Oskar Kokoschka: Dreaming Boy and Enfant Terrible

Oskar Kokoschka painted some of the major works of Expressionism and set a new standard for modern portraiture. Towards the end of his long life, his work was described as “eternal Expressionism”. Yet there has long been a strong tendency among critics and curators to regard his earliest work, particularly from the “Vienna years” of 1909-1914, as his best.

Certainly Kokoschka created some of his most stunningly original visual and literary work during this period. However, he continued to explore the means for powerful expression in painting throughout his life. Kokoschka was also a significant writer and active in cultural politics – as an outspoken opponent of the Nazi oppression – in his later career.

Oskar Kokoschka , Lovers with Cat, 1917. Oil on canvas, 93.5 x 130.5 cm. Kunsthaus Zurich

Kokoschka was born in Lower Austria and emerged from a milieu still under the thrall of Klimt and Viennese Secessionism. He made his name while still a student at the 1908 Kunstschau in Vienna with works he produced under the aegis of the stylish Wiener Werkstätte. The already radical and unsettling qualities of his work were recognized early. He was dubbed Oberwildling or “Chief Savage”.

Oskar Kokoschka , The Emigrants 1916-1917. Oil on canvas, 95 x 146 cm. Staatsgalerie Moderne Kunst , Munich

Kokoschka did not train as a painter. He studied other techniques at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts). Yet he had barely graduated when he began his intensive engagement with the portrait genre. Loos recognized the young artist’s raw, precocious talent and encouraged him, particularly in his portraiture. It is therefore fitting that one of Kokoschka’s first great portraits was of his mentor, painted in 1909.

Oskar Kokoschka , Gitta Wallerstein, c. 1921. Watercolour, 68.5 x 50.5 cm. Private collection

The painting for which Kokoschka is perhaps best known emerged from a passionate love affair he had, which has also become legendary. Die Windsbraut (The Tempest) is a large painting, worked over many times. Its evocative title, which literally means “Bride of the Winds”, came from the poet Georg Trakl – Kokoschka had originally envisaged the couple as the Wagnerian lovers Tristan and Isolde. The figures, elevated above earthly reality and tossed on the storms of love even as they embrace, are Kokoschka and the woman who possessed his work and his thoughts for many years, his lover Alma Mahler. She was the notoriously seductive widow of the composer Gustav Mahler.

Oskar Kokoschka , The Tempest, 1914. Oil on canvas, 71 x 86 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel

In 1930 he returned to his native Vienna, but, disturbed by its increasingly oppressive political climate, he left for Prague in 1934 and took on Czech citizenship. In Prague, Kokoschka painted another self-portrait. At first, it appears to be a straightforward self-portrait. Indeed, it was begun as one. However, Kokoschka gave it a title that complicates and politicizes the image: Bildnis eines entarteten Künstlers (Portrait of a Degenerate Artist).

Oskar Kokoschka , Self-portrait of a Degenerate Artist, 1937. Oil on canvas, 110 x 85cm. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art , Glassgow

In 1938, Hitler’s way into Czechoslovakia was cleared following the Munich Agreement. Kokoschka fled with his future wife, Olda Palkovska, to London. Kokoschka became a British citizen in 1947 and would only regain Austrian citizenship in 1978. In the same year he settled in Switzerland, where he lived the rest of his life. He died in Montreux on 22 February 1980.

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