- Edwin Lachnit
Updated in this version
updated, 26 July 2004
Austrian painter, printmaker and writer. He revolutionized the art of the turn of the century, adopting a radical approach to art, which was for him essential to the human condition and politically engaged. Kokoschka promoted a new visual effect in painting, related to making visible the immaterial forces active behind the external appearance of things, in which the object was a living, moving substance that revealed its inner essence to the eye. This applied to the portraits as well as to the townscapes (see Self-portrait, 1913). The art-historical basis for his work lies in the painting tradition of Austrian late Baroque and especially in the colourfully expressive visions of Franz Anton Maulbertsch. As was true of many artists of his generation, Kokoschka’s creative urge was also expressed in literature and showed a clear inclination towards music and theatre.
1. Life and work.
(i) Training and early work, 1904–10.
Kokoschka trained at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna (1904–9), a centre of Viennese Jugendstil. His earliest prints were much indebted to the articulation of surfaces by linear contours typical of Secessionist style. He greatly admired Gustav Klimt and dedicated to him Die träumenden Knaben (Vienna, 1907–8), a lyric text with eight colour lithographs. At the same time his inner world of emotion, which had hitherto been suppressed by Jugendstil, broke out openly in his work.
The performances of Kokoschka’s play Mörder Hoffnung der Frauen (1907–9), in which he depicted the difficulties of the man–woman relationship as a sexual battle, caused a public outcry, as did the first paintings that he showed at the Kunstschau exhibitions organized by Klimt in 1908 and 1909. In contrast to Egon Schiele, Kokoschka did not draw attention to the sexuality of the ostentatiously bared body but to a latent instinctive carnality that determines all cultural achievements, as perceived by Sigmund Freud.
Kokoschka’s portrait painting in particular, the most important body of work from these early years, is notable for the way it uncovers the spiritual disposition of the subject. Having gained access to the Viennese intellectual circle through his friendship with Adolf Loos, he accepted a series of portrait commissions, including the magazine editor Karl Kraus (1909; destr., see Wingler, 1956, pl. 4), the poet Peter Altenberg (1909; New York, priv. col., see Wingler, 1956, pl. 11), Adolf Loos (1909) and Loos’s companion Bessie Bruce (1910; both Berlin, Staatl. Museen, N.G.). It seemed that Kokoschka was able to divine from the physiognomy of his sitters inner structures of personality of which they themselves were unaware. However, a portrait of the scientist Auguste Forel (1910; Mannheim, Städt. Ksthalle) was rejected by the Forel family for not being a true likeness. Innocuous subjects in Kokoschka’s work also became metaphors of change, transience and decay. In Still-life with Tortoise, Lamb and Hyacinth (1910; Vienna, Belvedere) a skinned animal becomes a memento mori. The crude symbolism, the lack of form and the power of the colour were perceived as an attack on contemporary style.
Branded a madman by conservative critics, Kokoschka had few advocates. Herwarth Walden was one of them, and in 1910 he engaged Kokoschka as an associate to work on his periodical, Der Sturm. The pen drawings that Kokoschka provided as illustrations for Der Sturm over a period of several months met with an enthusiastic reception from the German Expressionists. Paul Cassirer also gave him considerable support as a patron in the following years.
(ii) The Expressionist phase, 1910–23.
Kokoschka’s ecstatic love affair with Alma Schindler was a turning-point in his life; she was the stepdaughter of Carl Moll, the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler and subsequently the wife of Walter Gropius and the poet and novelist Franz Werfel. Her relationship with Kokoschka lasted from 1912 to 1915, and its intensity is reflected both in Kokoschka’s letters and in his art. Of the many works relating to Alma, Bride of the Wind (1913; Basle, Kstmus.) is the most deeply expressive and emotional: holding one another closely a man and a woman travel through a storm-lashed moonlit landscape. A year later Alma aborted his child and severed their relationship; a work that perhaps reflects his ensuing loneliness is Knight Errant (1914–15; New York, Guggenheim).
Kokoschka volunteered for military service, and in 1915 he was seriously wounded while serving on the Ukrainian front. After convalescing, in 1916 he went to Dresden where he attempted finally to overcome the pain of his unhappy affair. He ordered a life-size fetish in female form from the Munich doll-maker Hermine Moos as a surrogate for his lost love. The final outcome was disappointing: the doll looked more like a furry toy animal. He eventually used it as a model for his own paintings, including Woman in Blue (1919; Stuttgart, Staatsgal.).
In 1919 Kokoschka was appointed a professor at the Kunstakademie, Dresden. As he gradually overcame his personal troubles, his work too turned towards more universal values and became vibrantly colourful. Townscapes rapidly became his preferred theme; he produced a series of views of the River Elbe from the window of his studio. The colours were applied in large masses in a pastose way and with great luminosity.
In portraying people Kokoschka went beyond individual psychology and approached the spiritual. An impressive example of this is a series of ten portrait studies drawn while he was visiting Vienna in 1920, which were published a year later as a folder of photographic reproductions entitled Variationen über ein Thema (Vienna, 1921). As a guest at a private piano recital, he had observed the pianist’s wife, Kamilla Swoboda, in the audience and recorded how her external expression altered as she listened to different pieces of music. Max Dvořák described the intellectual historical significance of expressive art in a sensitive preface to this folder of prints. If the attribution of Expressionism to Kokoschka’s work is justified (he himself had reservations about accepting it), then in the narrower sense this applies to the works done during his Dresden period.
(iii) The years of travel, 1923–34.
In 1923 Kokoschka took leave of absence from the academy in Dresden, although in fact he never returned. In the following decade he travelled through Europe ‘to the boundaries of the Roman Empire’, from Britain to North Africa and the Near East. In the course of his travels he produced a series of pictures of cities, including London, as in Large Thames View I (1926; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.) and View of the Thames (1959; London, Tate), Venice, Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Madrid, Amsterdam and Jerusalem. They are all based on a characteristic visual focus: he painted exclusively from an elevated viewpoint giving a top view into the far distance, with a high horizon. He embraced the whole panorama afforded by his visual field in a universal perspective. The city picture thus comes across not as a view of some special architectural features but as a living, breathing creature. Circling lines of force and streams of movement indicate constant contraction and expansion that are confined by the surface of the picture with difficulty. Although the individual brushstroke emerges ever more strongly in the method of painting, this way of seeing has nothing in common with the optical appearance typical of Impressionism. Comparisons should be sought rather in the Weltlandschaft of the late Middle Ages: Kokoschka was deeply influenced by Albrecht Altdorfer. In the early 1930s Kokoschka returned to Vienna, where he painted pictures of the district around his home on the edge of the city, including Schloss Wilhelminenberg with a View of Vienna (1931; Vienna, Hist. Mus.), which was commissioned by the city authorities.
(iv) Exile and political commitment, 1934–47.
After the fighting in Vienna in February 1934 and the establishment of an authoritarian corporate state, Kokoschka moved to Prague and in 1935, proposed by President Masaryk, became a Czechoslovak citizen. There too he painted city pictures that sometimes suggest a steep, rugged, rocky landscape. Reinforced by dramatic colour contrasts, they give a heightened sense of the tense atmosphere on the eve of World War II. In Prague he met his future wife, Olda Palkovská. When the Nazis seized Czechoslovakia in 1938, they emigrated to London. Kokoschka’s work referred ever more strongly to political events.
While Kokoschka was still in Prague, he had made a commitment to Republicanism and to a tolerant, humanist approach in his portrait of the president, Tomáš G. Masaryk (1935–6; Pittsburgh, PA, Carnegie Mus. A.). The removal of his pictures from German museums prompted him to paint Self-portrait of a ‘Degenerate Artist’ (1937; Scotland, priv. col., see Calvocoressi, pl. 82). He responded to the Spanish Civil War of 1936–9 with the coloured lithograph Help the Basque Children (1937; see Calvocoressi, p. 353) and drawings of the anti-Fascist fighter La Pasionaria (see Hoffmann, 1947, p. 209) and the murdered poet F. Garcia Lorca (1936; see Calvocoressi, pl. 195). He spent World War II in Britain, commenting on the war in coded political allegories such as What We Are Fighting for (1943; Zurich, Ksthaus).
(v) The late work, after 1947.
After the war Kokoschka, who became a British citizen in 1947, again set out on extensive journeys through Europe and the USA. In 1953 he settled in Villeneuve on Lake Geneva. His late work as a painter, which mainly comprised townscapes and portraits of the famous, culminated in two triptychs that encapsulated his view of life: the Saga of Prometheus (1950; U. London, Courtauld Inst. Gals) and Thermopylae (1954; Hamburg, Staats- & Ubib.), both themes from Greek antiquity that become the sum of Western civilization and history and ‘pictures of humankind’. He also turned to Classical subjects in extensive cycles of lithographs, including Bekenntnis zu Hellas (1961; pubd London, 1964), Apulia (1963; pubd London, 1964) and Die Odyssee (1963–5; pubd London, 1965).
Kokoschka also executed stage designs in this period, including designs for sets and costumes for several plays by Ferdinand Raimund at the Burgtheater in Vienna (1960–62), for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Salzburg Festival (1955) and the opera house in Geneva (1965) and for Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera in Florence (1963). From 1953 to 1963 he directed the Internationale Sommerakademie für Bildende Kunst at Salzburg, which he had founded; his course entitled ‘Die Schule des Sehens’ became an annual attraction for young artists from all over the world. His importance as an artist was recognized in numerous exhibitions and publications, and he himself received several high honours. In 1975 he resumed his Austrian citizenship.
2. Working methods and technique.
Kokoschka’s work is very painterly. It is true that his earliest graphic work was influenced by the linearity of Jugendstil, but from the start he experimented with oil painting, and before long the creative potential of colour burst beyond the use of line to give shape. In the portraits made c. 1910 an open way of painting was associated with a tense use of the brush; facial details were scratched on to the layer of paint with the brush handle. While he was in Dresden c. 1920 a striking transformation of style took place: broadly applied brushstrokes were drawn across the surface of the picture creating a mosaic-like, luminous colour structure.
In the pictures painted during Kokoschka’s years of travel another change of style occurred that remained characteristic of all his later work: the colour intensity was undiminished but was now structured by the graphic use of the coloured line. As well as 485 oil paintings he produced an extensive body of graphic work: c. 5000 drawings, using pen and ink, brush, chalk, charcoal and crayons; watercolours; and 567 prints, mainly lithographs; a small number of three-dimensional works occupy a marginal position in his output.
3. Character and personality.
Kokoschka’s personality was firmly rooted in the history of Western civilization and thought. The humanist ideas of the Moravian teacher Johann Amos Comenius (1592–1670) in particular, familiar to him from his earliest childhood, remained the basis of his ethical principles throughout his life. After he had overcome his youthful phase of wanting to shock the bourgeoisie and the tumultuous feelings engendered by his first love affairs, Kokoschka became increasingly convinced that the path to a better world could only be achieved through education and the force of example. He selflessly supported people who had suffered as a result of war by means of poster campaigns and donations of money. His admiration for Comenius was expressed in a play of the same name written between 1935 and 1972, which was filmed for television and first shown on ZDF in March 1974. His need to express himself through language always went hand in hand with the need to express himself visually. An extensive body of written work, ranging from expressionistic self-description via political commitment to passing on his experience of life as a means of teaching others, accompanies his pictorial work: poems, plays, stories, essays, articles and an extensive correspondence. An archive, The Oskar Kokoschka Documentary Archive, was set up in 1973 in the house where Kokoschka was born in Pöchlarn, Regensburger Strasse 29, and in 1988 a commemorative foundation was established at the Musée Jenisch in Vevey in Switzerland.
- Die träumenden Knaben (Vienna, 1908)
- Der gefesselte Kolumbus (Berlin, 1916)
- Mörder hoffnung der Frauen (Berlin, 1916)
- Der brennende Dornbusch (Leipzig, 1917)
- Hiob (Berlin, 1917)
- Orpheus und Eurydice (Vienna, 1925)
- Ann Eliza Reed (Hamburg, 1952)
- Thermopylae: Ein Triptychon (Winterthur, 1955)
- Spur im Treibsand: Geschichten (Zurich, 1956)
- A Sea Ringed with Visions (London, 1962)
- Mein Leben (Munich, 1971; Eng. trans., London, 1974)
- H. Spielmann, ed.: Oskar Kokoschka: Das schriftliche Werk, 4 vols (Hamburg, 1973–6)
- Olda Kokoschka and H. Spielmann, eds: Oskar Kokoschka: Briefe, 4 vols (Düsseldorf, 1984–8)
- Olda Kokoschka and A. Marnau, eds: Oskar Kokoschka: Letters 1905–1976 (London, 1992)
- Kokoschka, Oskar
- Variationen über ein Thema (Vienna, 1921)
- Apulia (London, 1964)
- Bekenntnis zu Hellas (London, 1964)
- Die Odyssee (London, 1965)
- Marrakesch (London, 1966)
- Saul und David (London, 1969)
- Penthesilea (Frankfurt am Main, 1970)
- Handzeichnungen 1906–1969 (New York, 1971)
- The Women of Troy (London, 1973)
- Pan (Hamburg, 1978)
- P. Westheim: Oskar Kokoschka (Berlin, 1918, rev. 2/1925)
- E. Hoffmann: Kokoschka: Life and Work (London, 1947)
- M. Masciotta: Kokoschka (Florence, 1949)
- D. Thurston: Notes on Kokoschka (New York, 1950)
- Oskar Kokoschka (exh. cat., Linz, Neue Gal., 1951)
- H. Wingler: Oskar Kokoschka: Das Werk des Malers (Salzburg, 1956; Eng. trans., London, 1958)
- B. Borchert: Kokoschka (Berlin, 1959; Eng. trans., London, 1960)
- B. Bultmann: Oskar Kokoschka (Salzburg, 1959; Eng. trans., London, 1961)
- E. Horstmann: Oskar Kokoschka in Hamburg (Hamburg, 1965)
- J. Hodin: Oskar Kokoschka: The Artist and his Time (London, 1966)
- J. Tomeš: Kokoschka: The Artist in Prague (London, 1967)
- G. Gatt: Kokoschka (Florence, 1970; Eng. trans., London, 1971)
- H. M. Wingler and F. Welz: Oskar Kokoschka: Das drückgraphische Werk, 2 vols (Salzburg, 1975–81)
- W. Hofmann, ed.: Experiment Weltuntergang: Wien um 1900 (Munich, 1981), pp. 63–146
- H. Schvey: Oskar Kokoschka: The Painter as Playwright (Detroit, 1982)
- W. Schweiger: Der junge Kokoschka: Leben und Werk, 1904–1914 (Vienna, 1983)
- H. Spielmann: Kokoschkas Fächer für Alma Mahler (Dortmund, 1985)
- Oskar Kokoschka-Symposium, Wien 1986 (Salzburg, 1986)
- P. Werkner: Physis und Psyche: Der österreichische Frühexpressionismus (Vienna, 1986), pp. 81–133
- F. Whitford: Oskar Kokoschka: A Life (London, 1986)
- Oskar Kokoschka, 1886–1980 (exh. cat., ed. R. Calvocoressi; London, Tate; New York, Guggenheim; 1986)
- R. Count Bethusy-Huc, ed.: Oskar Kokoschka: Das Konzert: Variationen über ein Thema, Hommage à Kamilla Swoboda (Salzburg, 1988)
- Oskar Kokoschka (exh. cat., ed. K. A. Schröder and J. Winkler; Vienna, Kstforum Länderbank, 1991)
- Oskar Kokoschka: Lebensspuren (exh. cat., ed. H. Spielmann; Kloster Cismar, Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmuseum, 1992)
- Oskar Kokoschka: Das Frühwerk (1897/98–1917) (exh. cat., ed. A. Strobl and A. Weidinger; Vienna, Albertina, 1994)
- Oskar Kokoschka: Emigrantenleben, Prag und London, 1934–1953 (exh. cat., ed. J. Hulsewig-Johnen; Bielefeld, Ksthalle, 1994-5)
- J. Winkler and K. Erling, eds: Oskar Kokoschka: Die Gemälde, 1906–1929 (Salzburg, 1995) [cat. rais.]
- G. Frodl and G. T. Natter eds.: Oskar Kokoschka und der frühe Expressionismus (Vienna, 1997)
- T. G. Natter, ed.: Oskar Kokoschka: Das Moderne Bildnis, 1909–1914 (Cologne, 2002)
- G. Sultano and P. Werkner, eds.: Oskar Kokoschka: Kunst und Politik, 1937–1950 (Vienna, 2003)