Painting of Joseph Leo Koerner's profile

Meet Joseph Leo Koerner: the professor and filmmaker on his documentary "The Burning Child"

By Margie Fuchs

Joseph Leo Koerner’s 2018 documentary The Burning Child takes its title from a model dream reported by Sigmund Freud in his Interpretation of Dreams. In the dream, a child’s corpse accidentally catches on fire while the father uneasily sleeps in the next room, dreaming of the nightmare taking place in his home. The title hints at the tumultuous history and the uncanny nature of Vienna – birthplace of Koerner’s father, the “Magic Realist” painter Henry Koerner.

Through the lens of a singular painting by his father, Joseph Leo Koerner confronts the mysteries of the erstwhile capital city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The painting depicts Koerner’s grandparents within the safety in their Viennese living room, shortly before their disappearance in the Holocaust. To answer the questions hidden within the work and to understand the fate of his family and their home, The Burning Child investigates Vienna’s dreams of interior design and homemaking, with their impossible promise of protection from the outside world. Exploring the birth of modern architecture in Vienna, the film confronts the nightmarish event of the Anschluss (Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938) and the destruction of Jewish Vienna.

Joseph Leo Koerner is the Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Senior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he was raised there and in Vienna. In advance of The Burning Child’s screening at The Whitney Museum of American Art on Sunday, November 17th, we spoke with Koerner about the documentary.

Your father was American Magic Realist Henry Koerner. Could you tell us what it was like to grow up in such an artistic household?

My father was a peculiar character in terms of how he practiced his art. From 1952 on, he never painted or drew anything except from real life. He moved to Pittsburgh for aesthetic reasons – he chose to settle there after passing through the city on his way by bus to California, and maybe after seeing photographs at a Walker Evans show in New York. The city offered him a paintable landscape with the kinds of motifs he was looking for, as well as distance from the New York arts center. He was a very domestic person and didn’t mingle with other artists, so his art was produced within our family.

As kids, our lives were completely bound up in his art. We would tag along on his en plein air painting trips both at home in Pittsburgh and during our summers in his hometown of Vienna, often helping to carry his painting materials as we wandered the streets. Because my sister and I accompanied our father so often, we could always tell the sorts of scenes that would cause him to stop along the road to paint. These were not always obvious – sometimes a combination of a beautiful view with something odd like a tiny woman feeding bread rolls to a wild boar mother and her piglets. If his desired scene had a person in it, my father would tell the person to pose. Of course, we would get bored waiting for him while he painted, so my sister and I started painting as well, working side-by-side with our father.

Our house was my father’s gallery. Nearly all of the rooms were filled with art and we’d often have people come through to buy his work. I remember having to hide my toys when potential buyers would come into my bedroom. It was like living in the vegetable section of a grocery store, if your father’s a grocer. Our lives were that entangled in his work.

This work by Henry Koerner depicts two women with kids under a train overpass
Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. Under the Overpass, 1949. Oil on masonite. 30 x 38 inches. Signed on the reverse. Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York.

How has your family’s background shaped your own academic interests?

I painted a lot as a high school kid, but I didn’t want to continue in college. I didn’t want to study art history because that seemed too close to home. Plus, my father hated art historians. Instead, I got interested in literature and graduated with a degree in literature. While I was doing a second degree in English in Cambridge, England, I wrote about Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic painter, on the side, for fun. It was then that I started thinking about what it would mean to write about my father.

At that time, art history hadn’t been affected by the new critical theories and philosophies I had worked with studying literature, so I shifted my studies over to art. My father seemed reasonably happy with my decision, although he remained a bit skeptical. The fact that I had an insider’s perspective on how art was made gave me a certain access to art history: if I looked at an old painting, I could figure out the technical challenges involved, but I also had a strong sense that artists don’t fully understand their own art. I had seen my father paint for over 40 years without, in my view, his ever having a clear understanding of what he was doing or why he was doing it. My sister and I probably had a special understanding because we were with him so much of the time. We knew exactly what he liked to paint, even though he thought his inspiration was mystical.

While you teach and write about the history of art from the late Middle Ages onward, your scholarship focuses on Northern Renaissance art. From Pieter Bruegel the Elder to Albrecht Dürer, what about the work of the Northern Renaissance speaks to you?

I had lived in Vienna and Heidelberg, and I spoke German and studied German literature, so there was a natural inclination to focus on this sort of art. I also had a strong interest in German history, particularly because of the impact that Hitler had on my family. By studying German Renaissance art, all those great painters working in the early sixteenth century, I could deal with something in the distant past that had sent shockwaves through to the present – because of the way that art had been understood subsequently, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

My advisor was adamantly against me working on anything too modern because I had a tendency to project my own ideas onto the art I was studying. So, I went back in time and looked at arenas of German art that had the most resonance. Two sides of the German artistic tradition stood out to me: self-portraiture and the macabre. During the Northern Renaissance, self-portraiture became a key expression about art and artistry: it modeled what a work of art was, as the creation of a singular individual. On the other hand, the focus on the macabre and the grotesque – images of animated corpses, witches, the supernatural and so on – that uncovered the dark underside of all those lofty ideas about art. It seemed to me that these were two sides of the same coin and, in many ways, two sides of one historical process. Self-portraiture was the official, heroic version of art history while the macabre was the dark, traumatic side not much spoken of. Vienna had both these sides, too. It was beautiful and alluring, but it had a traumatic history, a violent past that touched our family directly.

Joseph Leo Koerner walks away from the viewer down a tree-lined path
Film still from The Burning Child (2018), written, directed and produced by Joseph Leo Koerner. Courtesy of Burning Child Films, Ldt.

The Whitney Museum of American Art will screen your film "The Burning Child" on November 17th. You’ve also written and presented Northern Renaissance and the feature-length documentary Vienna: City of Dreams for BBC Television. How did you get into filmmaking?

It was happenstance. A BBC producer contacted me about writing and presenting a series of programs about the Northern Renaissance and we created a three-part documentary, which was broadcast on BBC 4. The program performed so well that BBC invited me to propose another series, so I pitched one about Vienna. This second project turned into a feature-length documentary about how Vienna gave birth to the modern world – the film was called Vienna City of Dreams.

Then, I received an award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that required developing a project in the humanities that would break new ground, in terms of method or medium, and so I immediately thought about making a documentary that explored Vienna in a completely different way than the BBC film. This became The Burning Child. In my research, I discovered the Viennese passion for homemaking. Homemaking in Vienna encompassed art and architecture, and it occupied most of the great figures in Vienna’s intellectual life, including Sigmund Freud. I also researched more about my family’s history in the city, which had been so entangled in my father’s art. The history of modern architecture in Vienna and the story of my father’s childhood home: these were the two strands I wanted to weave together with the film, with the entry point being my father’s painting of my grandparents.

Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. “My Parents I,” 1944. Oil on Masonite. Private collection.

"The Burning Child" focuses on a singular painting by your father [pictured above]. What role does this painting play in your family’s narrative?

What’s puzzled me most as a child was why my family returned every year to Vienna and why my father obsessively insisted on painting there. I knew that one clue was encrypted in that painting [My Parents I (1944), pictured above] which my father made of his family’s apartment in Vienna. He painted it from memory while in the Army. After being mocked by his Army colleague Ben Shahn for being a graphic designer who couldn’t really paint, except with an airbrush, he went home and painted this portrait of his parents in their home. He captured every detail of the room, from the furniture to the lighting to the lace that his mother made, even though he hadn’t been there for years. He had left that home in 1938, and his parents had been expelled from the apartment and then sent to their death in an extermination camp in Belarus in 1942. A bomb destroyed the whole building in 1945, in the final weeks of the war. Yet in the painting, his parents are alive and safe in their living room. If you look closely through the open window, you can even see in the furthest distance the two windows of the apartment where my family chanced to lived when we summered in Vienna – decades later! I wondered how it could be that this lost world was captured so perfectly and prophetically? How did my father project himself through this painting to us, to me, so many years later? And then there was the question: why was this enclave of safety so open to disaster?

The more I look at this painting, the more I see premonitions of what was to come. My father instinctively built all his paintings like this, mixing up memories and omens. There’s always something cryptic about his pictures. It’s not about “unconscious meaning.” Instead, it’s about how art, when it’s engineered in a certain way, takes up the past – the personal past, but also the familial, collective and national past – and gets to work on its traumas and mysteries. It’s a form of remembering, repeating and working-through.

One central element in The Burning Child is act of return: my father returning to Vienna in 1946, our family returning there over and over and now me returning to the city to make the documentary. It’s also about the more collective experiences of home, exile and return. My father’s earlier works from the mid-1940s all possess a narrative character – they tell stories. But my father understood all these narratives to be part of the larger story of him coming home to Vienna and finding his parents had been murdered and his home destroyed.

Could you speak about the process of researching and filming the documentary, as well as the choice to have it both in English and German?

I did three different kinds of work to create the documentary. First, I researched the history of Viennese art and architecture as it relates to interior design in order to uncover the historical narrative about homemaking. Second, there was the problem of identifying who to interview. I didn’t want just historians talking about historical matters; I wanted to hear from ordinary people, too. These interviews would be unexpected, even strange, but they would link the historical narrative to the personal one. The moment we started the interview process, I knew that it wouldn’t work to have Viennese people talking about Vienna and home in a foreign language – in English, however good their English was. So, I made a sudden decision, right at the first interview we shot, for everyone to speak in their native language.

The final bit of work circles around to my father’s paintings. I was trying to figure out locations for the film, including evocative interiors where we could shoot the interviews. I realized suddenly that, instead scouting for locations, I would follow in my father’s footsteps and shoot where he painted in Vienna. The landscapes and the interiors in the film are in a subtle dialogue with the places and people he painted all those many years ago. Even the interviews evoke how he painted people in his pictures: there’s a shoemaker making shoes, a water scientist releasing a sturgeon into the Danube, etc. The documentary does in film what my father did in paint. In the construction of The Burning Child, I wanted to create the experience of feeling like you’re wandering and getting lost – just like what we experienced on our walks with my father – so the film tries to be open-ended in that respect.

What was the most unexpected thing you discovered while creating this film?

I discovered that following a single narrative thread takes too long in the medium of film. So, I had to learn to cut and paste the narrative, returning to one story at different points throughout the film while also moving the whole narrative forward. The editing process revealed a lot about the peculiar nature of story-telling in film, as opposed to books or paintings – mediums I was used to. I also learned that the visual fabric of the film is far more powerful than whatever is said in the film, as dialogue or interview. And yet, with most documentaries, you’re also at the mercy of how good the interviews are. If I could do it over, I would be more aware of how the interviews are the gold of the spoken narrative and how one needs to prepare the right questions and listen carefully to exactly what was said and whether something needed to be repeated or said differently.

Could you talk to us about the concept of "heimat" – the feeling of home – and its role in both the film and Germanic culture at large?

My father’s drive to go back to Vienna year after year was understood by both him and our family as this deep, sentimental nostalgia for the city. Yet he also knew – and felt – that city was the site of loss and trauma. The concept of heimat captures this.

Heimat has this problematic history: something you love and belong to, sometimes to the exclusion of others. This obviously found a terrible expression in Nazi Germany, where the idea of blood and soil was at the heart of fascist politics. Freud explored the ancient roots of the word heimat in his essay “The Uncanny” – in German das Unheimliche. Heimlich means something that is homey and familiar, but it can also mean something secret and terrifying. Heimlich and unheimlich – the homey and the strange – they mean the same thing! This duality is at the very heart of Viennese homemaking. The private interiors of Viennese Jews were imagined as beautiful and safe spaces, places into which one could retreat in times of violence or religious persecution. But from the moment of Hitler’s arrival, Viennese Jews effectively lost their right to their homes, and thus their right to exist. Their homes become exit points to the death camps. This was something strangely articulated – or predicted – by Freud, who, by the way, fled Vienna in 1938, like my father. His sisters, however, were murdered in death camps, and his famous home and offices became a way station, really a kind of prison, for other Jews on the way to their deaths.

Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. Mirror of Life. 1946. The Whitney Museum of American Art.

What else are you excited to see in New York City while you’re here for the premiere of "The Burning Child"?

I always like to see the Whitney’s collection and love to stop by my father’s painting Mirror of Life. It’s wonderful to view the Museum’s collections in changing historical circumstances.

Cover image: Luca Del Baldo, Joseph Leo Koerner, from the series The Visionary Academy of Ocular Mentality, oil on canvas, 2015.