‘Thought pictures’: Koerner Center receives treasured works by its namesake

A recent exhibit at the Yale’s Henry Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty presented 35 works by artist Henry Koerner, 29 of which were donated to the university.
A detail from “Tunnel of Love” a 1948 painting by the artist Henry Koerner.

A detail from “Tunnel of Love” a 1948 painting by the artist Henry Koerner. It was one 35 works by Koerner recently exhibited at the Henry Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty.

In the painting, a doll-like figure dressed in ruffles and jewels, wearing heavy rouge, and carrying a bloodied knife, stares with piercing green eyes into the abyss. Nude dancing women surround him, neon-colored grass at their feet. Behind them, a figure with the head of a donkey holds a strip of tickets. Framing the chaotic scene are two enormous emerald-colored snakes, their open jaws revealing geometric patterns and train tracks leading toward a bright, distant city.

Inspired by a ride at Coney Island and titled “Tunnel of Love,” the painting is the work of the Austrian-born painter Henry Koerner. On loan from the Yale University Art Gallery, it is one of 35 works that were shown recently at the campus center that bears his name, Yale’s Henry Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty.

The exhibition, “Henry Koerner: Memory and Motif,” marks the 20th anniversary of the Koerner Center. The center serves retired faculty from across campus. Its fellows — as those who become members are called — come from all of Yale’s graduate and professional schools, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Yale School of Medicine, creating an academically diverse, interdisciplinary community.

Exhibition attendee looking at artwork at the Koerner Center.
Koerner’s artwork was displayed throughout the center, which is located in the historic John Pierpont House at 149 Elm Street.

Twenty-nine of the artworks in the exhibition were donated to the center by the artist’s son, Joseph Leo Koerner ’80, a professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard University, who, along with historian and philanthropist Lisbet Rausing, originally donated the funds to establish the center in his father’s name.

The pieces were displayed throughout the library, seminar room, and hallways of the center, which is located directly across from the New Haven Green and above the Yale Visitor Center.

My father’s works are thought pictures,” Joseph Koerner said during an event celebrating the exhibition’s opening. “I hope that they will engage fellows with offices at the center.”

A detail from “Mort in his Library,” a 1970 painting by Koerner.
A detail from “Mort in his Library,” a 1970 painting by Koerner.

The Koerner Center, which occupies the second and third floors of the John Pierpont House at 149 Elm Street — the oldest residence facing the New Haven Green — is one of the first institutions on a U.S. campus established to specifically benefit emeriti. It hosts a wide variety of cultural events and intellectual programs, including autobiographical talks, lunchtime and evening lectures, seminars, film discussions, sponsored excursions, art exhibitions, and other special events. It also provides opportunities and outlets for social advocacy, teaching, and research.

The exhibition of Henry Koerner’s art is an example how the center enables fellows to stay engaged in life at Yale, and with each other, whether through continued teaching, programming, giving lectures, or simply making connections with other emeritus faculty, said Jenna-Claire Kemper, the center’s executive director.

Together we foster a vibrant, intellectual community that is deeply valued by its members, and I can’t think of a better way to mark the anniversary than by celebrating Henry Koerner’s fascinating work,” she said.

We are enormously grateful to Joseph Koerner for the extraordinary gift of these artworks, for the care he put into choosing a collection that is special to our center, and for one that will be treasured at Yale for years to come,” Kemper added.

While the exhibit closed June 20, a selection of the pieces will be hung throughout the center, which is not open to the public, for fellows and their guests to enjoy, she said.

Joseph Koerner, Henry’s son, speaks at an event marking the opening of the exhibit.
Joseph Koerner, Henry’s son, speaks at an event marking the opening of the exhibit. Koerner donated 29 of his father’s works to the center.

A quality of life itself’

Henry Koerner was born in Vienna in 1915 to non-observant Jewish parents, Fanny and Leo Koerner. He immigrated alone to the United States in 1939 to avoid persecution following Hitler’s annexation of Austria. After settling in New York City, he enlisted into the U.S. Army where he joined the Office of Strategic Services. He served in both Washington and London, illustrating brochures and creating posters to support the war effort, while also sketching scenes of military life in his spare time. In 1945, he was dispatched to draw Nazi war criminals during the Nuremburg trials.

Tragically, Koerner learned shortly thereafter that his parents and brother had been killed in the Nazis’ extermination camps. The art he created processing this tragedy made waves when it was displayed in Germany after the war. In 1953, he settled in Pittsburgh, though he continued to spend time in Vienna until his death following a bicycle accident in 1991. Over the course of his career, he painted 47 covers for Time magazine.

Detail of “Vanity Fair” (aka “Mirror of Life”)
This 1946 painting, “Vanity Fair” (aka “Mirror of Life”), is constructed from images derived from Koerner’s experiences in the United States and Vienna.

He worked primarily in oil or watercolors, though many of his sketches were done in pen and ink. All of Koerner’s paintings incorporate realism, and much of his early work, including “Tunnel of Love,” is devoted to magical realism.

The works displayed at the center span his career. Roughly half of the collection are sketches or studies, but there are also many completed works.

Three of the works — including some of the earliest in the collection — depict Koerner’s fellow soldiers in everyday moments. One shows a young man writing a letter, another depicts a soldier looking out into the ether, while troops relax in a third sketch. Later in his career Koerner began drawing exclusively from life, and his ability to portray the people around him is notable: he captures the energy of his subjects on the page. 

While many of his drawings portray mundane moments, Koerner didn’t shy away from tragedy or emotion. “Study for My Parents No. 2” is an early rendition of a piece that references the death of his parents in the Holocaust. Koerner clearly was familiar with the horrific realities of war and human suffering.

But he also depicted the remarkable beauty in the world around him. His sketch “Three Pigs Posing” captures the contentment of lazy swine, and “Four Walls” depicts the beauty of nature and man: a wrought iron fence next to a field of wheat, a collection of rocks, and a neat row of trees, all painted in lush greens and yellows.

In his work, Koerner attempted and was able to “imbue the canvas with the quality of life itself,” Jonathan Weinberg ’78, a painter, art historian, author and curator, writes in his essay “No Erasures” from the exhibit’s catalogue.

In the essay, Weinberg writes that he was surprised upon learning of Joseph Koerner’s decision to donate his father’s artwork to the center. After studying the artworks involved, Weinberg understood that the gift made “perfect sense,” he explained.

Joseph’s efforts to promote his father’s legacy reverberate with one of the most important tasks of scholarship, to preserve and remember …” he wrote. “If the work itself doesn’t survive — if it isn’t cared for and cherished, it does not live. So too with people: hence the Henry Koerner Center itself.”

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