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Oskar Kokoschka

(1886 - 1980)

Austrian artist, illustrator, poet and playwright, Oskar Kokoschka, best known for his intense expressionistic portraits and landscapes, was credited with founding Expressionist drama.

Oskar Kokoschka was born on March 1st, 1886, in the Austrian town of Pöchlarn, the son of Gustav Kokoschka, who came from a long line of goldsmiths, and mother Romana Loidl. A desire to pursue studies in chemistry was set aside when he was awarded a scholarship at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts in 1905. During a four year attendance, he grew tired of the school’s curriculum, and dissatisfied with its lack of study of the human figure, his primary artistic interest. He began to experiment on his own using nude adolescent girls as his subjects.

In 1908, while still a student, Kokoschka painted fans and postcards for the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops), which were published in his first book Die Träumenden Knaben (The Dreaming Youth). They consisted of a series of color lithographs designed to accompany his poetry. He was fiercely criticized for the violent and destructive art works he exhibited in the Vienna Kunstschau that year. He was later expelled for a poster that portrayed a pietá with a bloody man.

Many of Kokoschka’s plays, which focused on the topic of sex and violence, including Sphinx und Strohmann (1907) and Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (1916), began to influence Expressionist theatre in Germany. He took a job illustrating for the magazine ‘Der Strum’ after his first solo show at the Galerie Paul Cassirer in Berlin in 1910.

The artist taught at the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna in 1911. During this time, his friendship with Alma Mahler sprung into a passionate love affair. They traveled to Italy together where ‘Self-portrait with Alma Maler’ (1912-13) was created. His stormy relationship with Alma ended on a bad note after the death of an infant daughter and her affair with Walter Gropius. His piece ‘The Tempest (Bride of the Wind)’ (1914) was a tribute to their love.

Oskar Kokoschka concentrated on portraiture from 1910 to 1914. His Expressionist paintings during this period were poetic in nature, possessing dream-like qualities. Architect Adolf Loos became a strong supporter of his work and gained him contacts and commissions with those in the literary field. 

In 1915, in an effort to end his obsession with Alma, Kokoschka volunteered to serve for the Austrian Army during World War I. The artist was seriously wounded on the front at Galicia and briefly taken prisoner after suffering a shot to the head and a bayonet wound to the lung. His wounds were critical, and it would take years to fully recuperate. He began to write, produce and later stage three plays including the popular Orpheus and Eurydice (1918).

Oskar Kokoschka settled in Dresden in 1919, where he was appointed professor at the Dresden Academy of Art. His continued travels led him to explore Europe, North Africa and the Middle East during the 1920’s and 30’s. The Rise of the national socialist party initiated his move to Prague in 1935 where he met his future wife Olda Palkovská. When the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, the couple fled to England. During his time in Czechoslovakia, he painted a portrait of President Thomas Garrigue Masaryk (1936).

In 1937, the Nazis condemned Kokoschka’s type of art as ‘degenerate’; consequently, all his works were removed from German galleries and displayed with other degerate artists in a mockery exhibition in Munich. During his years in England, his paintings became increasingly political and antifascist.

In 1945, Oskar Kokoschka received a symbolic tribute in Vienna, where the works of Klimt and Schiele were also displayed. Two years later, he became a British national and eventually settled in Villeneuve, near Lake Geneva in 1953. There he ran a program at the Internationale Sommer Akademie für Bildenden Künste (an international summer school).

A retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London honored Oskar Kokoschka in 1962,. He died February 22, 1980, in Montreux, Switzerland, a week shy of his 94th birthday, the last of his generation.

Movements associated with Oskar Kokoschka:


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