drawing.«56 The harmonious calmness of female representation, their linier aesthetic and downright decorative gracefulness in the hands of Picasso and Matisse's are also continued in the work of Alfred Kornberger. They point to the classicistic character, which despite in all the innovations of the French avant-garde always continues to remain virulent.

Pop-Art, Concept-Art and Machines

Only toward the end of the 1960s, were the borders between figurative and abstract narrowed. Through Pop Art and the new media objectivity became once more a subject for the avant-garde, though in a new, altered form. Here, the painting was pushed more and more into the background. Concept art was the dominant trend. Even Kornberger's material images, such as »composition with dolls«, which he created in 1966, can be regarded as an original contribution to the Fluxus movement, and reminds one of the work of Daniel Spoerri or the Austrian André Verlon. In its conception as a »do-it-yourself-sculpture«, his »Quadri mobile« which also originated in 1966 recall, remind one of the Styrofoam cube, which Roland Goeschl had made available to the visitors of his exhibitions in much larger dimensions for their own use. 

Finally, in his work »Composition with pre-established harmony« in 1968, Kornberger created a material image in which pieces of wood and other materials were bound to each other in a mobile form and could be set in motion by motor drive. The work ranks among the kinetic works that were produced in Austria by Curt Stenvert for example. Furthermore, in his cycle with painted machine images, on which he worked between 1966 and 1968, Kornberger also dealt with the techno effects of machine parts and geometric abstract shapes.

Besides Alfred Kornberger, Karl Anton Fleck also worked with the subject of machines in those years. More than Kornberger, Fleck moved the dialectic between man and machine to the center of his work. Most revealing in this context is the theoretical underpinning which Romana Schuler studied in her essay on Karl Anton Fleck and which in some ways also applicable in the case of Kornberger. Groundbreaking for the new awareness of the fact that that modern life is largely determined by new information media was the publication, in 1964, of the book »The magic channels. Understanding Media« by the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan. In this book McLuhan developed a theory of social change through the new information media, where the theoretician put forward the theses that the media function as a sort of prosthesis, which serve man for the understanding of the new world. A central theme presented by McLuhan in this context, is the close relationship between man and machine.

Similarly, the 1965 published work »Kultur und Gesellschaft (Culture and society)« by Herbert Marcuse exercised great social resonance. In this work also, the relationship between man and machine played a central role, where the philosopher considered the technique from a very critical point of view. Marcuse rejects an emerging, automated, technical future of the world. The provocative thesis of the Canadian communications scientist Marshall McLuhan were subsequently also received intensive reception by the German media theorists and cultural scientists, above all, as in the 1969 the German edition of »The magic channels« was published. Not surprisingly was above all the media artist Peter Weibel, who was the first in Austria to deal with McLuhan's offensively and critically reflected on it. Furthermore, Oswald Wiener, and Walter Pichler also dealt with this topic. Walter Pichler understood man as caught up in the constraints of architecture and machine. Man turns into part of an exercise apparatus, whose systems exert a threatening power.

Karl Anton Fleck, in turn, considered the human body as a machine that can be easily dismantled or reshaped. What results is mix hybrid of deformations of the human body. »The human body or the individual body parts like head, hands, feet are united as biological fragments with machines.« Indefinable, bizarre and grotesque creatures are transformed into ›anthropological machine‹. The anthropological character of machines or vice versa, the machine-like distortion of the human body plays a central role in the work of Alfred Kornberger. Unlike his colleague Karl Anton Fleck, Kornberger largely abstains from alienation effects that go beyond the formal integrity of the image. In the so-called »Zeus« cycle which Kornberger had worked on since 1977, the bike is transformed into a machine-like being. The technoid impression which is obtained by multiplying the wheel and the rod increases the anthropomorphic character of the car and at the same time turns into a threatening apparatus confronting the soft plumpness of the female nudes.

Ringel, Eisler, Hrdlicka, Martinz, Schwaiger

The close relationship between man and machine was not the only subject that the artist dealt with intensively in those years. In the late 1960s two exhibitions in short intervals took place in Vienna, each of which almost exclusively favored representational forms of expression. This surprising and unique positioning seemed symptomatic of a change in thinking, initiated in these years.

Firstly, it concerned the exhibition »Wirklichkeiten (Realities)« that took place in 1969 in the Vienna Secession and to which the six young artists were invited by the critic and journalist Otto Breicha. The works indeed display artistic positions, but were overall in the vicinity of a ironic-critical stance towards the contemporary Pop Art. Two of the protagonists of this exhibition, Peter Pogratz and Franz Ringel, showed closeness to nature, to the Art Brut and the COBRA group. Works from this environment, distort the representation of humans into the grotesque, the female nudes appear as rough, large-breasted female forms with distorted faces. The Dutchman Willem de Kooning, one of the representatives of the COBRA group, shows depictions of crowded images of women that he created with a frenzied brush strokes on the canvas. Kornberger also moves to the vicinity of these artists in many of his picturesque, finely crafted nudes and is familiar with such dramatic and ecstatic scenes that correspond to a creative will which is oriented towards immediacy.

In 1969 the Zentralsparkasse (Central Savings Bank) of the City of Vienna, under its then cultural advisor Dieter Schrage, organized an exhibition under the title of »Figur (Figure)«. The Stuttgart-based art critic Karl Diemer gathered the five Viennese artists Georg Eisler, Alfred Hrdlicka, Fritz Martinz, Rudolf Schoenwald and Rudolf Schwaiger, all of whom aligned themselves explicitly with the unusual realism of the time . In a broader sense Karl Stark would also count in this group.

Especially in the works of artist friends George Eisler and Alfred Hrdlicka the forms of realism concealed a socio-critical component. Eisler, who was forced to flee Vienna for England where he became acquainted with Oskar Kokoschka, painted mostly pictures on the subject »Menschen in der Großstadt (People in the city)«. The phenomenon of the anonymous human mass was repeatedly present in his multi-figured depictions and topographical views of the cities. Georg Eisler used a naturalistic style with the hastily acting, gestural brushwork to produce a special light mood and atmosphere. There is a great similarity between Eisler's atmospheric studio views and the studio scenes of Kornberger. Just as George Eisler, who prefers to leave his protagonists in anonymity, Kornberger also refused to describe his female figures further in detail, but often elucidated them only dimly.

The figures of Alfred Hrdlicka always unite great readiness for violence. Hrdlicka has created a proletarian world view in which man, in his decrepit creatureliness, is subjected to its own aesthetic, which is completely opposed to the conventional taste. Aging, overweight body types populate most of his drawings. But always they are protagonists of most cruel histories and genre paintings with social critical component. This violence with its raw, brutal form is featured subliminally many works of Kornberger. Yet Kornberger's at times equally coarse nude figures always move in the context of an aesthetic discourse of the studio scene and not, like Hrdlicka, as part of a theatrical narrative.

Adolf Frohner and Oswald Oberhuber

The subject of the human confronted with violence is also pursued by Austrian artist Adolf Frohner. Like Alfred Kornberger, only about one year younger Adolf Frohner concentrated especially on the representations of the female nude. Frohner comes from the school of Actionism, and is rightly considered one its cofounders. With the material images from the Actionist period Adolf Frohner, together with the material sculptures by Oswald Oberhuber, is one of the first to break out of the boundaries of the panel painting. Subsequently, he returned to the traditional, realistic painting and also moved into the vicinity of the group »Figur (Figure)«

Frohner's nudes do not however circle around a persistent variation of the female aesthetic, as is the case with Kornberger, but on the contrary merely their vulnerability. Frohner character image leads to the distortion of man, his manner of representation is often raw and brutal. Not infrequently, the isolation of individual parts of the body leads to a drastic and often shocking brutality of the message. According to Lóránd Hegyi, in light of this expressive body language, Frohner's image of man is an expression of »existential realism« that interprets »the human body as a symbol, as a living, suffering, ever dramatically changing metaphor and allows the emotional to be experienced.«

Hegyi sets Frohner expressive and realistic expression in a direct line that begins with the slaughter house images of Rembrandt and stretches across Chaim Soutine and Lovis Corinth to James Ensor and Francis Bacon. Even for Alfred Kornberger the violated nude plays a central role. His sublimed nude scenes in many ways reflect the carnal atmosphere of slaughterhouse images. In some cases, Kornberger devoted himself exclusively to the topic of cattle slaughter.

In contrast to Frohner, for Kornberger it is not about the bleeding, suffering flesh in the female nude. Kornberger rises in his nudes claim to the contrary, the aesthetic integrity. Kornberger never looks artless or brutal, No matter how great formal alienation, Kornberger would give a minimum of picturesque aesthetics, which also indirectly reflects the attractiveness of the female body.

Artistic parallels between Adolf Frohner and Alfred Kornberger especially can be found in their graphic representations. Kornbergers cycle »Moulin Rouge« from the 1980s consists of a series of small-sized sheets, which, like film series squad scene to scene together. Like Adolf Frohner, also Kornberger in these series represents the female body in eye-catching twists and contortions. About Adolf Frohner drawings Wieland Schmied noted that these developments is a tendency to portray the human figure as a captive creature, as raped, disfigured victims of violence. Above all, it was the act of drawing, the lines themselves, which submit the figures of a cruel manipulation. »The line was playing a cruel game with the characters, they one strangled, hung on them, cut them into pieces.«

Furthermore, Wieland Schmied refers in this context to the anti-voyeuristic character of Frohner nudes. Frohner figures obey a convulsive beauty concept. »They combine an extreme degree of deformation with an intense will to live«. Unlike Frohner, in the nude paintings of Kornberger the voyeuristic lust of the painter remains apparent. Kornberger's female characters are never a symbol of the creaturely suffering, but always retain their integrity and sensual appeal.

Kornberger‘s artistic approach which accentuated less the narrative aspect than the autonomous pictorial expression, appears akin to the English painter Francis Bacon. Bacon shows the man as tormented creature, as an open wound. He prefers almost exclusively male models. The English painter's often irritating, mutilated nudes are presented in a very picturesque and dignified manner, which has a large gesture with dynamic plasticity and abundance of light. Especially in these emphatically pictorial, gestural depictions of the body we find parallels to the nudes of Kornberger. Bacon's expressive, figurative style of painting has its equivalent in Kornberger's liquid technique. The ocher-colored pink and flesh tones, the blank background, which appears regularly in the images of the Englishman, is found very often reflected in the images Kornberger's.

Francis Bacon, Alfred Klinkan and the new „Wildes“


Francis Bacon's »melancholic realism« is also close to his friends from the London School of Figurative Painting. From this group, next to Ronald B. Kitaj, Leon Kossoff, and Frank Auerbach in particular Lucian Freud stands out. They are all dedicated to the human representation, especially the nudes representation, for which the Slade School in London, where all the representative artists had studied, was famous. Wieland Schmied noted that Eisler »had transplanted to Vienna partly through the impetus of this group.« While the British artists never appeared immediately in Vienna, their style soon won international reputation. In view of the over dominance of non-representational trends of the international avant-garde, this group provided exactly for this figurative working artists a not to be underestimated contribution in the legitimating of their work.

In the late 1970s a new generation of artists emerged in Austria, which concentrated itself again strongly on Pop Art, Conceptual Art and Minimal Art gestural painting manner. Typical for these consistently young artists was an awareness of role models in art history, albeit in connection with a very free and impartial handling of tradition and traditional painting. The art historian and director of the Neue Galerie at the Landesmuseum Joanneum in Graz, Wilfried Skreiner was a crucial mentor to this new generation, and not coincidentally Graz was one of the nuclei for this new style orientation. Outstanding are the Graz artists Hubert Schmalix and Siegfried Anzinger, well as Alfred Klinkan, Alois Mosbacher, Hubert Scheibl, Herbert Brandl, and in a wider sense, Jürgen Messensee. This group, which was particularly strong in the 1980s, found is parallels in Germany in the direction of neo-expressionism and in Italy in the »transavanguardia« their parallels.

The work of the late painter Alfred Klinkan shows here a great formal similarity with the work of Alfred Kornberger. Klinkan work is marked by a »with art historical references and quotations laboring reflective narrativity«. In particular, his images suggest themes from the Baroque era. The figures show an exaggerated gesture, through which united with a expressive color representation often produce a grotesque situation.

This deliberate thematic divergence and bizarre deformity are also present in numerous paintings by Alfred Kornberger. Exactly like the formal exaggeration, the acquisition of expressive gestures and colorfulness also count as part of the artistic repertoire of Kornberger. Especially with the female nudes, the discrepancy between aesthetic harmony and artistic alienation is propelled far, which for the viewer is not scarcely perceived as disconcerting.

The pictorial boldness and power of expression that was modified and worked out constantly in the female nude, binds Kornberger also with representatives of German neo-expressionism. This »eruptive emerging expressionist art« of the 1980s joined the tradition of the classical modernism, but presented itself as saucier and bolder than the latter in the unorthodox choice of motifs and their aggressive, sometimes provocative colorfulness. Hence the work of Georg Baselitz relate in many facets to the images of Kornberger. Especially the powerful, sweeping contour line and the dynamic, gestural application of paint reminiscent of the German artist remind one of Kornberger's scenic works. The painter Helmut Middendorf concentrated in his works on the nude female from the point of view of the male, a theme that was also picked up by Alfred Kornberger permanently modified.

The nude as innovation

Austrian art of 20th century knows a number of prominent artists who harbored a particular fondness for the female nude model. Here Gustav Klimt especially stands out, who worshiped a female aesthetic which crucially shaped the female type of the fin de siècle. With rapid pencil outlines Klimt had captured his nude models on thousands of sheets. Like Kornberger, Klimt often created in rapid succession many versions of the same model from different angles. Klimt always sticks to the aesthetics of the female beauty, his eyes barely penetrates the psychological levels of its models.

In contrast however the young Egon Schiele valued the work with models. Not infrequently, individual features of his models were used as an opportunity to exaggerate facial expressions and gestures in an expressive form. The formal traits of Schiele's nudes in pencil, gouache or watercolor go far beyond that of Klimt. He makes an essential statement on the mental state of the represented persons by the manner he uses nude models in the paintings, with the way he defines their relationship with the empty space and at times cuts-up and fragments. Expressive gestures and idiosyncratic body contortions contribute further to making the viewer respond often with surprise and puzzlement in the face of such an idiosyncratic view of the artist. Even Alfred Kornberger always surprises the viewer with the most unusual focusing on certain body parts or expressive potential of his models.

Both in the case of Klimt and Schiele, one can speak of an obsession of the artist with the female nude. Austrian art is also familiar with the case of an artist with obsession for the male nude. There are known three thousand drawings by Anton Kolig, one of Schiele's contemporaries, which he has devoted to the male nude. Characteristic for Kolig is the decades' long constant remaining motif choice. Kolig always shows young attractive men, who lie calmly in a passive position on a bed or sofa and are engaged in absolutely no activities. Compared with the nudes of Klimt, Schiele and also Kornberger, Kolig surprises with the precision of his drawing. Thus we find in his sheets no sensual aesthetic or expressive exaggeration, but a strict naturalism, which holds the male body in a controlled, almost sterile linearity.

Nude representations belong to the fixed repertoire of many artists of the early modernism in Austria. So that Herbert Boeckl devoted the main part of his painting and drawing works also to the female nude. Boeckl's work, which extends from the inter-war period until the early 1960s, shows the nude in a wide stylistic range, which is initially located in a gestural and expressive, much later, in a figurative painting removed from any academic aesthetics. Other painters in turn stress, even in the sophisticated century, the ideal of feminine beauty taught by the academics, such as the Upper Austrian painter Anton Lutz, who still pays homage to a great extent by age in the 1980s to the nude in an impressionistic naturalism.

Kornberger's contribution to the Austrian painting of the twentieth century lies partly in the exclusivity which he grants the female nude subject in his oeuvre. 

There is hardly a comparable case, where an artist withdrew to such an extent into his studio, barely traveled, paid little attention to the galleries and exhibitions, the only spend as much of his free time as possible working with nude models. Kornberger preferred to fulfill his desire for companionship by inviting as many nude models to his studio as possible. Kornberger worshiped in his work a feminine ideal that was not satisfied by the trivial aesthetic of a superficial eroticism. His pictures provide a rich material for a variety of discourse between stylistic variation and pure painting.

On the other hand, Kornberger's works reflect the stylistic developments of almost five decades from 1956 to 1996 in rapid succession. The stylistic keyboard on which Kornberger plays masterfully, spans from the reception of Picasso to the smooth aesthetics of Pop Art, and up to the gestural, the colorfully intensive Neo-figurativism of 1980s. In addition, Alfred Kornberger is one of the greatest colorists in the painting of the late twentieth century. Even before the form the most important factor for Kornberger's expression in his paintings is color. In a stunning pictorial drive and gesture Alfred Kornberger creates in each image anew the unity of formal penetration and color design. Rarely has an artist worshipped pure painting so radically and exclusively as Alfred Kornberger.

Franz Smola „The nude as Innovation“ (Brandstätter Publishing, Vienna 2007)