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Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980)

 

Austrian painter, illustrator, poet, and playwright, who is credited with founding Expressionist drama with his early play, Mörder Hoffnung der Frauen (1909). As an artist Kokoschka started to gain international fame in the 1920. In the Nazi Germany his works were banned by the authorities, and mocked as examples of "degenerate art".

"In order to describe the consciousness of visions, I imagine in the one hand a steady point of life, and on the other a tall building that not only goes deep into the waves but rises high into the air. Consciousness is the cause of all things, even of imagination. It is a sea that has visions for its horizon. Consciousness is the grave of things, the place where they cease to exist, beyond which they end. And when they have ended, it seems that they no longer have any essential existence except in the visions in me. They exhale their spirit, as a lit lamp consumes its oil through the wick." (Kokoschka in Kokoschka by Giuseppe Gatt, 1971)

Oskar Kokoschka was born at Pöchlarn on the Danube, the second of four sons. His father, Gustav Kokoschka, who was trained as a goldsmith, came from Prague, and his mother, Romana Loidl, originally from Styria. She was an imaginative storyteller, and she inspired early Kokoschka's love of nature. After graduating from a state school he went to Vienna where he studied at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts from 1905 to 1909. The revolutionary nature of his art caused much debate and even led to his dismissal from the Art School after he drew a poster, a pietá with a bloody man.

One of Kokoschka's pen-and-ink drawings from 1906 shows Mata Hari naked except for a transparent wrap. She was a glamorous dancer, who entered the German secret service and was executed by a French firing squad in 1917. In 1907 and 1908 Kokoschka created a number of studies of nude adolescent girls. One of his favorite models was Lilith Lang, the daughter of Marie Lang, a feminist and the cofounder the progressive journal Dokumente der Frauen.

In 1907 Kokoshka worked at the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) and collaborated in founding the Cabaret Fledermaus. The Vienna Workshops published Kokoschka's Die Träumenden Knaben (1908, The Dreaming Youth), which showed the influence of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). The book consisted of a series of colour lithographs with an accompanying text, Kokoschka's own poems. Originally Kokoschka planned to produce a children's book, but the end product was a dark legend based on Symbolist ideas, a story of youth's breaking out of protecting covering into sexual maturity.

Little red fish,
little fish red
with a triple-edged knife I'll cut you dead,
then with my fingers I'll tear you in two,
put an end to the silent circling you do.

(from the 2nd version of The Dreaming Youth)

Sphinx und Strohmann (1907), an ecstatic comedy about a cuckold, and Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (pub. 1916, Murderer, the Women's Hope), influenced the Expressionist theatre in Germany. The central themes in Kokoschka's plays were sex, violence, submission, and the antagonism between man and woman. Murderer, the Women's Hope was first performed in 1908 at the little open-air theatre of the Kunstschau, where it was set in darkness illuminated by torches. The actors' faces were painted, and their costumes had lightning patterns familiar from Kokoschka's paintings. In the story a nameless Man, in conflict with his basic animalistic drives, frees himself from enslavement in a sex nightmare. He throttles a nameless Woman and then kills all her female companions. Later in 1920, the composer Paul Hindemith based his opera on the work. In Der brennende Dornbusch, the lover abandons the woman of his desires.

Loneliness, silence, and hunger confuse me
Worlds orbit past
No air
It's getting to be evening long.

(from Murderer, the Women's Hope)

The architect Adolf Loos, whose portrait Kokoschka painted, introduced him to the literary circle Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus. He made a portrait of Kraus and later he also illustrated Kraus's book Die Chinesische Mauer (1914). In his intense portraits Kokoschka wanted to go beyond physical appearance, the bourgeois facade, and used distortions, wiry and feverish lines, which did not only seem to reveal something essential about his model's inner life, but also were full of the artists's own nervous, restless energy.

Kokoschka participated in the Internationale Kunsstchau in 1908 and 1909, when he exhibited the portrait of the actor Ernst Reinhold, and illustrations for the poem Der Weisse Tiertöter, later entitled Der Gefesselte Kolumbus (1916). In the story a woman tries to turn the hero into a beast. Kokoschka's solo exhibition in 1910 at the Folkwang Museum in Hagen received good reviews by the magazine Der Sturm. It was founded in Berlin by Herwath Walden, who persuaded the young Kokoschka to move to Berlin, the art centre of Germany. There he made for Der Sturm portrait sketches, dividing his time between Berlin and Vienna. Other artists connected with the magazine were Marc and Campendonk, who contributed woodcuts, Paul Klee, and Kandinsky, who wrote theoretical articles on abstract form. Der Sturm also reprinted Marinetti's Futurist Manifest.

In 1911 Kokoschka was appointed assistant teacher at the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna. During this period he became a friend of Alma Mahler, the widow of the famous composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). "How beautiful she was, and how seductive she looked beneath her mourning veil!" told Kokoschka his friend when he met her first time. "She enchanted me! And I had the impression that she was not indifferent to me, either." After that evening in April in 1912 they were inseparable. Kokoscha gave up his post at the School of Arts and Crafts, but he taught in a private school. With Alma Mahler he traveled in Italy and painted 'Self-portrait with Alma Maler' (1912-13). Kokoschka's poem, 'Alos makar,' appeared in his book Dramen und Bilder. Its title was an anagram of Alma and Oskar. Kokoschka's mother was strongly against the relationship and she threatened to shoot Mahler.

Kokoschka's Expressionist paintings in this period came close to poetry with their surreal elements and dream-like quality. In Vienna dreams had gained a new kind of respect and status in the beginning of the century. Sigmund Freud had published his famous study Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams) in 1900, and artists and writers eagerly probed the uncharted depth of the unconscious. His Expressionistic art theories Kokoschka summarized in an influential essay, 'Von den Natur der Gesichte' (1912, On the Nature of Visions).

During World War I Kokoschka served in the cavalry  he volunteered partly to end his love affair with Alma Mahler. He was wounded on the front at Galicia  he received a bullet in the head and bayonet wound in his side. While recuperating from his wounds in Brno and Vienna, he started to write the play Orpheus und Eurydice, in which he dealt on mythological level his obsession with Mahler. In 1916 spent some time convalescing at Herwath Walden's home in Berlin. He also met Rainer Maria Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. At the front of Isonzo he drew landscapes and portraits. In August 1916, he suffered shell-shock and returned to hospital.

In 1917 he spent some time in Stockholm and Dresden, where he became the centre of a bohemian group of writers and actors. During this chaotic period of the late 1910s he was known as "mad Kokoschka." At the Dada Gallery in Zürich he held an exhibition with Max Ernst, Paul Klee, and Kandinsky. His lithographs were shown at the Cassirer Gallery in Berlin and in 1918 appeared his book Vier Dramen, which Cassirer had brought together. Kokoschka cooperation with him had started already in 1910.

Kokoschka commissioned in 1919 a Stuttgart dressmaker to make him a female dummy. Like a true exhibitionist, Kokoschka revealed his life with the hyper-realistic female doll when he published his correspondence with the dressmaker. In the same year Kokoschka became a teacher at the Dresden Academy. New responsibilities made him turn his thoughts from personal problems to landscape and nature. During the following years he had several one-man shows, and painted some of his most important works, including 'Reclining Woman' (1922), 'Dresden, Bridge over the Elbe' (1923) and 'Venice, Boats at the Dogana' (1924). After giving up teaching at the Academy traveled in widely in Europe and North Africa and had a number of turbulent love affairs. His journey in Tunis and Sahara produced such works as 'El Kantara', 'Marabout, Exodus', and 'The Market in Tunis.' Although he did not adopt the theoretical thinking of the Impressionists, he shared with them the same love for nature and light, which he examined with dashing and vigorous brushstrokes. The tension between vision and appearance, which made his portraits highly dramatic, marks also in the following decades his views of the cities and panoramic landscapes, among them 'Chamoix, Mont Blanc' (1927), 'Prague, Karlbrücke' (1934), 'Landscape in Montana' (1947), and 'View of Salzburg' (1950).

By 1931 Kokoschka has established himself as one of the most important painters, but he also continued to publish essays and stories. After Cassirer's death in 1926 his contacts with the heirs running the gallery become distant, he had a quarrel with his art dealers and his contract was not renewed. In the early 1930s his works were attacked in the pro-Nazi press. Horrified by the semi-Fascist Dolfuss regime Kokoschka moved in 1934 from Austria to Prague, where he painted the portrait of Thomas Masaryk, President of Czechoslovakia (1935-36). The writings of John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), a school reformer, political scientist, and philanthropist, influenced deeply his thinking. In such works as 'Self-portrait of a Degenerate Artist' and 'Help the Basque Children' he commented the events of the day.

In Munich his paintings were shown at an exhibition entitled Entartete Kunst (degenerate art), and soon removed from public collections. In 1938 he fled with Olda Palkovská on the last plane out of Vienna to London; they married in 1941 in an air-raid shelter. During the war Kokoschka also spent much time in Cornwall and Scotland. His works were shown in the United States in New York, Chicago, and Sprinfield at the Museum of Fine Arts. The fascist government banned Michelangelo Masciotta's monograph on his work. In spite of his productivity, Kokoschka's financial situation was often catastrophic, sometimes he starved.

After the war his graphic works were shown in Vienna. In 1946 Kokoschka wrote the essay 'Ein Deutscher Künstler in England' (A German Artist in England) and next year he became a British citizen. Edith Hoffman's book Oskar Kokoschka: His Life and Work appeared in 1947. For it Kokoschka wrote 'A Petition from a Foreign Artist to the Righteous People of Great Britain for a Secure and Present Peace.'

Kokoschka had been invited to participate at the Venice Biennale already in the 1920s, and at the XXIV Biennale in 1948 there was a special exhibition of his works. In 1953 he taught first time at the Internationale Sommerakademie für bildende Kunst at Salzburg, where he worked also as a designer for the theatre. Eventually he settled with his wife Olda in Villeneuve on the lake Geneva. His writings in the 1950s include 'Bemerkungen zum Kunstunterricht' (pub. in Neue Zürcher Zeitung), and essays on Munch (in Neue Zürcher Zeitung), non-objective art (in Das Werk), and the Academy of Salzburg (in Zeitschrift Universitas). At the age of seventy Kokoschka traveled in Greece. In 1962 he designed the scenery and costumes for the Florentine production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera and in 1964 he made designs for Mozart's The Magic Flute. Kokoschka's autobiography, Mein Leben, appeared in 1971, his collected essays in 1973-76, and his collected letters in 1984-88. Kokoschka died on February 22, 1980, in Montreux.

For further reading: The Eye of God: A Life of Oskar Kokoschka by Susanne Keegan (1999); Oskar Kokoschka by Alfred Weidinger (1997); Kokoschka and Alma Mahler: Testimony to a Passionate Relationship by Alfred Weidinger, Oskar Kokoschka, Jacqueline Guigui-Stollberg (1996); Kokoschka, ed. by Jose Maria Faerna (1995); Art in Vienna 1898-1918: Klimt Kokoschka Schiele and Their Contemporaries by Peter Vergo ( 1994); Oskar Kokoschka by Klaus Albrecht Schroder, Johann Winkler (1991); 'Kokoschka, Oskar' by Violet B. Ketels, in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, Vol. 3, ed. by Stanley Hichman (1984); Oskar Kokoschka: Maler und Dickter by G.J. Lischka (1972); Kokoschka by Giuseppe Gatt (1971); Figurationen und Kompositionen in den Dramen Oskar Kokosckas by R. Brandt (1968); Oskar Kokoschka by F. Schmalenback (1967); Oskar Kokoschka; the Artist and His Time by J.P. Hodin (1966); Bekenntnis zu Kokoschka, ed. by J.P. Hodin (1961); Oskar Kokoschka by B. Bultman (1961); Kokoschka-Fibel by H.M. Wingler (1957); Kokoschka und das Theater by O. Kamm (1956); Oskar Kokoschka - Das Werk des Makers by H.M. Wingler (1956); Oskar Kokoschka . Ein Lebensbild in Zeitgenössischen Dokumenten by H.M. Wingler (1956); Oskar Kokoschka: His Life and Work by E. Hoffman (1947) 

Selected works:

  • Sphinx und Strohmann, 1907
  • Die träumenden Knaben, 1908 (The Dreaming Youth)
  • Ehrenstein's Tubutsch, 1911 (illustrator)
  • Der brennende Dornbusch, 1911
  • Dramen und Bilder, 1913
  • Karl Kraus's Die chinesische Mauer, 1914 (illustrator)
  • Bach's O Ewigkeit - Du Donnerwort, 1914 (illustrator)
  • Der gefesselte Kolumbus, 1916
  • Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen:  Schauspiel in einem Akt, 1916
    - Murderer, the Hope of Women (translated by M. Hamburger)
  • O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: Worte der Kantate nach Joh. Seb. Bach: Lithographien, 1918 (illustrator)
  • Vier Dramen, 1919 (Der brennende Dornbusch, Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, Orpheus und Eurydice, Hiob)
  • Variationen über ein Thema, 1921 (foreword by Max Dvorak)
  • Blumenaquarelle, sechs mehrfarbige Wiedergaben, 1948 (introduction by Doris Wild)
  • Landschaften, sechs mehrfarbige Wiedergaben, 1948 (introduction by Paul Westheim)
  • Thermopylae, ein Triptychon, 1955 (with Walter Kern)
  • Spur im Treibsand: Geschichten, 1956
    - A Sea Ringed with Visions (translated from Spur im Treibsand by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, 1961)
  • Schriften 1907-55, 1956 (edited by H.M. Winger)
  • Lithographien, 1956 (introduction by Remigius Netzer)
  • Die träumenden Knaben und andere Dichtungen, 1959
  • Der Zeichner Kokoschka, 1961 (foreword by Paul Westheim)
  • Job, 1963 (translated by W. and J. Sokel, in An Anthology of German Expressionist Drama, edited by W.H. Sokel)
  • Watercolours, Drawings, Writings, 1963 (with an introd. by John Russell)
  • Handzeichnungen, 1966 (foreword by Ernest Rathenau)
  • Die Wahrheit ist unteilbar, 1966
  • Saul und David, 1970 (illustrator)
  • Bild, Sprache und Schrift, 1970
  • Griechisches Skizzenbuch, 1970 (edited by Georg Theodor Ganslmayr, introduction by Heinz Spielmann)
  • Oskar Kokoschka Drawings, 1906-1965, 1970 (edited by Ernest Rathenau in collaboration with the artist, translated by Heinz Norden)
  • Mein Leben, 1971 (edited by Remigius Netzer)
    - My Life  (translated by David Britt, 1974)
  • Comenius, 1973 (first written between 1936 and 1938, published as a fragment in 1956, rev. in 1972)
  • Londoner Ansichten, englische Landschaften, 1972 (introduction by Jan Tomes)
    - London Views, British Landscapes (translated from the German by Christine Cope, 1972)
  • Das schriftliche Werk, 1973-77 (4 vols., edited by H. Spielmann)
  • Dichtungen und Dramen, 1973
  • Job, 1974 (in German Drama between the Wars, edited by G. Wellwarth, translated by M. Benedikt)
  • O. Kokoschka: das druckgraphische Werk, 1975 (edited by Hans M. Wingler, Friedrich Welz)
  • OK: die frühe Graphik, 1976 (edited by Reinhold Graf Bethusy-Huc)
  • Briefe, 1984-88 (4 vols., edited by Olda Kokoschka and Heiz Spielmann)
  • Oskar Kokoschka, 1886-1980: Welt-Theater, Bühnenbilder und Illustrationen, 1907-1975: ein Werkverzeichnis, 1986 (edited by  Heinz Spielmann et al.)
  • Städtebilder und Landschaften, 1990 (introduction by Walter Urbanek)
  • Letters: 1905-1976, 1992 (selected by Olda Kokoschka and Alfred Marnau, foreword by E.H. Gombrich)
  • Oskar Kokoschka, Emigrantenleben: Prag und London 1934-1953, 1994 (edited by Jutta Hülsewig-Johnen)
  • Berichte aus einer eingebildeten Welt: Erinnerungen und Erzählungen, 1996 (afterword by Alfred Marnau)
  • Stories from my Life, 1998 (translated by Michael Mitchell, Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser)
  • Oskar Kokoschka: Skizzenbuch der italienischen Reise 1963, 2001 (edited by Heinz Spielmann)
  • Plays and Poems, 2001 (translated by Michael Mitchell, afterword by Karl Leydecker)
  • Kokoschka: Beziehungen zur Schweiz, 2005 (edited by Andreas Meier)
  • Oskar Kokoschka: Erotic Sketchs/Erotische Skizzen, 2007 (edited by Eckhard Hollmann)
  • Kokoschka: träumender Knabe = Enfant terrible, 2008 (edited by Agnes Husslein-Arco and Alfred Weidinger)

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