For those who remember painter Henry Koerner, “Henry Koerner’s Pittsburgh,” now on display at Chatham University, may evoke feelings of bittersweet nostalgia for the friendly, upbeat artist who spent almost 40 years of his prolific and acclaimed career in the Steel City.
For those unfamiliar with the man, the art speaks for itself.
The Viennese-born painter, whose work was often inspired by the unbearable losses he suffered as a result of Nazi barbarism, played a significant role in Pittsburgh as both artist and teacher. The exhibit is aptly displayed at Chatham, where he taught, in the neighborhood depicted in so many of his works.
“Henry Koerner’s Pittsburgh,” presented by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater and The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh as part of “Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project,” reflects Henry Koerner’s post-war vision of the world as infused by the sights and souls of Pittsburgh.
Despite having lost his parents, his only brother, and most of his entire family to the gas chambers and incinerators of the Nazis, Henry Koerner managed to remain “cheerful, alive and optimistic,” his son, art historian Joseph Koerner, said at last Thursday’s opening of the exhibit.
Henry Koerner, having trained as a graphic artist in his hometown of Vienna, immigrated to the United States in 1938 following Germany’s annexation of Austria. He worked in New York designing book jackets, and then in the Office of War Information, until he was drafted into the Army in 1943.
After the war, he was assigned to Berlin as an artist at the Nuremberg trials. Following his discharge in 1946, he returned to Vienna to confirm what he long suspected: his “parents and brother and relatives had all been taken from their beautiful homes and gassed and burned in the Holocaust,” said Joseph Koerner, the Thomas Professor of history of art and architecture at Harvard University.
The subject of Henry Koerner’s paintings often was “my father’s story,” son Joseph said. “Retreat and return to the family home.”
Referring to his father as “an exile gazing homeward,” Joseph Koerner told the audience at Chatham of Henry’s unshakable bond to Vienna, his longing for home, and his guilt and despair over the Nazi’s murder of his family. Recurring motifs of his parents and his lost home — frequently portrayed by an open but empty window — permeate Henry’s post-war works.
Henry Koerner moved to Pittsburgh in 1952, and served as artist in residence at the Pennsylvania College for Women, which is now Chatham University. Each year, he created a large 16-panel painting while in Pittsburgh. But summers were spent in Vienna, where the painter produced about 100 smaller works annually.
The Koerner family, recounted Joseph, would spend countless hours strolling the streets and countryside of Vienna. The purpose of these walks, however, transcended exercise and sightseeing, as during each stroll, “somewhere along the way, my father would spot a motif and stop to paint it,” often asking the locals, or requiring his own family, to pose for hours.
Henry Koerner became a “major figure in the post-war art scene,” Joseph said. The artist, who created many well-known portraits for the cover of Time Magazine, including those of Bobby Kennedy, Maria Callas and Barbra Streisand, began his career as a magic realist, using a style combining mostly realistic subjects with bizarre situations or themes. When realism went out of fashion, Henry Koerner began painting in the style of Paul Cezanne, which is reflected in many of the works now on display at Chatham.
“Henry Koerner’s Pittsburgh” is one of several arts events preceding the PBT’s production of “Light” in November, intending to encourage a communitywide dialogue about the Holocaust.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)