Austrian Painter, Printmaker, Draftsman, Sculptor, Poet, and Playwright
Summary of Oskar Kokoschka
Oskar Kokoschka moved daringly from a more decorative style into a bold, racy Expressionism. He came of age during turn-of-the-century Vienna, exploring Sigmund Freud's analysis of dreams and the unconscious as well as giving voice to the growing anxiety felt among the bourgeois class about the modern age. His disorienting compositions used bold brushstrokes and strong colors to confront the viewer. His freedom from stylistic constraint as well as his belief in the power of art to raise awareness of contemporary problems set an example for artists from the Abstract Expressionists in the mid-20th century to the Neo-Expressionists of the late-20th century.
- Like many Expressionists, Kokoschka eschewed the harmonious effects of color and form and instead created tempestuous compositions with clashing colors and contorted angles to create an emotional intensity meant to rouse the viewer from bourgeois tedium and conservatism.
- Kokoschka's penchant for portrait painting and self-portraiture was unique among the Expressionists. Kokoschka was less concerned about portraying the physical features of his sitters as realistically as possible and more interested in capturing their, and his, inner psyche through exaggerated features, gestures, and brushstrokes.
- An outspoken critic of the Nazis and Fascism and concerned with the predicaments of refugees from these regimes, Kokoschka believed that art could counter such power, and to this end, he never painted completely abstractly like some of his other avant-garde colleagues. He felt that in order for art to be as powerful as possible it needed to maintain a reference to the concrete world in which we live.
Progression of Art
Selection from The Dreaming Boys (or The Dreaming Youths)
This illustrated book with eight photolithographs was originally commissioned by the financier of the Wiener Werkstätte as a fairy tale for his children. But the resulting work, The Dreaming Boys, audaciously flouts the genre. Instead, Kokoschka's stream-of-conscious narrative poem tells of the sexual awakening of a young, unnamed boy and the heroine Li. Set in an imaginary forest populated by birds and animals, Kokoschka writes of love, sex, and violent fantasies in which reality and the subconscious blend. The eternal themes of Eros and death, as well as dreams and the unconscious, were subjects made more popular around 1900 thanks to the Viennese father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Kokoschka revealed that the story was autobiographical, writing, "The book was my first love letter. But she had already gone out of my life by the time it appeared." The young woman was Kokoschka's classmate Lillith Lang, who he often sketched and who was exploring dream imagery in her own work.
The poem itself includes elements of symbolist poetry of the late-19th century as well as traditional verse forms of German folk-poems. Kokoschka's images, which do not neatly correspond to the text on the page, exhibit influences of non-Western, or "primitive," art as well as Japanese prints, sources shared by many fin de siècle avant-garde artists. The broad areas of color and the flat, decorative nature of the landscape show heavy influences of the German Art Nouveau style Jugendstil. The long lines of the figures' outlines also find their source in Jugendstil imagery, but Kokoschka's exaggeration of gestures and use of more angular forms points towards a growing interest in Expressionism. As Kokoschka later explained, "In their chaste forms and their inwardness, I seemed to find a rejection of the two-dimensionality of Jugendstil. Something was stirring beneath the surface of these figures of youths", something akin to the tension which, in Gothic art, dominates space and indeed creates it."
Illustrated book with eight photolithographs and three line block prints, edition of 500 - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Self-portrait as Warrior
Created just a year after The Dreaming Boys, Kokoschka's Self-portrait as Warrior declares his break with Jugendstijl and decorative arts and affirms his commitment to an expressionistic art. The artist subverts the traditional form of the portrait bust by presenting distorted, suffering features. It is as if Kokoschka pulled back his own skin to reveal raw nerves and flesh. The thickly modeled clay, with incised lines, would find its counterpart in his portrait paintings from this same time. Kokoschka remarked of the striations in the clay, "Seeing a Polynesian mask with its incised tattooing, I understood at once, because I could feel my own facial nerves reacting to cold and hunger in the same way."
Kokoshka's self-aggrandizing - figuring himself as a warrior - along with his aggressive attacks on academic norms intrigued the Viennese architect Alfred Loos, who immediately bought the sculpture when he saw it. Loos felt that "The aim of art is to shake you out of your comfortable existence. The purpose of a house is to serve your comfort. The work of art is revolutionary, the house is conservative." Kokoschka's sculpture and painting did everything in its power to discomfort and alarm.
Unfired clay painted with tempera - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat
Kokoschka depicts his subjects, prominent Viennese art historians Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat who were supporters of contemporary art, not so much as they actually looked but how he understood their psyches. He described his friends as "closed personalities so full of tension." The figures do not face each other, and Erica's posture with her arms across her chest further divides her from her husband. The two stare off into different distances, not even looking at the viewer. This trance-like state separates each from the other and from the viewer. Their exaggerated and distorted hands are about to touch or have just touched, creating an electrified tension. The hands, with their long, sinewy fingers and odd colors also convey a sense of nervousness, or uncertainty.
Kokoschka often set his sitters in an indeterminate space. Here he fills the background with thin layers of swirling browns, yellows, oranges, and greens and, using the end of his paintbrush, scratched lines emanating from the figures. By refusing to place the couple in a physical setting, Kokoschka signals his interest lies in their psychological states and the energy they discharge. Kokoschka spoke of his response to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which documented that humans and primates were closely related species; he said, "The sense of familiarity and intimacy within mankind gave way to a feeling of alienation, as if we had never really known ourselves before. I myself was more affected by this than I would admit, which is why, to confront the problem, I started painting portraits." One could point to a host of sources for modern man's feelings of alienation in society, and Kokoschka vowed to render that alienation and anxiety visible.
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Here Kokoschka portrays an anonymous middle-aged man, a Rentmeister, something like an estate manager or appraiser. His eyes are asymmetrical, half-opened, and looking down, avoiding the gaze of the artist and the spectator. When working on his portraits, Kokoschka would ask his sitters to ignore his presence and to be as relaxed as possible. In so doing, he could portray them absorbed in their own thoughts, highlighting their psychological depth. Here, he seems to paint a subtle halo around the man's head, suggesting his thought patterns. While Kokoschka often highlighted the subject's isolation, he admitted "I cannot paint everybody. It is only people who are in my anteannae - certain people whom I discovered an affinity with - with one facet of my own being."
One of the striking features of this painting, along with others painted around the same time, is how Kokoschka combined thin layers of translucent paint with areas of heavy impasto. One notices the semitransparent nature of the man's coat and the thickly painted areas around the eyes. In both, though, Kokoschka traced a sharp object, or maybe his fingernail, through the paint, creating a series of dynamic lines that subtly unite the areas of thick and thin paint. One might even say that this unique paint application speaks to the transparency and opacity of the sitter's soul.
Oil on canvas - Belvedere Museum, Vienna
The Tempest (Or Bride Of The Wind)
When Oskar Kokoschka and his lover Alma Mahler came back to Vienna from a trip to Italy in the spring of 1913, the rebel artist painted the walls of his studio black and started working on The Tempest, or Bride of the Wind. The painting is a storm of broad, thick brushstrokes on a deep blue background. With the faintest suggestion of a landscape and a moon in the top right of the canvas, two lovers float in the center of the composition, as if in a dream or the artist's imagination. The woman is asleep, and the man, with his eyes wide open, holds her in a tense embrace. In contrast to the woman's serene face, his expression appears pensive and foreboding.
Kokoschka was an intense man, set on upending the norms of Viennese bourgeois society, and still he fell in love Alma Mahler, "a woman of 30 accustomed to luxury and always surrounded by men," as Kokoschka later described her. Their three-year relationship was filled with jealousy and heartache, and eventually Alma left him for a former lover. Yet, Alma kept a small reproduction of The Tempest in her apartment in New York, where she fled before the Second World War. She wrote, "He painted me lying trustingly against him in the midst of a storm and huge waves, relying utterly on him for help, while he, tyrannical in his expression and radiating energy, calms the waves." Kokoschka, in fact, indicated these different temperaments in his handling of each of the figures. He painted the man with tense, short, and quick strokes, while Alma is depicted in a more classical manner, with smoother, longer lines and her body nearly shimmering.
Oil on canvas - Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel
Self-portrait of a Degenerate Artist
A friend commissioned from Kokoschka a self-portrait in 1937. Kokoschka had created numerous self-portraits throughout the years, probing his own interior world as intensely as he examined his other sitters. Kokoschka said, "In the Self-portrait of a Degenerate Artist I've used only my own private perspective... because it's the expression of my whole being and only I can express my being as such." In the midst of painting this particular self-portrait, Kokoschka learned that his works had been included in the Nazi's Degenerate Art Exhibition, a Munich exhibition that strove to expose modern art's debasement of classical tradition and its decadence. Kokoschka decided to modify the painting, altering the position of his arms, and changed the title accordingly. Unusually, the artist portrayed himself staring directly at the viewer, with a stern and rigid expression, his arms crossed to confirm his resolute and determined attitude towards the German regime and their ban against modern art.
Having been an outspoken critic of the Nazis, Kokoschka was basically on the run, having fled Austria to settle in Czechoslovakia, but the Nazis vowed to arrest him when they entered the country and he had to flee again, this time to England. The background of the paintings depicts the woods outside of his fiancé's family's home. One can make out a stag on the right and a person exiting the composition on the left. Some have suggested Kokoschka was acknowledging his plight as a wanted man.
Oil on canvas - National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
In 1938, Kokoschka and his fiancé Olda fled Czechoslovakia from the invading Germans and made their way to England. They stayed in London for a short while before moving to the small fishing village Polperro in Cornwall, southwest of the city. Here, Kokoschka began The Crab, which started as a landscape painting of the harbor in Cornwall, with its notable spiked Peak rock in the middle ground. He painted the cliffs and water in characteristically short, rapid strokes of bright color. On his return to London, Kokoschka brought the unfinished canvas with him and continued working. But by the time he had finished it, the straightforward landscape painting had been transformed into a political allegory.
An oversized crab dominates the foreground, while a small figure swims to shore. Kokoschka explained that the swimmer, a self-portrait, represented Czechoslovakia and the crab was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The crab's large body appears menacing as the vulnerable, small swimmer desperately approaches the shore. Kokoschka explained to a friend that Chamberlain "would only have to put out one claw to save him from drowning, but remains aloof." As a refugee, Kokoschka was particularly sensitive to how he was received in other countries and the plight of refugees across Europe.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Venice Bacino di San Marco
In the summer of 1948, Kokoschka and his wife traveled to Venice in advance of the Venice Biennale, where Kokoschka represented Austria with several of his paintings. From his hotel room, he completed this panoramic, postcard scene of the San Marco Basin. One can see the grand church of San Giorgio Maggiore in the center of the composition and the Punta della Dogana, the old Custom House that is now a museum, on the right. A number of boats populate the canal. Color still operates descriptively here, but it is also stretched and saturated to enhance the brightness of the cityscape; whites, yellows, blues, and reds are distributed on the canvas to create a grand spectacle of light.
While Kokoschka reveled in his earlier rebel status as a young Expressionist, here we see him inserting himself into a long tradition of European landscape painting, going back to Canaletto, who painted Venice so magisterially, and the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, such as Monet and Signac. Kokoschka retains his bright color and short, energetic brushstrokes in this landscape painting, but instead of presenting a foreboding or anxious scene (a type of scene he specialized in earlier), Kokoschka relishes the Mediterranean light as it plays across the water and the gleaming buildings.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
The Prometheus Triptych
Commissioned by fellow Austrian émigré, art historian, and collector Count Antoine Seilern in 1949, Kokoschka painted the three large panels of xxx. The central panel depicts the biblical scene of the Apocalypse, with four horsemen riding into a deep, bright empty space while a storm rages behind them and figures writhe beneath them. The left panel shows Persephone's escape from Hades (rendered as a self-portrait), with Demeter, the goddess of harvest and fertility, looking on. The panel on the right illustrates the punishment of Prometheus, chained to a rock and pecked by an eagle. Kokoschka meant the combination of myth, legend, and biblical prediction as a warning to modern society's obsession with science and technology and the possible loss of humanity and culture.
Kokoschka felt that the triptych was the most important painting that he had created. While he had always considered himself a stylistic rebel, here he placed himself in the lineage of the Baroque masters Rubens and Tiepolo, presenting contorted, elongated figures at dramatic angles to create an emotional intensity. Connecting his art in both subject matter and style to the tradition of Western European painting, gives this moralizing painting more gravitas and authority.
Oil on canvas - The Courtauld Gallery, London
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.