Literary Inspirations: The Art of Carl Köhler

Carl Köhler (1919- 2006) was a portrait painter who never met his subjects, at least in person, though he came to know them intimately through reading their books if they were writers, or learning about their lives, if they were politicians or celebrities. Köhler varied his artistic style to match the subject - for example, the portrait of the French poet, playwright and critic Guillaume Apollinaire was superimposed upon a newspaper.

While Köhler usually drew heads only, for Antonin Artaud, playwright, theater director and author of The Theatre of Cruelty, Köhler included his torso and hands as well . . . perhaps to permit applause?

There is an intellectual and emotional power in these portraits that is compelling. Köhler's subjects tended to be intellectuals, iconoclasts who challenged the rules of conventionality, and often lived outside these rules. For authors such as Henry Miller, Günter Grass and Franz Kafka, Köhler used woodcuts where the heavy dark ink suggested a seriousness of purpose.

Portrait of novelist Franz Kafka
Portrait of novelist Franz Kafka
Photo courtesy of Henry Köhler

These are efffective and interesting, but I found another portrait of Kafka by Köhler, when Kafka was younger, done in colors, to be even more involving. One sensed that here was a young man on the brink of comprehension, deciding whether to embrace his dark vision of humankind.

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Köhler's portrait James Joyce Getting Blind is extremely complex, very suitable for the author of the difficult Ulysses and the even more difficult Finnegan's Wake.By contrast, Köhler's portrait of Claud Simon, French novelist and Nobel Laureate, is confined to a few red lines against a grey background, that nonetheless captures Simon's essence. Similarly, Köhler's portrait of Nobel Laureate François Mauriac is a simple line drawing of an intellectual, chin resting on his hand.

Köhler's portrait of Virginia Woolf shows the anguish in her heart that would eventually lead to her suicide. Köhler's portrait of the influential author Anais Nin gave him a subject who was beautiful and strong-willed, and was a cheerful bigamist - she married an American she met in an elevator who was 16 years her junior - he was 28, she was 44 - while still wed to her European husband. Köhler used violet here to add femininity and grace, and the portrait reveals the calm serenity of a woman who marches to her own drum.

The Swedish romantic poet Erik Johan Stagnelius is less well-known outside his naive country, and his portrait, like Stagnelius's brief life - he died at 29 - is asymmetrical, complicated, with the face of a dreamer illuminated by violet shading, while earthtones elsewhere anchor the dream to reality.

The digital prints shown here are on loan from the Dallas Public Library. Carl Köhler's son, Henry Köhler, believe he is an under-appreciated genius, and has been assiduous in promoting the portraits since Carl's death in 2006. On the basis of this extremely varied and most interesting exhibition, I am inclined to agree.

Literary Inspirations: The Art of Carl Köhler continues through September 19, at the Houston Central Library, 1st Floor Gallery Area, 500 McKinney, open Monday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a..m to 5 p.m., and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., 832-393-1313,

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