Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester adds Henry Koerner's "Under the Overpass" to its Collection

By Valerie Stanos

Henry Koerner suffered great losses in his life, experiences he often drew upon in his paintings. He did so most poignantly through the use of contradictory themes and imagery, and often depicted his parents, as in this painting. Koerner fled Vienna in 1938 after Hitler annexed Austria, leaving his family behind. When he returned to visit in 1946 after serving in the United States Army, he discovered that his entire family had been killed during the Holocaust. As a survivor, he felt intense pain and guilt, but also appreciated the fact that he was spared. Despite the grief associated with Vienna, Koerner returned there every year for the last thirty years of his life. He often felt out of place wherever he was—he seemed a European in America and was considered an American when in Europe. Contemporary observers often sensed this dual identity in his work.

Before moving to the United States, Koerner studied at the Graphic Academy of Applied Art in Vienna. He considered it an advantage that he did not attend a traditional art school. He admired contemporary Viennese painters and studied the Old Masters, especially Brueghel. Koerner’s first work in the United States was as a graphic artist at a New York studio designing book covers for detective and mystery stories. Koerner met Ben Shahn, who became a mentor to Koerner, when he joined the Office of War Information in 1943. Koerner admired Shahn’s highly stylized figures and distorted perspectives, techniques that he would develop in his own work.

In 1943, Koerner became an American citizen, was drafted into the army, and worked at the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, DC. During this time, he made his first important paintings. Coincidentally, 1943 was the year when Magic Realism was first defined by a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Koerner’s paintings exhibited some of the defining characteristics of the style, such as the sharply focused delineation of forms, a painstakingly minute rendering of detail, flattened perspective, an absence of shadows, and a strong, precise, severe manner of execution. That said, Koerner’s Magic Realist phase would last only a short time, as by 1951–52 he veered dramatically to a Cézanne-inspired Impressionist style. His body of work painted prior to 1950 remains his most sought-after.

Koerner created Under the Overpass during the period in which he enjoyed his greatest critical and popular success. In 1947, Koerner had his first solo exhibition in Berlin, and received immediate acclaim for his work, which was compared to that of Brueghel, Goya, and Dix. In the same year, Midtown Galleries began to represent him and hosted his first solo American exhibition in early 1948, also to great success. The works created by Koerner during this time addressed the universal questions of good and evil, death and rebirth, the ephemeral and the spiritual, all of which were highly relevant in the postwar years.

In Under the Overpass, Koerner explored themes found in his most important work, employing many of the distinctive devices and symbols found throughout his body of work. The painting exhibits the superb technical skill for which he is best known. The scene shows two mothers and their children who meet in a park setting in late summer as the leaves are just beginning to turn. Despite the brightly colored depiction, there is an underlying sense of sadness and uneasiness. The woman in orange and yellow is crying, which at first seems strange amidst the lush foliage on what must be a pleasant warm day, and jars with the bright light and the cheerful colors of the clothing. Above the colorful figures on the ground, and in direct opposition to them, are the contrastingly dark, shadowed figures on the train. Other clues that the scene is more than what it first appears to be lie in the scale distortions and flattened perspective, which give it a dream-like quality. The meticulous technique, however, lends the dream believability.

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.

“It’s a great painting. Very important,” Koerner’s son Joseph explained, ”The big red trolley is a key image in his work. It refers both to the trolley that passed before his childhood home, the Number 5 trolley; and it has a sort of archetypal meaning as the coming and going of people into life and out again, in death, a meaning I believe is compounded by the fact of his parents being deported to the extermination camp by train. I do not know if he actually knew this, but they were in fact transported from Vienna, via Minsk, to a death camp called Maly Trostinec, in Belarus. I found the train schedule of that train, from Vienna all the way there, and the names of my grandparents. The actual setting for the painting is, I imagine, a combination of two things: some train somewhere in NYC, perhaps in Brooklyn, where my father lived; and an overpass cutting over the great boulevard of trees called the Hauptallee, in the Prater.” (Joseph Koerner, e-mail to author, April 29, 2011.)

Bridges are another recurring motif in Koerner’s work, another means of conveying the “coming and going” between life and death. He often used bridges as a visual and symbolic “umbilical cord” to draw attention to dualistic elements, saying that bridges fascinated him because “You are not on one side or another but on a different level of existence.” (Gail Stavitsky, From Vienna to Pittsburgh:  The Art of Henry Koerner [Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 1983], 25). Here, as with the path in his famous painting, My Parents, the bridge forms a rigid compositional device that both links and divides the figures, light and dark. It acts as a metaphorical space, indicating that the figures occupy different stages of the narrative and different stages of being, suspending them between different levels of existence, between life and death. The uniformed figure at the front of the train is one of many such figures found in Koerner’s work that “represent authority and are generally somewhat sinister. Sometimes, however, they also take on God-like aspects” (ibid). He is a paradox in himself—a lowly train driver who, God-like, conducts the others on the momentous journey between life and death. The woman holding the handkerchief to her face is presumably Koerner’s mother, as is the female passenger on the train.

Under the Overpass is an exceptional example of Koerner’s use of his personal iconography, of paradox and symbolism, and of composition, color, and technique.

Cover image: Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. Under the Overpass (detail), 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.