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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. 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. I don^t find

    his painting or his writings very settling and extremely lacking in

    Schroder, Klaus A, et al (October, 1991), Oskar Kokoschka, International Book Import Service, Inc., Austria/NY.

    Weidinger, Alfred, et al. (September, 1996), Kokoschka and Alma Mahler: Testimony to a

    Passionate Relationship, International Book Import Service, Austria/NY.

    Winkler, Johann (August, 1997), Oskar Kokoschka, International Book Import Service, Austria/NY

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