Reinhold, Count Bethusy-Huc, like the knights of old, serves what he holds most dear. His liege lord is Oskar Kokoschka, the Austrian artist, who will soon be 93. Reinhold, Count Bethusy-Huc, who will be 48 tomorrow, was a youth of 20 when he pledged himself unswervingly -- not to king or country, and not to a maiden -- but to that old man's art.
It was, for Count Bethusy-Huc, fealty at first sight.
"It was in 1950, the war at last had ended, that I saw my first Kokoschkas in Munich, in the Haus der Kunst, that museum built by Nazis. They would not have shown Kokoschka, they thought his art degenerate, but my first sight of his pictures turned me inside out. Every day, for seven days, from morning until night, I haunted that exhibit. He opened my eyes. Nothing I had learned in school had taught me what I learned that week looking at his art."
The count's devotion to Kokoschka has since then only deepened. His collection contains perhaps 500 graphics by the master. The hundred he admires most will go on view tomorrow in "Homage to Kokoschka" at the Phillips Collection here.
Because Kokoschka, as a student in Freud's Vienna, outraged the bourgeoisie, he is sometimes thought a radical. Because his early work recalls that of Gustav Klimpt, Kokoschka has been called an heir of Viennese art nouveau. Because in Berlin, in 1910, he began to publish portraits in the magazine The Storm, which championed at that time the artists of "The Bridge" and of the group called "The Blue Rider," he is frequently described as a pioneer "expressionist." But all such terms ring false. Kokoschka is an artist labels do not fit.
His portraits, for example, are both accurate and wild. Few artists of our day, with the notable exception of the blindfolded de Kooning, scribble with such freedom. Yet Kokoschka's hasty scrawls always manage to compose themselves into likenesses the viewer is unable to mistake.
Art historians see Kokoschka as a member of the avant-garde, a breaker of tradition, but his subjects are the subjects that concerned the Old Masters -- Saul, Christ and David, Shakespearean tragedies, landscapes, still lifes, and the glory that was Greece.
There is something in his early portraits, that of Yvette Guilbert, for instance, who was so often portrayed by Toulouse-Lautrec, that brings to mind the cutting drawings of Georg Grosz. But Grosz dipped his pen in venom. Kokoschka draws with love.
To analyze his style is to overlook his content. To focus on his subject -- on Pegasus or Lear -- is to miss the intuition that seems to guide his hand.
To understand Kokoschka -- and the pictures at the Phillips seem to beg for understanding -- one ought to think instead of passion, inspiration and of the half-blind faith with which the oracles in olden days served their hidden gods.
"Few things," writes E.H. Gombrich in his catalogue essay on Kokoschka, "can tell us more about an artist than the type of followers he has found."
Reinhold, Count Bethusy-Huc is looking for the thousandth time at his beloved Kokoschkas. "Look at that frog," the count insists, "how low he is! How earthbound!" Suddenly the count is on all fours on the floor acting out the frog.
"You must write this down," he says. "Write 'empathy.' It is the word that is the key to Kokoschka's art."
As Edvard Munch communed with his memories of sickness, dread and terror, or as van Gogh's paintings seem ignited by the fire of his madness, so Kokoschka seems to beg us to share the sympathies, the passions that burn within his mind.
Kokoschka, in the person of Reinhold, Count Bethusy-Huc, has found the sort of living mirror that makes his art complete.
The two men met for the first time in Salzburg in 1951. "We spoke about these pictures," said the count referring to the portrait cycle that Kokoschka calls "The Concert." The lithographs, all done in 1920, all show the same woman, Camilla Swoboda, a Jewess due to die in 1938 in one of Hitler's camps. "These are prophecies," the count said. "Just look at her face. In this print she is young, in this one she is older, in that one she is older still, and look there -- she has died! See the prison stripes upon her sweater! See what he foresaw!"
Reinhold, Count Bethusy-Huc has a name that's Huguenot, a title that is German, and a home in Vienna, though he is a British citizen employed by the government of Australia. "Look," he said. "There is New York, there is Athens, there are Prague and London. Who could be more international than Oskar Kokoschka."
Within one year of their initial meeting, Kokoschka had addressed him as "my dear disciple."
Though the count's collection of Kokoschka's graphics is on long-term loan to London's Victoria and Albert Museum, those on view will tour this country for two years under the auspices of Washington's International Exhibitions Foundation.
"You ask why I collect him. I will tell you," said the count, "His pictures have become my pictures. They are imbued with all of life, with history and laughter. I will hold to them forever, for myself and for others. I spend my life in service to Kokoschka and his work."
"Homage to Kokoschka" closes at the Phillips on Jan. 7.