Renowned for his "psychoanalytical" portraits and landscapes, Austrian painter, graphic artist, and author Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) was a leading exponent of Expressionism and a key figure in the art of Central Europe.
Oskar Kokoschka was born on March 1, 1886, in Pöchlarn, Austria. At the age of 18, he won a scholarship to the Arts and Crafts School in Vienna, where he studied from 1905 to 1909. As early as 1907 he produced his first portraits, which have expressive power, and he began his career landscapes, still lifes, and compositions of a symbolical or religious character. His first book, The Dreaming Boys (1908), a poem he wrote, illustrated, printed, and bound himself, shows the influence of William Morris. Kokoschka also wrote his first plays at this time.
In 1910, sponsored by his friend and prominent architect, Adolf Loos, Kokoschka made his first journey abroad, painting landscapes and portraits in Switzerland (for example, the portrait of Auguste Forel; the landscape Dent du Midi). He also went to Berlin, where he supplied a regular feature, the "portrait of the week," for the periodical Der Sturm. By World War I he was famous in Austria and Germany. Seriously wounded at the Russian front in 1916, Kokoschka was invalided to Dresden. In 1919 he became professor at the Academy of Arts there, where he remained until 1924.
Kokoschka then began a series of journeys that lasted until 1931. He painted the people, landscapes, and great cities of practically every country in Europe and North Africa. In the magnificent landscape series, he used impressionist techniques interpreted in a highly personal, dramatic manner.
Kokoschka lived in Vienna from 1931 to 1934, when he moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). He painted this city more than any other, with London taking second place. In 1937 his works in German public collections were removed by the Nazis as "degenerate."
In 1938 Kokoschka and his wife, Olda, emigrated to London, where they spent World War II. The artist became a British citizen in 1947. After the war he made several journeys, all as important for his later work as were his travels in the 1920s. There were several trips to Italy (exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1948), the United States (lectures in Boston in 1949 and in Minneapolis in 1952), and Germany.
In 1953 Kokoschka moved from London to Villeneuve on Lake Geneva, Switzerland. That year, deciding to counteract the spread of abstract art, he founded the School of Seeing in Salzburg. He said: "With astonishment we must view the fact that artists feel themselves obliged to break a lance for modern science. The theory of so-called nonobjective art postulates a theoretical system, analogous to the scientific hypothesis, which is detached from the world of visual perception."
Kokoschka worked in all media, producing watercolors, book illustrations, monumental compositions (The Prometheus Saga, 1950; Thermopylae, 1954; Amor and Psyche), and stage designs (Mozart's The Magic Flute, 1955; The Fettered Phantasy by Raimund, 1962; Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, 1963). In 1962 he had a retrospective exhibition of paintings, drawings, lithographs, stage designs, and books at the Tate Gallery in London.
Kokoschka was the grand old man of figurative painting in the 20th century. His portraits were among the most remarkable of the century. His paintings of cities evoke the special spirit of each. He was also a teacher of the young in defending the tenets of European humanism. To celebrate his eightieth birthday in 1966, large retrospective exhibitions were organized in many countries.
Further Reading on Oskar Kokoschka
Introduction to Kokoschka (trans. 1958), Wingler's Oskar Kokoschka: The Work of the Painter (trans. 1958) contains a works list and life data. Kokoschka (1963), with color plates, is introduced by a colloquy between the artist and Ludwig Goldscheider. Fritz Schmalenbach, Oskar Kokoschka (trans. 1967), is an analytical study of his early style as a painter. Walter H. Sokel, ed., The Anthology of German Expressionist Drama: A Prelude to the Absurd (1963), contains two plays by Kokoschka, Murderer, the Womańs Hope and Job. See also Edith Hoffmann, Oskar Kokoschka (1947).