Max Kurzweil was miserable. The Austrian artist had spent his life vacillating between passion and depression, excess and withdrawal. Like Gustave Caillebotte he was stuck between the conservatism of his bourgeois upbringing and the changing tides in art.
But Kurzweil couldn’t feel too sorry for himself, for his playground was bohemian Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century. As one of the founders of the Vienna Secession movement – an avant-garde Art Nouveau group presided by Gustav Klimt that aimed to restore the decorative arts – he was as equally drawn to appearances, as he was to figuring out the turmoil beneath them.
Kurzweil first met Marie-Josephine Marthe Guynot in 1893 on a summer trip to Concarneau, a commune in Brittany. The young French woman of head-turning beauty was the daughter of the businessman and mayor deputy of Concarneau, Octave Guyot. This encounter led to an advantageous liaison when the couple married two years later.
The pair spent the next years dividing their time between the exciting bustle of Vienna and the quiet solitude of Brittany, but Martha was visibly unhappy, stricken with homesickness and occasional bouts of depression. They tried having children, to no avail. All that was left between them was art.
Martha was turned into a muse.
Lady in Yellow Dress (1899)
Lady in Yellow Dress, also known as Woman in a Yellow Dress, is not only one of Kurzweil’s most accomplished portraits of Martha, but it’s also one of his best works. Painted five years after their marriage, the painting shows Martha lounging on a sofa upholstered in a blue-green fabric with botanical motifs.
The highlight of the painting, however, is Martha’s yellow dress, all luxurious and radiant. It empowers her figure and her presence, unfurling around her narrow corseted waist like the feathers of a peacock or the wings of a butterfly. The green and blue motifs of the sofa on which she sits further amplify this impression of natural beauty – it’s hard to not be reminded of Claude Monet’s water lilies.
This is not the first time that I’ve covered the allure of yellow garments in art history, with their almost royal mystique. They’re central to such paintings like František Kupka’s The Yellow Scale and Herbert James Gunn’s Pauline in the Yellow Dress, where they heavily influence the overall impression of the subjects.
With ivory arms splayed across the length of the sofa, Martha’s pose is just as much about the power to be one’s self in the defiant act of occupying space, as much as it is about constriction. For it is the yellow dress that ultimately has the freedom to blossom, while the woman’s arms and overall rigidity allude to a crucifixion.
So what at first glance looks like an empowering scene, once we uncover its subtleties it becomes apparent that behind the luxury and beauty, we are witnessing a fragile disposition: it’s in the ennui of her blue, watery eyes, the melancholy of her tilted head, the tight corset that will not let her breathe, the strands of hair falling negligently on her nape.
And yet there’s another peculiar detail, with Martha’s feet being hidden from view, as if she were floating or stranded – ungrounded, uprooted. Even so, one cannot deny what a beautiful figure and pose she embodies.
In Kurzweil’s later portraits of Martha (Martha in an Armchair, Martha on the Shore of Pont-Aven, The Cushion) she keeps to herself, not facing the viewer or the painter.
The Cushion (Der Polster)
In the 1903 woodcut The Cushion (Der Polster) we can’t even recognize Martha. Seated again on an ornately patterned sofa, she leans forward against a cushion as she buries her face in the cradle of her crossed arms. The fingers of her right hand are splayed upwardly as if to stop something or someone. Gone is the fabulous yellow dress – instead we’re looking at a plain house outfit.
Heavily influenced by Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard’s love of textiles and woodcuts, here Kurzweil does a wonderful job at harmonizing the pattern of the divan with the pattern of the cushion and creating a compelling genre (domestic) scene. Once again, the fabrics steal the show.
The marriage between Martha and Max Kurzweil continued to deteriorate over the years and by the time World War I started they had separated. Soon after, Kurzweil began an affair with 15-year-old Helene Heger, his art student. The relationship was fraught, with Heger’s father opposing it.
In 1916, a few months after Kurzweil was appointed war painter and sent to Montenegro, the artist returned to Vienna on a leave of absence and on 9 May killed himself in his studio. Joining him in this double suicide was the young Helene Heger, then 16 years old.
Martha outlived Kurzweil, dying decades later on 29 June 1964 in Tangier, Morocco. It was a fitting resting place in its exoticism and remoteness for a troubled woman whose beauty lived on.