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 - 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 - 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 - Tate Modern, London
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