On a clear spring afternoon, light floods through windowpanes washing the surfaces throughout Kettle’s Yard with a warm glow. Through the cottage and up to the top of the staircase, we come to Helen Ede’s sitting room, bedroom, and bathroom. Mrs. Ede was a private woman; it was not very often that she engaged with visitors, therefore her bedroom and bathroom were the only spaces of the house that remained closed to guests during the years of the Ede’s residence. The intimate, contemplative atmosphere of Helen’s bedroom is now disrupted by the intrusion of a house guest, Henriette von Motesiczky, invited posthumously to spend some time in the private quarters of the lady of the house.
A jarring depiction of the painter’s aged mother, Marie-Louise von Motesiczky’s Mother in Bed captures the essence of the deathbed: fragility, vulnerability, and regression to a near child-like semblance. That warm spring sunlight stifled by the subject’s opaque, lifeless eyes, and the harmonious energy of Helen’s bedroom altered by Henriette’s ominous presence, hanging leaden above the bed.
To come within inches of this painting is to come within inches of eternal rest. Focusing attention on the familiar face of her mother, knowing this will likely be her final sitting, the artist tells the merciless truth of death. Motesiczky colors the canvas in drab, muted tones that evoke quietus, portraying her mother’s likeness with great detachment. But what constitutes likeness? Are the dying more or less like themselves in their final hours? The essence of a person reduced to a mere image, is it not inhumane? Can an image invoke the former self of the deceased? The spirit of Henriette von Motesiczky is very much present, despite the somber nature of the work. Her strength, her vibrancy, and her ardor are all concealed in the shadowy undertones of this final portrait.
In paintings, as in life, pigments discolour, images fade, and the presence of the woman in the portrait who has retreated into herself in her final hours reminds us that in our inevitable absence, we will become part of the texture of the world. Death is an illumination, full of light and beauty, and in Helen’s bedroom, we are not in a room with death; we are in a room with love, amidst the memory of one of the most powerful human relationships: that of mother and daughter.
In conversation with David Scrase:
ER: Tell me about this painting.
DS: This is a portrait by Austrian painter Marie-Louise von Motesiczky entitled Mother in Bed, painted between 1977 and 1978. It is a depiction of the artist’s mother on her deathbed during the last year of her life. This is the final painting she did of her mother while they shared a home in Hampstead, up in North London. Marie-Louise and her mother had a curious relationship, with lots of highs and lows, as many familial relations do. Nobody has described this series of paintings more accurately than art historian Ernst Gombrich, who wrote an essay for a retrospective honouring von Motesiczky at the Goethe Institut London in 1985:
“What she owes to her admired teacher [Max Beckmann], therefore, is not so much a style, let alone a manner, as a moral outlook, an approach to the vocation of art. Nowhere is this approach more evident than in that moving series of portraits she made of her mother throughout the many years she shared her house and her life. Other artists have immortalized their mothers, one thinks of Whistler and of Rembrandt, but only Durer, perhaps, in the searching charcoal drawing in Berlin has achieved a similar kind of detachment as we find in these paintings recording the relentless advance of old age. At first glance their objectivity may appear to be merciless, and yet they are informed by a deep and tender love. This Viennese matriarch who reached the age of ninety-six, having been widowed before she was thirty, and having experienced the death of her son at the hands of the Nazis, and almost fifty years of exile, never lost her zest for life. The artless poems she liked to write and the unpretentious watercolours she painted testify to that dauntless spirit which her daughter conveyed in these monumental images. All Miss Motesiczky’s portraits are marked by that sensitive empathy which enables her to convey the presence of the sitter without resorting to caricature or expressionist distortion.” [I]
As you can see, the skill with which Motesiczky captured the fragility and vulnerability of her ageing mother was a masterful achievement. She was an idiosyncratic artist with a lot of special gifts, and this painting is a prime illustration of all her talents.
ER: Is this typical of her work? What kind of historical information might help us better understand Motesiczky and her paintings?
DS: While she is not a very widely known artist, Marie-Louise is most recognized for her work in portraiture. During the course of her career, she painted several portraits and self-portraits; her favorite sitter was her mother. Marie-Louise’s creative talents were influenced and developed by the privileged position of her upbringing. Born in Vienna in 1906 to a wealthy and distinguished family, many of who were members of the aristocracy, Marie-Louise benefitted from inherent opportunity and social advantages. Many members of her family were leading figures in the social and cultural life of Vienna, and a number of females in her family were talented artists. In fact, Marie-Louise was the first woman in her family to pursue a professional career as an artist. She left school at age thirteen, and enrolled in art classes starting in Vienna, Holland, Paris, and Frankfurt, where she met Max Beckmann who became a great influence on the development of her painting. Her handling of form and use of colour stemmed primarily from Beckmann. While she was impressed by and admired many other artists, she never copied.
Her family was forced to leave Vienna in 1938 to escape the Nazis, and ended up settling in England in 1939. As mentioned before, her family was wealthy, and therefore she had no need to exhibit her paintings to be sold as a source of income. Looking back, this was perhaps a disadvantage to Motesiczky, as she received little formal criticism, and it is likely one of the main reasons she is not well known in her field.
ER: How does “Mother in Bed” stand out amongst the Fitzwilliam’s collection of paintings?
A: This is the third painting we acquired by Marie-Louise von Motesiczky. The artist herself donated the first two paintings to the Fitzwilliam’s collection in 1993; a self-portrait entitled At the Dressmaker’s, and another portrait, Phillipe de Rothschild, which was on loan to us for an exhibition of her work. I always wanted one of the series of portraits Marie-Louise painted of her mother for our collection; they are the most intimate, the most emotive, and this painting is of distinct importance in the overall oeuvre of her work.
ER: Why was it selected in particular and how does it relate to Kettle’s Yard?
DS: It’s a tough piece of painting; ruthless and of brutal honesty. It certainly adds a different dimension and forces one to think about the aesthetic of Jim’s taste in relation to the existing objects in Kettle’s Yard. Motesiczky was a contemporary of many of the artists in Jim’s collection, so it’s an appropriate choice in that regard. “Mother in Bed” will serve as a point of comparison in Kettle’s Yard, invoking tension amongst the other artworks, and its presence there will bring a bit more exposure to an artist who is certainly deserving of that recognition.
*This descriptive text responds to the painting “Mother in Bed” by Austrian painter Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, which was displayed at Kettle’s Yard house and gallery in Cambridge during their 2013 exhibition “House Guests.” The text appears in the accompanying exhibition catalog, alongside the above interview with David Scrase, Assistant Director of Collections in the department of Paintings, Drawings and Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
[I] Ernst Gombrich, Marie-Louise von Motesiczky. Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Paintings: Vienna 1925 – London 1985. Goethe-Institut London.