Oskar Kokoschka - Biography and Legacy
Austrian Painter, Printmaker, Draftsman, Sculptor, Poet, and Playwright
Biography of Oskar Kokoschka
Oskar Kokoschka was born in 1886 in Pöchlarn, a small town on the Danube, 100 kilometers west of Vienna. His father Gustav, from a German patrician family of goldsmiths, was a travelling salesman and, his mother Maria Romana (née Loidl) was a forester's daughter from the state of Styria in south east Austria. When asked about his childhood Kokoschka said that he was a very happy child and that his father gave him books which formed him as a man and an artist. Among these were an abbreviated version of the Odyssey and the Orbis Sensualium Pictus, a 1658 textbook for children written by Czech educator John Amos Comenius. From these his appreciation for classical literature and the arts began.
The reality, however, was probably slightly more bitter for young Oskar. His father struggled with his business, frequently moving the family to smaller flats further from the village center, and finally went bankrupt and relocated the family to Vienna when Kokoschka was just 3 years old. He had a younger sister Berta and brother Bohuslav, but his older brother died when Kokoschka was just an infant.
Early Training and Work
In Vienna Kokoschka attended the Realschule, a secondary school where science and language were emphasized. Kokoschka's interests, though, were heavily in the arts and classical literature. After encouragement from a teacher, the eighteen-year-old Kokoschka entered the Kunstgewerbeschule, the University of Applied Arts of Vienna. Most of the school's teachers belonged to the Vienna Secession, which in its early years embraced the styles of Art Nouveau and Jugendstil. Here, Kokoschka improved his drawing skills and studied bookbinding, lithography, and other crafts. During this time, his teacher Carl Otto Czeschka pushed him to develop his own style, and his earliest oil paintings date from 1905 and 1906. In 1907, he became a member of the Wiener Werkstätte, an alliance of artists and designers who pioneered modern design. Kokoschka participated as a graphic designer of postcards, bookplates, and drawings for children, in which he often included the human figure as a decorative motif.
Gustav Klimt, the leading Secessionist, included Kokoschka in his 1908 exhibition at the Kunstchau, as he regarded him as "the greatest talent among the younger generation." Klimt chose to exhibit Kokoschka's The Dreaming Boys, a poem illustrated by eight lithographs. The poem, about the budding sexuality of adolescent boys, caused a scandal but insured Kokoschka's place in the following year's exhibition. Here, Kokoschka met Adolf Loos, a Viennese architect who became his patron and advocate, to whom Kokoschka admitted he "owe[d] everything." In 1909, Kokoschka was expelled from the Kunstgewerbeschule after the performance of his lurid and violent play Mörder Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, the Hope of Women) caused a riot. Thanks to Loos' support, Kokoschka then travelled to Switzerland in 1910 where he painted landscapes and portraits of aristocrats suffering from tuberculosis in the sanatorium of Leysin. During this time, he also contributed drawings, some illustrating his notorious drama Murderer, the Hope of Women, to the progressive journal Der Sturm, which promoted German Expressionism and other avant-garde art.
By 1911, after exhibitions in both Vienna and Berlin, which included depictions of young, nude girls, several portrait commissions from wealthy Viennese, his involvement with the avant-garde journal Der Sturm, and his bohemian lifestyle, Kokoschka had become a notorious artist, shocking the staid bourgeois society in which he traveled. As art historian Claude Cernuschi documents, Kokoschka was "labeled a criminal and degenerate by a hostile press" so he "shaved in his head, in his own words, 'to look the part.'" He was so controversial that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after seeing an exhibition of Kokoschka's work reportedly said that "he wanted to break every bone in Kokoschka's body."
In 1912, Kokoschka met Alma Malher, the widow of the famed composer Gustav Mahler, and they had a torrid affair that would become a major source of inspiration and hardship in his life. Kokoschka proposed on numerous occasions, but Mahler always declined, eventually leaving him for a previous lover, the architect Walter Gropius (of later, Bauhaus fame). Mahler recalled, "The three years with him were a single, intense battle of love. Never before have I tasted so much strain, so much hell, so much paradise." During their time together, Kokoschka painted many portraits of the couple, including Double portrait of Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler (1912-1913), in which Alma is depicted wearing a red gown. She remembered, "I was once given a flame-red night gown. I didn't like it due to its overpowering color. Oskar took it from me right away and from then on went around his studio wearing nothing else. He wore it to receive his astounded visitors and was to be found more in front of the mirror than in front of his easel." One of Kokoschka's most famous paintings, The Tempest (or The Bride of the Wind) (1913-14), is a double portrait of the two lovers held afloat amidst a storm of energetic brushstrokes. Oskar dedicated this painting and almost 450 other works to Alma. After Mahler had an abortion, the disconsolate Kokoschka joined the army in 1915 to fight in World War I, selling The Tempest to buy his own horse.
Kokoschka was injured twice during the war: in Ukraine when a bullet passed through his head and again in Russia when he was bayoneted in the chest. He miraculously survived both injuries but had migraines and hallucinations for many years after. He said, "War was appalling, I didn't know if I would ever get out alive, but if I did, I would climb the highest peak to see what motivates people to sacrifice their life for no reason." During his convalescences in Vienna and then Dresden, he wrote several plays, including Orpheus und Eurydike (1918), about his war experiences.
Still reeling from Alma's departure, in 1918 Kokoschka commissioned the Munich doll maker Hermine Moos to fabricate a life-size doll with Alma Mahler's body and facial features. He provided Moos with dimensions, drawings, and specific directions, writing, "Please permit my sense of touch to take pleasure in those places where layers of fat or muscle suddenly give way to a sinewy covering of skin. For the first layer (inside) please use fine, curly horsehair; you must buy an old sofa or something similar; have the horsehair disinfected. Then, over that, a layer of pouches stuffed with down, cottonwool for the seat and breasts. The point of all this for me is an experience which I must be able to embrace." He later asked the doll maker if she could make the mouth open and include teeth and a tongue. Kokoschka was disappointed with the final result; he wrote to Moos, "The outer shell is a polar-bear pelt, suitable for a shaggy imitation bedside rug rather than the soft and pliable skin of a woman." Despite his displeasure, he still dressed the doll and took it out in public, causing much speculation and gossip. Eventually, the doll became a model for several paintings, but during a raucous party, Kokoschka decapitated the doll and poured a bottle of wine over it, thus exorcising his obsession with Alma Mahler.
During the1920s, Kokoschka was a professor at the Dresden Academy and travelled extensively in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, painting mainly landscapes. In 1927, he had his largest solo show at that point at the Zurich Kunsthaus, and between 1931 and 1933, he travelled frequently to Paris where he painted several portraits of the American dancer Mary Meerson.
In 1934, in the midst of the rising Nazi power, Kokoschka travelled to Prague, where he met his future wife Olda. There, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the philosopher Tomáš G. Masaryk, president of Czechoslovakia. The two men became friends and often discussed the 17th-century philosopher Comenius. In 1935, Kokokschka acquired Czech citizenship.
In 1937, the Nazis declared Kokoschka a degenerate artist, including The Tempest (1913) and several other works in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition, which were seen alongside works by Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Kokoschka's fellow Viennese colleague Egon Schiele. As a response, he painted the defiant Portrait of a degenerate artist (1937) during one of his stays in Olda's parents' house outside Prague.
By this time, Kokoschka was a declared enemy of the Germans; after the Munich Agreement, he and Olda escaped the imminent invasion of Czechoslovakia and fled to London. There he took part in the exhibition Twentieth Century German Art with 22 works. From London, the couple moved to Cornwall, where he painted a series of landscapes, which often contain political allegories questioning the immobility of England and other European countries in the face of the Nazis' advance and the terrible situation of refugees.
In the early 1940s, Oskar and Olda moved again, this time to Scotland and North Wales where he kept making landscapes, often using crayons; in 1943 they returned to London and, at the end of World War II, obtained British Citizenship. In 1947 and 1948 he received significant recognition with a retrospective, first in Basel and then in Zurich, and an invitation to the Venice Biennale, where he represented Austria with 16 paintings. As he told his sister, the great success of these shows gave him back his "joie de vivre, faith in humanity, and hope for the future."
Kokoschka, now finally financially secure, had shows throughout Europe and the United States and continued to travel with Olda, painting portraits and landscapes along the way. In 1949, a friend and fellow Austrian émigré, Count Antoine Sielern, a scholar known for his outstanding collection of Old Master paintings as well as more modern works by the likes of the Impressionists and Cézanne, commissioned Kokoschka to create a ceiling painting for his residence. Finishing The Prometheus Triptych in the summer of 1950, Kokoschka felt it was his most important painting to date, a warning against the rising dominance of science and technology and the consequences of "man's intellectual arrogance."
In 1953 Kokoschka moved to Switzerland and started an annual seminar in the Summer Academy for Visual Arts in Salzburg, Austria, entitled School of seeing. He wanted to teach young artists "to connect the spiritual past of European people to the present, individual experience' rather than 'what is fashionable or how to follow a recipe." In 1954, he painted a second mythological triptych, Thermopylae, for Hamburg University, and during the 1950s and 1960s he increasingly worked with lithography and designed tapestries, scenography, and costumes for the theatre. His adopted country of England bestowed notable honors on Kokoschka. In 1960, Oxford University assigned him an honorary doctorate, and the Tate gallery granted him his first British retrospective in 1962.
Kokoschka's late paintings have a brighter palette but lack the intensely nervous brushstrokes of his earlier Expressionist paintings. Despite his failing eyesight, referenced in his 1973 canvas Mal'Occhio, Kokoschka continued to paint into his 90s. He left a number of interviews, a volume of collected writings, and wrote an autobiography entitled My Life (1974). He died in 1980 in a clinic in Montreux, Switzerland.
The Legacy of Oskar Kokoschka
In his long career, Kokoschka was never formally part of a movement or group of artists; nevertheless, his work is most often considered as an exponent of Expressionism. His early theater work launched Expressionist theater in Europe, and his illustrations would impact graphic design. Though his work went in and out of style over the decades, Kokoschka's portraits and self-portraits, with their penetrating, psychological probing, remain his most well-known and inspiring works. Kokoschka left indelible marks on the students he taught at the Academy in Dresden from 1919 to the mid-1920s as well as those who attended his School of Seeing at the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts between 1953 and 1963. His Expressionist handling of paint would find heirs among the American Abstract Expressionists, even if they largely rejected identifiable subject matter, and the later Neo-Expressionists of the 1970s and 1980s, including German artist Anselm Kiefer, who took up the Austrian master's aesthetic and his themes of war and myth. More contemporary artists, such as Jenny Saville and Cecily Brown, update Kokoschka's energetic Expressionist brushstrokes in their depictions of the female form.