Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980)
Portrait of Herwarth Walden (1910)
One of the longest-lived expressionist painters, the Austrian-born painter, printmaker and writer Oskar Kokoschka was born at Pochlarn in Bohemia, and received his arts training in the Austro-Hungarian capital, Vienna. His first works - like the picture book The Dreaming Youths - were admired, and in 1908 he exhibited in the Kunstschau exhibition organized by the Klimt circle. This, together with his activity as a poet and playwright brought him into contact with the city's avant-garde art community, including the composer Schonberg. Like the other great Austrian painter, his contemporary Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Kokoschka was influenced by German and Austrian versions of Art Nouveau (see also Jugendstil as well as the Vienna Secession) but, unlike Schiele, his painting style quickly moved from Klimt-style decorative linearism to a more intense style of German Expressionism. Kokoschka is now ranked among the greatest modern artists of the Austrian school, and one of the finest expressionist portrait artists of the 20th century.
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From 1908-12 Kokoschka began a series of expressionist paintings, namely his "psychological portraits" of Viennese celebrities, seen as the first works to reveal modern existential anxieties: a genre exemplified by his portrait of the prominent architect Adolf Loos (1909, State Museum, Berlin). In 1910 he was given his first solo exhibition at the Folkwang Musem in Hangen. In 1912, his portrait art was chosen by Herwarth Walden for inclusion in the first shows at the Sturm Gallery shows in Berlin and in the Cologne Sonderbund exhibition. Around this time Kokoschka began his passionate and stormy affair with Alma Mahler, widow of composer Gustav Mahler, which he celebrated in his 1914 painting The Bride of the Wind (The Tempest) (Kunstmuseum, Basle). Though she eventually broke it off, he continued to love her for the rest of his life.
In 1914 he volunteered for army service with the Austrian forces, but was badly wounded in the head, necessitating extended periods of hospitalization. During this period he moved to Dresden, and after the war was appointed Professor of Painting at the Dresden Academy of Art, where he taught from 1919 to 1924. With the decline of the expressionist movement in Germany and Austria, his own paintings during the post-war period give an increased priority to colour and are the most solid of his career; his landscape painting in particular were very popular, and in 1922, he exhibited in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Beginning in 1924, after resigning his Professorship, he embarked on several years of travel, during which he concentrated on landscapes and townscapes, including a distinctive form of townscape seen from above as exemplified by London, View of the Thames in the Evening (1926, Private Collection) and Jerusalem (1929, Detroit Institute of Arts). He settled in Paris for part of 1931 and again in late 1932, but never took to the city and eventually returned to Vienna. For more about the contribution of Kokoschka to early expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).
In 1934, bitterly opposed to the Nazis and feeling stifled by Viennese parochialism he moved to Prague, where he completed a portrait of the Czech President Thomas Masaryk (1935, Pittsburgh Museum of Art). After hearing that his paintings - along with those of other expressionist artists, including: Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Paul Klee (18791940), Otto Dix (1891-1969), Max Beckmann (1884-1950), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), and Marc Chagall (1887-1985) - had been labelled Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) by the Nazi authorities - he painted an ironic self-portrait of himself as a "degenerate artist".
In 1938, he fled to England, where he was largely unknown, and where his wartime painting attracted no great interest. After the war however, his fortunes rose. In 1947, after receiving British nationality, he travelled in Europe and the United States, receiving considerable attention as one of the surviving giants of modern art. He enjoyed a number of solo exhibitions, beginning with his 1947 retrospective at the Kunstmuseum in Basle.
He continued painting landscapes and portraits, but his main focus was allegorical and mythological painting, as exemplified by his Prometheus ceiling (1950) which he completed for Count Seilern in London, and the Thermopylae Triptych (1954) for Hamburg University.
In 1953 he opened a Summer School of art, in Salzburg, which he ran for the next decade. He also bought a house at Villeneuve in Switzerland, where he lived for the rest of his long life. Meantime, major exhibitions of his art were now relatively frequent occurrences on both sides of the Atlantic, and he now interspersed writing with painting, completing an autobiography as well as numerous essays and plays.
In some ways Oskar Kokoschka was typical of the early 20th century generation of German Expressionists. His painting is often characterized by apocalytic treatment of theme, and morbidity of colour, while the medium is handled in such a way as to create and enhance the required mood. However, unlike other similar artists, he worked basically within the framework of traditional Renaissance and Post-Renaissance conventions, even favouring a similar kind of scale.
There is a certain kindred spirit between Kokoschka and his contemporary the Leipzig-born Max Beckmann (1884-1950). Both maintained their own unique style of German Expressionism, by delving deeply into the art of the Old Masters, and both were masters of oil painting methods anchored in earlier traditions. Finally, both were orphaned from their homelands and artistic environments by the upheaval of war, and to some extent left standing as the world of contemporary art entered its post-war and later postmodernist phases.
Works by Oskar Kokoschka hang in many of the world's best art museums in both America and Europe.
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