Upon returning from the war, Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka learns his lover - composer Alma Maher - has taken another man in his absence. Distraught, Kokoschka makes a life sized doll of her, which he goes on to destroy in a drunken rage. In the years that followed, Kokoschka would paint Alma in a number of postures: laughing, sleeping, dancing, alluring, menacing. Golden Sorrow - a meaningfully oxymoronic title - speculatively deconstructs the complex emotional landscape of Kokoschka’s heartbreak by continuing this project.

Upon entering Union Pacific, viewers are struck by the consciously domestic layout of the gallery. Divided into smaller rooms using temporary walling, the edges of the exhibition space are papered with a saccharine, pink satin material; a selection of objet d’art stand loosely at the wall’s edges. At the door, viewers are greeted with the first of many small, ceramic busts of Alma Maher: Pure Silent II, 2022. Here, Maher is presented as a lost Grecian relique, with only the figure’s torso and face remaining. Her eyes are closed, as if asleep. Usually, classical sculptures fail to retain their extremities due to age, history - perhaps even poor handling. In the context of Oskar’s heartbroken act of destruction, however, the sculpture’s limbless presence takes on a deeper, more violent, implication, as this dispassionate ceramic becomes charged with Oskar’s timeless rage.  

Installation view: Golden Sorrow at Union Pacific. Photography credit: Reinis Lismanis

The spectral presence of Alma’s dismembered body is replete throughout Golden Sorrow: from light fixtures to coat hangers, and hall tables to flower vases. Cast tactilely in ceramic with clumsy, florentine detail, Mastubara here presents a combination of the inane and the horrific. Alma’s ubiquity nods to her ubiquitous presence in Oskar’s mind. Perhaps the most abject example of this is a coat hanger on the lower ground floor, where Alma’s neck has been horrifically extended, her hair floating around her face like wings. Below her profile, two pegs stick out, insect-like, presumably for the pedestrian purpose of coat hanging. In other places, such as the ceramic light fixture Last Night XXXVII, 2022 Matsubara superimposes a vulva under Maher’s profile; in Baby's Breath, 2022, a pair of breasts are innocuously placed below the figures’ dispassionate face. Here, a combination of everyday, decorative detail, and Alma’s warped, selectively dehumanised, and often sexually explicit presentation leads to a feeling of unease.  

Soshiro Matsubara, 'Last Night XXXVIII', 2022, Glazed ceramic, light bulb 36 x 30 x 7 cm . Photography credit: Reinis Lismanis

In other places, Matsubara explores Oskar’s own conflicted self-presentation. Kokoschka simultaneously takes on the role of knight errant, returning from war in gleaming armour, whilst also presented as infantilised and emasculated by Maher’s betrayal. In the painting Moonlight (Knight Errant), 2020-2021, there is a tension between the fairytale image of a hero with a knight’s typical attributes - masculinity, strength, virility - and the forlorn, feminine repose Kokoschka adopts. Like Manet’s Olympia, Kokoschka lies supine, his hand curled against his face in a universal gesture of ennui. In the background of the painting a moonlit bank stretches infinitely towards the ocean, girdling a picturesque, towering mound. The moon appears sequentially three times to indicate the passing of time, and the long path of grief felt by Kokoschka. Elsewhere, Kokoschka appears with parts of his armour missing, such as in Embrace, 2022, where Alma is a sphynx, embracing an Oskar with his genitals and pubic hair uncovered in a mop of miniature, pink, fuzz. In both these pieces, Oskar’s vulnerability is exposed, literally and conceptually.

Soshiro Matsubara, 'Pure Silent II', 2022, Glaze on ceramic, plaster & carpet, 31 x 45 x 32 cm. Photography credit: Reinis Lismanis

Floating Us, 2022, is one of the only pieces that makes direct reference to the real Oskar Kokoschka’s painting. Bride of the Wind, 1914, was a painting made in the wake of Oskar and Alma’s separation, which depicts two figures lying in eachothers arms with a swirling storm of abstracted paint encircling them. Floating Us similarly depicts the characters in the same pose. Here however, the size and scale of the work - miniature - and their position atop a carpet in the corner of the gallery. The sculpture - tender, delicate - is made pitiful due to the size and scale of the piece.

Soshiro Matsubara, 'Embrace', 2022, Glaze on ceramic, oil paint, ink, artificial hair & carpet, 60 x 111 x 56 cm. Photography credit: Reinis Lismanis

In his 1917 essay, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, Freud describes mourning as a productive, and ultimately ego-affirming process, where after a period of time the subject returns to normal having processed his grief. For a known loss - death, for example. In melancholia, however, the full scope of the loss is not quite appreciated, leading to an endless malaise where the patient ‘knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him’. In particular, it is not the loss of an object that causes distress, but instead the loss of an ego and sense of subject which gives rise to malaise.

Golden Sorrow suggests Oskar exists in a state of perpetual longing, fruitlessly bargaining to create a mise en abyme of sorrow. Oskar’s endless depictions of Alma, however, can in a sense be read as self-portraits; his own, abject projections, fantasies, and tools to cope with an ill-defined loss. Matsubara’s Golden Sorrow does aesthetically what Andy Warhol and Gertrude Stein does to language - here repetition denotes absence, rather than presence. In places, too, it is difficult to separate Kokoschka’s obsession with his lost love, with Matsubara’s obsessive reimagining of Kokoschka’s fractured, emotional landscape. It is easy to imagine his project continuing, indefinitely.

Installation view: Golden Sorrow at Union Pacific. Photography credit: Reinis Lismanis