One of his inspirations in his studio was classical music played very loudly. Henry estimates that his father did some 15 composer portraits. For us, these portraits are important because the composers’ images are not quite what we expect.
In his portrait of Mahler, for example, we have the classic turned head we’re familiar with from numerous photographs.
Yet, in Köhler’s image, the angle of the turn of the head is more extreme and the characteristic wrinkles on his forehead and around his mouth are missing, yet we can recognize that inner energy that all Mahler images seem to hold.
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major: IV. Sehr behaglich (Lucia Popp, soprano; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Klaus Tennstedt, cond.)
Köhler’s J.S. Bach image is even better for making us rethink what we believe the composer to look like. This isn’t the 60-year-old composer holding out a fugue that we know from the 1748 Haussmann painting, this is a young, smooth-faced composer, placed in the context of his Well-Tempered Clavier score, with his name from a cover of what looks like the Peters Edition in the bottom left corner. Everything about him in this portrait is simplified, even while he’s surrounded by some of the most complex music he created. The mixed media portrait takes us beyond the usual iconography of an aged composer and lets us reimagine him as a youth.
Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Fugue No. 1 in C Major, BWV 847 (Glenn Gould, piano)
The Stravinsky portrait takes a familiar aspect of the composer, his heavy glasses, and shows us the working composer with his more usual two pairs of glasses worn concurrently – one for distance and one for close work. The layers of paper pasted on top to create his hair, the planes of his face, even the reflections in his lenses, seem to catch that two-sidedness that Stravinsky always seems to embody, as in the innovative composer who used music from other sources (as in The Rite of Spring).
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: Part I (Adoration of the Earth): The Augurs of Spring / Dances of the Young Girls (London Symphony Orchestra; Robert Craft, cond.)
Along with other composers such as Mozart and Sibelius, Carl Köhler also did at least three portraits of an unusual musical icon: Michael Jackson. In the work entitled “A Head – Michael Jackson The Inspiration” we have to look very hard for the performer. We see his eye and perhaps his ear, and then, gradually, we see his jawline and he starts to emerge into recognizable form.
In the other two portraits, recognition is much easier but then we look at that sculpted nose, the thin lips, and the mask-like quality of the skin and we have a very different portrait. The face itself is seen only through a central opening – are we looking at his face through a window or are those the surgical bandages of a face-lift?
The second image brings forth the same questions: it’s the full face, but bisected as for an analysis of the face’s construction.
Michael Jackson: Smooth Criminal (2Cellos)
When we look at these composers through a modern artist’s eye, it gives us the ability to look both at the image and to examine our own thoughts about this composer. Carl Köhler has given us an introspective Mahler, a working Stravinsky, and a young Bach. He exposes the surface artificiality of the King of Pop Music. These are tremendous and important contributions to musical iconography and we are grateful to Henry Köhler for bringing them to the world’s attention.