Obituary: Marie-Louise von Motesiczky

Marie-Louise von Motesiczky was a painter of exceptional humanity and wit whose portraits and still lifes deserve an honoured place in European art.

Born in Vienna in 1906, she had a long productive life despite the tragic upheaval of leaving Austria in 1938, and suffering many years of British indifference to German art. The paintings have always had their influential admirers, but have only sporadically received the public attention due to them.

In 1985, late in life, she had a retrospective in London at the Goethe Institute which was greeted by reviewers as a major discovery, and included, in its entirety, the series of paintings of her mother in old age for which she has, in a short space of time, become famous (one is in the Tate, one in Manchester City Art Gallery, another in the Arts Council Collection). In 1994 she was honoured in Vienna by an exhibition at the Belvedere (travelling on to Manchester) which was better attended than any previous exhibition of contemporary art.

Marie-Louise's father, Edmund von Motesiczky, was a talented cellist. He died when Marie-Louise was three, and she grew up close to her mother's family, the von Liebens, who were wealthy and cultivated. They had helped finance the building of the Kunsthistori-sches Museum, and in their salon Hofmannsthal had read his first poems. Her grandparents' Ringstrasse apartment and villa at Hinterbruhl were furnished with a rich art collection.

Marie-Louise knew from the age of 13 that she would become a painter, and she left school to study art. She attended art schools in Vienna, and travelled to Holland, Paris and Frankfurt; but the decisive event in her artistic formation was her meeting with Max Beckmann. She had, however, already shown an extraordinary talent in portraits and still lifes she had made before their friendship developed into a master/pupil relationship.

Beckmann's example showed Motesiczky how a contemporary artist could build on the great art of the past, and his energy in the struggle to compete with fashionable abstract art was vital as a source of confidence. In 1926 she visited Paris where she rented a studio, and saw Beckmann from time to time. There she painted a first masterpiece (Paris Workman) and shortly afterwards a remarkable statuesque Self-portrait with Comb, now in the Belvedere, Vienna. A year later she attended Beckmann's masterclass at the Stadel in Frankfurt. By the late 1930s she had evolved away from Beckmann stylistically, avoiding his graphic generalisation of facial features in favour of a more painterly approach.

The other important artistic friendship was with Oskar Kokoschka, whom she got to know in wartime London. Her relationship with these two powerful and prolific painters (her own output is small in comparison) was not one of dependency but affinity, sharing with both an attachment to allegory and traditional genres, especially still life and the portrait. But Motesiczky's subjects are different in mood and emphasis, and her attitude towards subject matter closer to that of a 19th-century artist.

Her overriding interest is in human character: for her a figure is always suggestive of drama. She once said: "For me, anything with a figure, is a story." Some fine paintings result from the bargain struck between sitter and paid artist, for instance the magisterial portrait of Baron Philippe de Rothschild (1986, Fitzwilliam Museum). But her best works are of people she chose to paint, sometimes people for whom life was a struggle. She replaces the historical and religious subject matter of the old masters with a subtle drama drawn from her own life, involving friends and relatives, which is often distinctly satirical.

In 1938, the day after the Anschluss, Marie-Louise and her mother left Austria for relatives in Holland. In 1939, after a first exhibition in The Hague, they travelled to London. Marie-Louise's brother Karl stayed on in Vienna from where he helped other Jews to escape. He was denounced and transported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Karl is the imagined addressee of three touching paintings of the late 1940s, one a double portrait of him and his girlfriend, the others allegorical still lifes with apples.

Marie-Louise von Motesic-zky grew to love London. With exile came responsibility for her mother Henriette, who is the subject of a series of truly great paintings which chart the onset of old age and death. Marie-Louise views her mother with an objectivity disturbing yet touching. Henriette, often depicted lying in bed, radiates a strong light that forms a contrast to her frail state. Humorous touches such as the pet dogs that were Henriette's constant attribute, reveal the warmth of their relationship.

Motesiczky never married and lived alone after her mother's death in 1978. Her most important friendship was with the novelist Elias Canetti to whom she was very close for 30 years and whom she painted several times. His was the last major portrait she painted in 1993, not long before he died, now in the National Portrait Gallery.

Motesiczky's considerable achievement centres on the representation of people. Indeed, her obsession with character informs all of her work, not least the still lifes in which we glimpse the artist's own creaturely enjoyment of food, books and flowers brought in from her beautiful garden.

To know her was a wonderful experience, if not always an easy one. She resisted the attempts of others to discuss her work, correctly insisting on the pictures speaking for themselves. When her guard was down she was a fascinating speaker about her own or any painting, and she knew better than anybody the art of painting the face.

Motesiczky never needed to sell her paintings, indeed she preferred to keep them around her. An aristocratic disdain for the marketplace meant that, while she half welcomed exhibitions, they remained uncomfortable experiences. For these reasons she remains to be discovered as an important artist in the German tradition, to be mentioned in the same breath as her friends Beckmann and Kokoschka.

Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, artist: born Vienna 24 October 1906; died London 10 June 1996.

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