Oskar Kokoschka

(1886 - 1980 )  


Among the painters who shocked the public by refusing to see only the bright side of things was the Austrian Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), whose first works caused a storm of indignation when t hey were exhibited in Vienna in 1909. The figure shows one of these early paintings, a group of children at play. To us it looks amazingly lifelike and convincing, but it is not hard to understand why this type of portrait aroused such opposition. If we think back to the children portraits by such great artists as Rubens, Velázquez,  Reynolds, or Gainsborough, we realize the reason for the shock. In the past, a child in a painting had to look pretty and contented.Grown-ups did not want to know about the sorrows and agonies of childhood,  and they resented it if this subject was brought home to them. But Kokoschka would not fall in with these demands of convention.



    Click to see a larger image

Children playing, 1909

 Oil on canvas, 73 x 108 cm.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck

Museum, Duisburg


 We feel that he has looked at these children with a deep sympathy and compassion. He has caught their wistfulness and dreaminess, the awkwardness of their movements and the disharmonies of their growing bodies. To bring all this out he could not rely on the accepted stock-in-trade of correct draughtsmanship, but his work is all the more true to life for what it lacks in conventional accuracy.


 (E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. Phaidon, London, 1995, Reprinted 1999).




Oskar Kokoschka was born at Pöchlarn an der Donau, Lower Austria, on 1 March 1886. His mother came from a family of foresters in Lower Austria. His father came from a celebrated line of goldsmiths in Prague, but when Oskar was born his father worked as a commercial traveller for a jewellery firm. Oskar was the second of four children.

A few months after he was born the family moved to Vienna, where he spend the early part of his life. In 1904 OK was awarded a state scholarship to attend the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of the Arts and Crafts). His intention was to become a art teacher. In 1908 he had his first exhibition or more true, he got the chance to show some of his work to the public, because The Klimt group came on visit to Vienna.

In 1909, he had his first exhibition at the "Internationale Kunstschau" and the same year he left the school. In 1910 he went to Berlin for the first time to work with Walden. In 1912 his name became know in the art world around Europe, and he was normally on every important exhibition on the continent.

In 1913 he was the lover of Alma Mahler who built a house for him where he could work and where they lived for a year. After Alma had an abortion in 1914 their life together ended their relationship.

On 1 August 1914, the First World War breaks out. Oscar enrolled in one of the most prestigious regiments in the Austro-Hungarian army, the 15th Imperial-Royal Dragoons. He was send to the Eastern Front, where he got wounded and was after that discharged from the army as unfit for active service.

In 1918 Gustav Klimt dies. Oscar wrote to his mother: "I cried for poor Klimt, the only Viennese artist who had any talent and character. Now I am his successor, as I once asked of him at the "Kunstschau", and I do not yet feel ready to take charge of that flock of lost sheep." Three years later he moved to Dresden, Germany as a professor at the academy.

At this time in Germany there were fights between different political parties. In March 1920, a Rubens painting was damaged in crossfire. Oscar addressed an open letter to the population of Dresden: "I request all those who intend to use firearms in order to promote their political beliefs, …, to be kind enough to hold their military exercises elsewhere then in front of the art gallery in the Zwinger; for instance, on the shooting-ranges on the heath, where human civilization is in no danger… It is certain that in the future the German people will find more happiness and meaning in looking at the paintings that have been saved than in the totality of contemporary German political ideas."

Later the same year he wrote to his family: "Since leaving Vienna I have been in love about nineteen times, all serious, single-minded ladies with plenty of heart…. Then I get love letters regularly, and they are like sunshine when the sun goes in; and so I can paint wonderful colours that glows"

In 1922 he wrote to his father: "I believe, in all seriousness, that I am now the best painter on earth." In 1923 he started the life of a travelling restless soul. I have not ever heard of another artist that travelled so much as Oscar. He painted as we to day use a camera, a critic once said. In the years that followed, he travelled around and painted and travelled and painted.

Later he moved to Paris and after he broke with his art-dealer he moved to Prague. During the Second World War, he was banned by the German system, but both under and after the war he again was represented at every large exhibition. It was also during this time he had his first exhibition in the U.S.A.

Often his exhibitions these years was with the works of artists like Klimt and Schiele. He was the founder of The Free German League of Culture, set up in London in 1939 just before the Second World War started. Oscar died in a hospital in Montreux on 22 February 1980, 94 years old.






b. , March 1, 1886, Pöchlarn, Austria
d. Feb. 22, 1980, Villeneuve, Switz.

Austrian painter and writer, one of the leading exponents of Expressionism. In his early portraits, gesture and miming intensify the psychological penetration of character; especially powerful among his later works are allegories of the artist's militant humanism. His dramas, poems, and prose are significant for their psychological insight and stylistic daring.

When Kokoschka was three years old, his father lost everything in a financial crash. The family was forced to move to Vienna, where his father worked as a travelling salesman, and his mother cared for the children on limited means. Tragedy entered Kokoschka's life early, when his eldest brother died in 1891. Kokoschka attended elementary and high school in Vienna and received his first artistic impressions from the stained glass and Baroque frescoes of the Piarist church where he sang in the choir.

At the age of 18, Kokoschka won a scholarship to the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) in Vienna. Soon he became an assistant teacher, giving lessons at night and studying during the day. By 1907 he had also become a member of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Crafts Studio), which supplied him with commissions until 1909. At the Kunstgewerbeschule he learned drawing, lithography, bookbinding, and other crafts. He was profoundly dissatisfied with the school, however, because it was devoted entirely to the decorative arts and completely omitted from its curriculum the study of the human figure. The Vienna Crafts Studio, too, supported work only in the restrictive field of the decorative arts. From the beginning Kokoschka's primary artistic interest was the human figure; this interest is perhaps rooted in the deep concern for humanity that transcended even his concern for art. He tried to find practical means to pursue this interest. In his night classes he introduced the thin, muscular children of acrobats as models for his pupils, teaching the latter to make quick sketches--an innovation completely opposed to the aims of the school. He used the human figure as a decorative motif in the postcards, bookbindings, and bookplates he designed for Vienna Crafts Studio commissions. Still, his real desire was to paint monumental pictures of people. He taught himself to paint in oils and executed some canvases; but economic necessity forced him to spend most of his time with decorative work, and the general artistic milieu in which he found himself continued in its failure to support his creative aspirations.

In 1908 he met the prominent Viennese architect Adolf Loos, who, having been impressed by one of Kokoschka's early paintings, took an active interest in the young artist. Like Kokoschka, Loos rejected the prevailing decorative ideal, and he enthusiastically launched Kokoschka's artistic career by introducing him to sympathetic artists, securing him commissions for paintings, and providing him with much-needed spiritual inspiration and support. During this early period Kokoschka painted mostly landscapes, developing a technique of vibrant, fluid lines and colours expressive of mood that formed the basis for all of his subsequent paintings. At first glance Kokoschka's landscapes seem to follow the principles of the Impressionist school because of their bright colours, ephemeral delineation of shapes, with tangled, multicoloured lines, and preoccupation with light. His vision, however, was different from that of the Impressionists, who sought, albeit in a revolutionary way, to represent only what strikes the eye. Kokoschka sought to express through his colours the inner sensibility of the observer viewing a scene. This aim is exemplified in one of his earliest paintings, "Dent du Midi" (1909), a snowscape in which the colours are warm, reflecting the response of the observer to the scene, rather than cool, evoking the actual light that must have emanated from the snow.

At about this time Kokoschka began his career as a writer, composing several plays that heralded the new Expressionist theatre and expressed his compassionately humanist philosophy. The most important of them was Mörder Hoffnung der Frauen (1907; Murderer the Women's Hope), a play that expressed his sensitivity to the moral crises of modern life and that was outspoken in condemning the political injustices of contemporary European society. He said in 1933 that in it he

contrasted the callousness of our male society with my basic conception of man as mortal and woman as immortal; in the modern world it is only the murderer who wishes to reverse this state of affairs.

After a year in Berlin, where his first collective show was held, Kokoschka returned to Vienna in 1911, resuming his teaching at the School of Arts and Crafts. He exhibited paintings and drawings at Der Sturm gallery, where they hung alongside works of the Russian Wassily Kandinsky, the Swiss Paul Klee, and the German Franz Marc. Soon public reaction to Kokoschka's plays caused such a scandal that he was dismissed from his teaching post.

In 1911 he met Alma Mahler, seven years his senior and the widow of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. He fell in love with her, and for three years they pursued a tempestuous affair that Kokoschka much later described as "the most unquiet time of my life." He succeeded in ending his involvement with her only with the outbreak of World War I and his enlistment in the Austrian army.

About 1908, shortly before his return to Vienna, Kokoschka had begun to paint portraits that show an extremely sensitive preoccupation with the character of the subjects and an increasing concern with expressing this character through colour. The earlier of these portraits make use of delicate, agitated lines describing figures painted in relatively naturalistic colours; solid colours are varied with multihued highlights, and certain features and gestures characteristic of the sitters or expressive of their psychology are exaggerated. Among these portraits, which secured Kokoschka's early reputation, are those of "Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat" (1909), "Peter Altenberg" (1909), and "Auguste Forel" (1910).

From about 1912 these portraits, though still concentrating on hands and faces, are painted with increasingly broader strokes of more varied colour and heavier outlines, which, however, are broken and no longer solidly enclose forms. Among the works painted in this manner are "Double Portrait (Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler)" (1912) and "Self-Portrait, Pointing to the Breast" (1913). Kokoschka's most important painting of this period ("The Tempest"; 1914) shows the artist and Alma Mahler resting together in a huge cockleshell in the midst of a raging sea. In this virtually monochromatic composition, all the forms are described by large, loose strokes of colour, and the direction of the strokes seems to cause the entire composition to swirl and spin. In all of these paintings, as with the landscapes, the emotional involvement of the artist with the subject is an essential element, and this element continued to be the basis of his art throughout his life. In 1962 Kokoschka was to say,

Painting . . . isn't based on three dimensions, but on four. The fourth dimension is a projection of myself. . . . The other three dimensions are based on the vision of both eyes . . . ; the fourth dimension is based on the essential nature of vision, which is creative.

Kokoschka saw active duty in World War I for only a short time. In 1916 he was severely wounded and was taken to a military hospital in Vienna, then to one in Dresden. While recovering in Dresden he wrote, produced, designed, and staged three plays. In Orpheus und Eurydike (1918; "Orpheus and Eurydice") he expressed the terror he had experienced after being wounded. This play was adapted as an opera in 1926 by the German composer Ernst Krenek. The war and the takeover of the Russian Revolution by the Bolshevik regime disillusioned Kokoschka, as it did many intellectuals who had identified revolution with humanitarianism. He began to see revolution as a purely destructive force, and in 1920 he wrote a "Dresden Manifesto," which denounced all militancy in politics for its lack of human concern. Political and humanitarian themes disappeared for several years from his writing and art. The next 10 years he taught, primarily as a professor of fine arts at the Dresden Academy (1919-23), and traveled in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, where he painted a series of landscapes that mark the second peak of his career. These panoramic views of cities or mountains, mostly seen from a high vantage point, are lyrical in mood and communicate effects of light and atmosphere through Kokoschka's characteristically nervous brushstrokes and agitated compositions. Among these works are "London: Large Thames View" (1926), "Jerusalem" (1929-30), and "Prague: Charles Bridge (with Boat)" (1934).

In 1931 Kokoschka returned again to Vienna, where he completed his first political commission since the war, a joyful painting of children playing at an orphanage established by the socialist city council. This painting was meant as a protest against the reactionary policies of the current Austrian chancellor. In 1934 he moved to Prague, where he met Olda Palkovska, his future wife. In Prague he was commissioned to do a portrait of the president of the Czech Republic, the philosopher Tomás Masaryk. During the sittings he discussed with the aged statesman the philosophy of the 17th-century Moravian theologian John Amos Comenius, whose humanitarian views Kokoschka had admired from his youth. Kokoschka placed Comenius in the background of Masaryk's portrait, creating an allegory of the humanistic spirit from past to present. Comenius also became the subject of another play (Comenius, begun 1935).

In 1937 all of Kokoschka's works in Germany were removed by the Nazis from museums and collections as "degenerate art." This act outraged Kokoschka less for his own sake than because it boded ill for the future of culture and humanity. The same year, a great Kokoschka exhibition was held in Vienna, but Kokoschka was not encouraged. After the Munich Agreement between the English prime minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in 1938, he fled to London with Olda Palkovska.

Kokoschka's financial situation was so desperate in London that he was forced to paint mainly in watercolour. He completed a number of large canvases, however, entitled "The Red Egg" (1940-41), "Anschluss-Alice in Wonderland" (1942), "Loreley" (1942), "Marianne-Maquis" (1943), and "What We Are Fighting For" (1943), which were an antifascist manifesto. They express his distress at the sufferings of humanity and are free from narrow ideological considerations, however; the series is an indictment of all the powers, not just the fascist, that had caused suffering in World War II. In 1942 Kokoschka also painted a portrait of the Russian ambassador to London, Ivan Maysky, which contains a subtle warning against Soviet imperialism. The style of this painting is loose and expressive but calmer and more solid than that of his second Viennese period. He donated the fee for the portrait to the Red Cross for the care of German and Russian soldiers wounded at Stalingrad. He became a British subject in 1947.

After the war, beginning with a large but still basically unappreciated exhibition in Vienna, there began a series of shows of Kokoschka's works all over Europe and the United States. Kokoschka was financially secure for the first time. He continued to paint portraits and landscapes. Among Kokoschka's late landscapes that retain the energy of his earlier works are "View of Hamburg Harbour" (1951), "Delphi" (1956), "Vienna: State Opera" (1956), and "Lübeck: Jakobikirche" (1958). In 1950 Kokoschka did his first major mythological composition, the three paintings of the "Prometheus Saga."

In 1953 Kokoschka moved to Switzerland and established a seminar called Schule des Sehens (School of Seeing) at the Internationale Sommerakademie für bildende Kunst (International Summer Academy for Visual Arts) in Salzburg. He continued to paint, completing in 1954 a second mythological trilogy, "Thermopylae." In the 1950s he designed tapestries and theatrical scenery and worked increasingly in lithography. He also continued his political art; his two moving posters of 1937 and 1945 protesting the effects of the Spanish Civil War and World War II on the children of Europe were followed in 1956 by a poster for Hungarian relief showing a stricken mother and a dead child.

Kokoschka's last paintings are perhaps best characterized by his "Herodotos" (1960-63), a luminously painted picture of the Greek historian inspired by visionary historical figures that appear above his head. Kokoschka's late style is calmer and brighter than that of his early works, but some critics missed in the late paintings the agitation and surface intensity of his early masterpieces. Kokoschka's My Life (1964) is an excellent autobiography.

See my page about Alma Mahler, here.

Other paintings by Kokoschka here



Der Heimat abhanden gekommen

Ein Fremder unter den Malern seiner Zeit: Heinz Spielmann erzählt von Leben und Werk Oskar Kokoschkas

HEINZ SPIELMANN: Kokoschka. Leben und Werk. Dumont Verlag, Köln 2003. 580 Seiten, 128 Euro.

Er wurde in der Kunstschau entdeckt. Er ist seitdem der Outsider, der von der Kritik beschmutzt wird, Er rückt in die Nähe Grünewalds, Er ist der einzige Moderne in Wien, Er sieht Gespenster, geheime Seelenqualen, Er wühlt mit Vorliebe in den Wunden, Er wird im Irrsinn enden.“

Grünewald und Irrsinn. Mit Genugtuung und Verachtung zitiert Oskar Kokoschka in einem Brief an seinen Verleger, den „Sturm“-Herausgeber Herwarth Walden, was die Wiener Zeitungen drei Jahre vor dem Ausbruch des Ersten Weltkrieges über ihn schrieben. In der von Gustav Klimt ausgerichteten „Wiener Kunstschau“ von 1908 hatte „OK“ für einen der ersten unter seinen vielen Skandalen gesorgt. Wien, dem eleganten Jugendstil von Klimt verfallen, mochte sein neues enfant terrible nicht.

Kokoschka verließ Wien bald für immer. Zeit seines Lebens blieb sein Groll über die Stadt, die ihn „nur vom Wegschaun“ kenne. Wien dagegen, des steigenden Ruhms des Künstlers wohl gewahr, übte sich in Reue darüber, dass Kokoschka „der Heimat abhanden gekommen“ sei. So hieß es im Katalog der Ausstellung, welche die Stadt dem Künstler 1937 zu seinem fünfzigsten Geburtstages ausgerichtet hat. Nur Monate darauf wurde Kokoschka von den Nazis zum „entarteten Künstler“ erklärt; der Maler floh, erst nach Prag, dann nach London.

Die Kunstgeschichte ist dickleibig geworden. Unter den neuen Elefanten auf dem Buchmarkt ist die monografische Studie, die Heinz Spielmann über Kokoschka geschrieben hat, mit ihren vier Kilo allerdings noch ein zartes Gewächs. Zu Kokoschka, diesem fast archaisch fremden Einzelgänger in der Kunst des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts, sind zahlreiche Kataloge und Einzelstudien erschienen – oft noch mit Geleitworten des Künstlers selbst. Wissenschaftliche Distanz ließ seine Kunst bisher aber kaum zu. Vielleicht ist es dafür selbst heute, zwanzig Jahre nach dem Tod des Künstlers, noch zu früh.

Spielmann tut einen großen Schritt nach vorn. Seine ohne Faktenhuberei doch von Fakten überbordende Studie ist, über Kokoschka hinaus, Kunstgeschichte wie Geistesgeschichte Wiens und Berlins vor und zwischen den Weltkriegen. Paris, die dritte Große im Bunde der Avantgarde, wird dagegen eher kühl aufgenommen. Kokoschka besuchte Paris oft und blieb einige Male sogar länger. Aber mit keinem Künstler der Pariser Moderne – sei es Matisse, Picasso oder Braque – scheint er je Kontakt gesucht zu haben.

In welcher Stadt Kokoschka seine Zelte auch aufschlägt, man folgt mit Spielmann den Wegen eines großen Fremden unter den Malern der Zeit. Das macht die Lektüre ebenso reizvoll wie des Autors Gespür dafür, immer auch das Kind der Habsburger Monarchie durchschimmern zu lassen. Kokoschka hatte das fünfzigjährige Thronjubiläum Kaiser Franz Josephs noch als Schüler der Wiener Kunstgewerbeschule erlebt.

Kokoschkas Kunst ist von beeindruckender Konsequenz. Im Leben aber häufen sich die Brüche. Spielmann geht daher mit Gewinn den Weg der klassischen Künstlerbiografie. Zu den mitreißenden Kapiteln zählt die liebestrunkene Epoche mit Alma Mahler. Auch die letzten Spuren Wiener Jugendstils wurden nun weggefegt. Porträt, Allegorie, Landschaft – alles verband sich mit einem Schlage zu neuer dramatischer Wucht, als 1912 die Witwe von Gustav Mahler in Kokoschkas Leben trat und eine ungleiche, fast bis zur Selbstzerstörung gehende Leidenschaft begann. Mit dem dräuenden Liebesschwur der „Windsbraut“ schuf Kokoschka ein Bild von Shakespearescher Tonlage: im tosendem Dunkel des Lebenssturms treiben die nackt Umschlungen dahin. Wünsche, Prophezeiungen und Ahnungen malte Kokoschka seiner Geliebten auf Fächer. Von unerschöpflicher Zärtlichkeit sind die Briefe an die kühle Witwe, der die Wiener Gesellschaft letztlich wichtiger war als die heftige Leidenschaft des genialen Außenseiters. Die Anreden an Alma überstürzen sich: Mein liebes Almi! Meine über alles geliebte süße Alma! Mein süßes, kleines Mädchen Almili! Mein Almi, Du süßer kleiner Kerl! Meine wunderbare Geliebte! Der Verbindung mit Alma Mahler entsprang ein Kind, das Alma aber abtreiben ließ. Von der im Sanatorium Genesenden nahm Kokoschka einen Wattebausch voll Bluts und trug diesen bis zuletzt bei sich: „Dies ist mein einziges Kind!“

1919 wurde Kokoschka Professor der Dresdner Kunstakademie. Alma Mahler, Krieg und Verwundung lagen hinter ihm. Es begann eine der glücklichsten Schaffenszeiten. Werke von leuchtender Farbigkeit wie „Die Macht der Musik“ entstanden. Den frühen Bildnissen gesellte sich eine neue Leidenschaft hinzu: die Städtebilder. Was bei anderen Künstlern der Moderne ein Sujet unter vielen blieb, wurde bei Kokoschka zur monumentalen Suite, zum barocken Farbenjubel vom Krieg oder der Zivilisation geschundener Städtewüsten. Kokoschkas Städtebilder gerieten zur Krönung barocker Tradition. Guardi, Canaletto und die Weltlandschaften von Rubens verschmolzen hier mühelos. Die Ansichten von Stockholm, Dresden, Paris, Berlin und New York durchliefen zwar eine enorme Steigerung von Stil und Pathos. Anders als in den Bildnissen fand sich Kokoschka hier jedoch sehr rasch im Besitz größter künstlerischer Spannweite.

Die Kunsthure soll hängen!

Ein wichtiges Kapitel widmet Spielmann Kokoschkas politischer Haltung. Von den Nazis als Geisteskranker diffamiert, ging er ins Exil. In London war er federführendes Mitglied der Free German League of Culture. Er sparte nicht mit beißendem Spott über die Untätigkeit Englands gegenüber Hitler. Trotzdem gilt Kokoschka manchen als konservativ, ja reaktionär. Das mag daran liegen, dass er die Freiheit liebte, nicht aber die Revolution. Die Wirren der Revolution, die er in Deutschland nach 1918 miterleben musste, verabscheute er. Öffentlich rief er zum Widerstand gegen das Lynchen und Zerstören auf. John Heartfield und George Grosz beschimpften ihn daraufhin als „Kunsthure“, die, nach siegreichem Ende der Revolution, am nächsten Laternenpfahl aufgeknüpft gehöre.

In einer Epoche sich jagender Stile, von Expressionismus, Kubismus und abstrakter Malerei, wird Kokoschka in diesem Buch sehr oft als moderner Widergänger des Barock gezeichnet. Das kann natürlich nicht der Porträtkunst eines Malers gelten, der „das Bewußtsein schrankenlos“ und „wie eingewirkt“ in den Gesichtern leben sah. Es gilt vielmehr der geistigen Verwandtschaft Kokoschkas zu einer Malerei, die den Menschen in seiner Tragik noch ganz zu umfassen vermochte. Rubens und dessen Weltlandschaften zählten dazu. Ebenso Rembrandt, dessen spätes Selbstporträt als kranker Greis den Flüchtling während der Kriegsjahre in der National Gallery in London aufrichtete. Auch, wie Spielmann ergänzt, der rauschende Barock von Maulbertsch und die Antike.

Spielmannns bedeutende Studie wird zweifellos ein Standardwerk. Trotzdem hätte man sich bisweilen mehr Distanz gewünscht. Kokoschka hatte nicht nur Seelen-, sondern auch Schaffenskrisen. Durchaus nicht alles bewegt sich auf derselben Höhe. Bei Spätwerken wie „Ecce Homines“ und „Peer Gynt“ muss man mit Einwänden rechnen. Keineswegs alle Porträts überzeugen in gleicher Weise. Selbst in der herrlichen Suite der Städtebilder zeigen sich mancherorts künstlerische Unverbindlichkeiten. Hier kommt im Buch die Wertung oft zu kurz.

Ab und an verliebt sich die dichte und mit Verve geschriebene Studie, biografischer Lückenlosigkeit zuliebe, zu sehr in Details wie Krankheit, Arztbesuch und Reisedaten.