Biography of Austrian Artist Oskar Kokoschka

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Kokoschka was born in P’chlarn, a Danube town, on March 1, 1886. He studied at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts from 1905 to 1908. As an early exponent of the avant-garde expressionist movement, he began to paint psychologically penetrating portraits of Viennese physicians, architects, and artists. Among these works are Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat (1909, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), August Forel (1910, Mannheim Art Gallery, Germany), and Self-Portrait (1913, Museum of Modern Art). Kokoschka was wounded in World War I (1914-1918) and diagnosed as psychologically unstable. He taught art at the Dresden Academy from 1919 to 1924. During this time he painted The Power of Music (1919, Dresden Paintings Collection, Dresden). A succeeding seven-year period of travel in Europe and the Middle East resulted in a number of robust, brilliantly colored landscapes and figure pieces, painted with great freedom and exuberance. Many of them are views of harbors, mountains, and cities. Kokoschka, one of the artists denounced by the Nazi government of Germany as degenerate, moved in 1938 to England, where he painted antiwar pictures during World War II (1939-1945) and became a British subject in 1947. After the war he visited the United States and settled in Switzerland. He died in Montreux on February 22, 1980. Best known as a painter, Kokoschka was also a writer. His literary works include poetry and plays not translated into English and a collection of short stories, A Sea Ringed with Visions (1956; translated 1962). His father was a silversmith from Prague who experienced financial difficulties when the market for such handcrafted goods dried out with mass industrialization.

Oskar’s exposure to his father’s craftsmanship, however, was said to play a large part in his art and enthusiasm for craftsmanship. In 1908, a book called The Dreaming Youths was published, and it featured illustrations by Kokoschka. They were done in a style that was indebted to Gustav Klimt, whose Secession group was going strong at the time. Kokoschka was teaching at the School of Arts and Crafts where he had studied himself under Franz Cizek. Cizek was among the first to recognize the young artist’s talents. In Vienna, Kokoschka wrote dramas such as The Assassin, Murderer, and The Hope of Women; and they, along with his art, were considered too radical for the aristocracy. Despite support from architect Adolf Loos and good reaction from his participation in the 1908 and 1909 exhibits at the Kunstschau, Vienna was not kind to Kokoschka. In 1910, he moved to Berlin. In Berlin, he got the help of Herwarth Walden, the founder and editor of the art journal Der Sturm and a proponent of Expressionism. Until the outset of World War I, Kokoschka painted portraits of German (and Austrian) intelligentsia in a style he called “black painting,” as they, in his words, “painted the soul’s dirtiness.” His portrait of poet Peter Altenberg, made in 1909, has the figure almost blending into the frame’s Expressionist background; and his portraits of Count Verona, Joseph de Montesquiou-Ferendac and Walden himself are textbook examples of the Expressionist, swirling, Van Gough-like images that evoked a sense of decadence. Between 1912 and 1914, Kokoschka had a relationship with Alma Mahler, the widow of composer Gustav Mahler. She was a woman of great influence who had inspired no less than poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and was involved also with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. After World War I broke out, Kokoschka volunteered for the Imperial and Royal 15th Dragoons, and in 1915 he was sent to the front, where he was seriously injured. He was hospitalized several times in both Vienna and Stockholm and was discharged from military service in 1916. In 1919, he was appointed to a professorship at the Dresden Academy, and when he left the Academy in 1924 he traveled for a decade through Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. He then stayed a while in the artistic quarter of Paris, but he never felt at home in that environment.

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Eventually, he returned to Vienna, where he completed Vienna, View From the Wilhelminberg for the Vienna Municipal Council. In 1934, Kokoschka moved to Prague after being alarmed by political developments in Germany and Austria. There he met Olda Pavlovska, who would later become his wife, and also Thomas Masaryk, the first president of the Czech Republic. In Prague, he voiced his displeasure with the Nazi regime in Germany; and as a result, his work was considered “degenerate art” by the Nazis. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and occupied Czechoslovakia that same year, Kokoschka fled to England with Olda. Kokoschka sold and donated many of his works on behalf of humanitarian causes as well as launching a poster campaign in 1945. It featured a lithographed poster that read, “In memory of the children of Europe who have to die of cold and hunger this Christmas.” Every summer from 1953 to 1963, he taught at the Salzburg School of Seeing, where he presented his ideas of expression via the senses. He continued his humanitarian work as well as exhibiting his work in Basel, New York and Venice. Kokoschka and Olda settled finally in Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1980. Most authors will tell prospective writers to write what you know. My impression of Kokoschka is that he did just that. He was tormented for most of his life. He wrote his father in 1922 saying, I believe, in all seriousness, that I am now the best painter on earth. He wrote to the people of Dresden not to have their ^war^ in front of the art gallery and traveled more than any other artist known at the time.

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