BILBAO, Spain — At night, its floodlit, rackety carapace looks almost lumberingly prehistoric — especially so when that shimmery, silvery flank is exposed to the hard stare of the giant, malevolent Louise Bourgeois spider, which sits in its wake on the north side, looking poised to strike …

The difficulty with showing art at the Guggenheim Bilbao is that the art is always in competition with the building itself, and in most cases, the building wins. There is an additional problem: too little time and thought were given, at that planning stage, to the galleries that would need to be carved out of its interior spaces.

How could a fiddly, mescaline-inspired swarm of black marks by, say, Henri Michaux ever hack it? It didn’t. That was back in 2018.

So our sense of awe ends when we leave the atrium (and the giddying curved walkways that hang off it) and enter the four so-called “classical galleries,” which are currently displaying a sizable retrospective — about 120 works in all, most of them paintings — by a Viennese rebel with the pleasingly syncopative name of Oskar Kokoschka.

Kokoschka (1886–1980) started as a gentle and relatively tame imitator of Viennese Art Nouveau, with its characteristically prim decorative appeal. But, by his middle 20s, everything changed. He created a series of portraits that came to define his mode of attack from first to last. You can call it crude if you like — the catalogue seems to favor that word — but the idea of crudeness is too broad and, well, too crude. His approach is very calculated, and densely wrought. (This is not to say that he does not also favor a lack of finish to add a touch of the waywardly impromptu.)

The best way to begin is to stare, hard, at a painting that confronts you on a party wall as you enter the first gallery. This portrait, of a Swiss psychiatrist called Auguste Forel (1910), possesses a kind of savage intensity, a strange nerviness, to its making, an attempt not so much to look at as to see into, and almost through. Along with brushstrokes, Kokoschka has scrubbed and rubbed and indulged in finger-scratching in order to define the quality of this elderly man’s face. The result looks alarmingly hazy, as if the sitter is emerging from some mist of himself. The hands have all the exaggerated boniness of an El Greco. The eyebrows are taut, high, and tensely arched, the look curiously wary. It is as if the man is both still and in motion. 

Oskar Kokoschka, “Giant Tortoises (Alligator snapping turtles)” (1927), oil on canvas; The Hague, the Netherlands

The sitter did not like it. The tension captured by the painter seemed to have revealed evidence of a seizure, he thought. Later in life, that seizure happened. This painting, deeply and wildly delving in all its waywardness, captures the best of Kokoschka to a tee. 

The exhibition, loosely chronological, takes us through the Vienna, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and London years. Kokoschka is wounded badly in the First World War. The gallerist Paul Cassirer takes him on in the 1920s, which ensures some few years of financial stability — and opportunities to travel outside Europe. In 1930, he paints “Fishes on the Beach of Djerba,” a nightmarish entanglement of giant creatures. He experiments with landscapes are sometimes inspired by Cubism, other times haunted by his dramatic use of high color. His portraits and self-portraits continue to be a singular preoccupation. In 1937, having been condemned by the Nazis for being a so-called “degenerate” artist, he paints himself in Prague, in a pastoral setting, arms crossed, looking brutishly defiant. The painting is called “Self-Portrait of a ‘Degenerate Artist.’” 

The final gallery is all too hugger-mugger, unclear in its trajectory, accommodating too many decades of work, too many places and too many themes. It shows us various late works in which his artistic powers are waning, and he is repeating himself. It fails to present his wartime work fully.

To see a photograph of the man in action we need to walk outside the gallery and along the walkway, to the left, where there is much more pedagogical information about what inspired him. Why here? Why not deftly incorporate at least some of this material into the wall panels inside the exhibition? We also see him painting at last, in his apron, in old age. The Viennese rebel looks disappointingly tamed and respectable — and respected. 

Where to go to see Kokoschka as he deserves to be seen, then? To the Courtauld Gallery in London, where an exhibition of his giant “Prometheus” paintings are currently on display to the public for the very first time, complemented by Lee Miller’s marvelous photographs of him in action, in which the artist, in his long apron, looks like a cross between a blowsy, red-faced comedian and a butcher. 

Oskar Kokoschka, “Annexation – Alice in Wonderland” (1942), oil on canvas, Vienna Insurance Group, on permanent loan to the Leopold Museum, Vienna
Oskar Kokoschka, “Portrait of Herwarth Walden” (1910), oil on canvas
Oskar Kokoschka, “Tre Croci – Dolomite Landscape” (1913), oil on canvas; Leopold Museum, Vienna
Oskar Kokoschka, “Time, Gentlemen Please” (1971–72), oil on canvas; Tate, acquired 1986
Oskar Kokoschka, “Dresden, Neustadt V” (1921), oil on canvas; Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Oskar Kokoschka, “Self-Portrait of a ‘Degenerate Artist’” (1937), oil on canvas; National Galleries of Scotland, on loan from a private collection

Oskar Kokoschka: A Rebel from Vienna continues at the Guggenheim Bilbao (Avenida Abandoibarra, 2, Bilbao, Spain) through September 3. The exhibition was curated by Dieter Buchhart and Anna Karina Hofbauer in collaboration with Fabrice Hergott and Fanny Schulmann.

Editor’s Note: Some travel and accommodations for the author were paid for by the museum.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...