An Incomplete Portrait of Oskar Kokoschka

Oskar Kokoschka, “Giant Tortoises (Alligator snapping turtles)” (1927), oil on canvas; The Hague, the Netherlands

BILBAO, Spain — At night, its floodlit, rackety carapace looks almost lumberingly prehistoric — especially so when that shimmery, silvery flank is exposed to the hard stare of the giant, malevolent Louise Bourgeois spider, which sits in its wake on the north side, looking poised to strike …

The difficulty with showing art at the Guggenheim Bilbao is that the art is always in competition with the building itself, and in most cases, the building wins. There is an additional problem: too little time and thought were given, at that planning stage, to the galleries that would need to be carved out of its interior spaces.

How could a fiddly, mescaline-inspired swarm of black marks by, say, Henri Michaux ever hack it? It didn’t. That was back in 2018.

So our sense of awe ends when we leave the atrium (and the giddying curved walkways that hang off it) and enter the four so-called “classical galleries,” which are currently displaying a sizable retrospective — about 120 works in all, most of them paintings — by a Viennese rebel with the pleasingly syncopative name of Oskar Kokoschka.

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