Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980)

Oskar Kokoschka was both a writer of revolutionary plays and literature and an artist, but he is best known outside Central Europe for his turbulent, expressive paintings and for his tempestuous affair with Alma Mahler, widow of the great composer Gustav Mahler.

Oskar KOKOSCHKA / Albert Berger
Poster for Vienna Kunstschau 1908
lithograph on paper
96 x 65 cm
Wien Museum
Approved: Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

Oskar Kokoschka was born in 1886 in the Austrian Melk, and trained at the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna from where he joined the Wiener Werstätte (Vienna Workshop), initially illustrating and designing books and working with the graphic arts. It was there that the architect and critic Adolf Loos discovered him and became his mentor and patron.

In the second Kunstschau (art show) in Vienna in 1909, Kokoschka produced his controversial, anarchic play Murder, the Hope of Women challenging bourgeois morality and gender assumptions. His art at this time incorporated folkloric imagery from the wide reach of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Psychological portraits

Austria-Hungary/Czechoslovakia/England 1886-1980
Conte Verona (1910)
oil on canvas
70.6 x 58.7 cm
Private collection, New York
Approved: Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

With Loos’s encouragement, he began to make portraits of Viennese and European notables. Of  great originality and dramatic power, these portraits focused on the interior  life of the individual, in keeping with the strongly Viennese preoccupation  with the psyche at that time. Kokoschka achieved this though an intensely animated  and ‘raw’, almost violent application of paint, his wild brushstrokes conjuring  the strength and vigour of the sitter’s inner life. His figures often seem to  be emerging from or disappearing into a vortex of paint.

Kokoschka and  Alma Mahler

The painter Carl Moll 1861-1945 1913
oil on canvas
128.0 x 95.5 cm
Belvedere, Vienna
Approved: Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

Kokoschka’s passionate affair with Alma Mahler ended when she left him to marry the architect Walter Gropius. He never recovered from this rejection and even went so far as to have a life-sized doll made of her, taking it motoring with him into the country, though eventually he destroyed it.

Alma, whom he continued to love all his life, inspired his most celebrate painting, The Tempest or The Bride of the Wind, a vivid allegorical rendering of the  passionate lovers.

A great Expressionist

Kokoschka’s art was deemed degenerate by Hitler’s Nazi Party and he was forced to flee Europe, living for a time in England and the United States. Along with the German artist Max Beckmann, he is regarded as the greatest twentieth century Expressionist artist – both idiosyncratic and original.

© 2011 National Gallery of Victoria