Austrian-born Oskar Kokoschka was an Expressionist painter, writer and printmaker. He was one of the few modern artists who had the longest career stint, which began in 1909 to 1971. In most cases, he would paint portraits of architects, physicians, and artists and applied a psychological approach into his treatment of color and light. This is also one of the reasons why his works are often referred to as “psychological portraits” because of his careful intention in revealing the “soul” of the human subject.
A fine example of Kokoschka’s psychological portrait is Adolf Loos (1909), an architect. In the portrait he showed how Loos was full of tension and stern personality through the shaky lines. His brushstroke technique was much freer and broader with sleek and splendid colors.
Kokoschka’s career began as early as 1908 when he produced a picture book called The Dreaming Youths. It was well-received by his contemporaries that he was invited by the Klimt circle to participate in one of their exhibitions. During this period, he had also been an active writer (e.g. playwright and poet) besides drawing. These artistic activities led him closer to the avant-garde community in the city, where he could possibly met the famous musician Schonberg.
Oskar Kokoschka is said to be influenced by the Art Nouveau artists from Austria and Germany. However, his style was characterized by the decorative linearism of the Klimt circle and then developed into a much improved German Expressionism style. His flexibility as a well-rounded artist gave him lots of opportunities to complete several commissions, develop new styles and teach art to students. No wonder he was dubbed as one of the greatest artists and portraitists of the Modern Austrian Art School.
Some examples of his oil paintings included Portrait of Lotte Franzos (1909), Apocalypse, Market in Tunis, Loreley, Uli Nimptsch, Prometheus, Time, Gentlemen Please, View of the Thames, Marianne-Maquis, and London, Waterloo Bridge. Apparently, besides painting portraits, he had also depicted cityscapes, mythological characters and religious themes in his other works.
Oskar Kokoschka was born on March 1, 1886 in Pochlarn, Austria-Hungary. He the son of a goldsmith from Czech, Gustav Josef, and Maria Romana. At a young age, he was already the breadwinner of his family because his father was financially incapable. He even had to support himself, both for his education and training, financially. As his father moved them from one flat to another and far away from the city, he decided to stay closer to his mother.
Kokoschka received his secondary education at school in Realschule. The said school put a lot of emphasis on the mastery of modern subjects like language and science. However, the young artist was never too fond of learning those subjects as he only saw himself thriving in art and classic literature. The latter proved to be influential in his career later on as he executed some paintings taken out from certain mythological narratives.
One of his school masters saw his artistic talent and encouraged him to be a fine artist. As though this was the only word of encouragement he needed, he went against his father’s will and entered the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna, Austria in 1904-1909. The said art school was known for its rigorous application process. In fact, only three out of 153 applicants got accepted, including Kokoschka. As a progressive art school Kokoschka received training in furniture and crafts design and architecture. And many of its instructors were originally a member of the Vienna Secession.
The early works of Kokoschka were mainly depictions of children in a corpse-like fashion. It is worth mentioning that he did not receive any formal painting sessions which led him to draw the children without following the traditional painting approaches and styles. But his teachers at the School of Arts and Crafts helped him out by recommending him to join the Wiener Werkstatte workshops.
Upon entering different workshops, he acquired some commissions, for which he had to design postcards for kids. It was an actual work experience that introduced him officially to the commercial market. Since then, his reputation grew and he became known for his portraits of Viennese public figures. In 1912, he met Alma Mahler, who was the love of his life but rejected him for her incapability to commit to a very passionate relationship. Mahler would become his inspiration for his masterpiece, The Bride of the Wind.
Come 1914, Oskar Kokoschka voluntarily joined the Austrian army as a cavalryman. In 1915 he was wounded that got him hospitalized for a few months and the doctor found out that the artist also suffered from a mental disorder. But likewise to Ernst Kirchner, who suffered the same fate after the war, Kokoschka remained solid in his interest in pursuing an independent career as an artist. He even got to travel all over Europe and painted the compelling landscapes he found along the way.
In 1934, Kokoschka retreated to Prague after the Nazi Party dubbed his art as degenerate. There he was claimed by a group of expatriates and gave him a new name, Oskar-Kokoschka-Bund. When the Czechs began to advance its troops to Wehrmacht, the painter sought refuge in United Kingdom and remained there until the war was over. The British Committee for Refugees helped him and the OKB to escape in 1938.
Oskar Kokoschka was one of the many artists who lived through the horrors of the Second World War. Together with his wife, he moved to Ullapool in Wester Ross, Scotland during the summer and a few more later. He found Scotland as visually compelling and drew a series of landscape views in pencil and watercolor. There he also met Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy merchant, and painted a portrait for him. The portrait can now be viewed in Kunsthaus Museum, Zurich.
In 1946, Kokoschka applied to become a British citizen and got granted by the same year. In 1978 though he regained his Austrian nationality. After the WWII, the Austrian-born painter would travel across the United States but never found the land of milk and honey and so he settled down in Switzerland to spend the remainder of his life. On February 22, 1980, he died peacefully in Montreux at the age of 93.
The Summer School of Art in Salzburg was founded by Oskar Kokoschka in 1953. The school would be fully operational until the next decade. He found success in it that he was able to buy a property in Villeneuve, Switzerland. During this period, he had been invited to display his works in different museums and independent galleries. This experience gave him an inspiration to write an autobiography and execute allegorical paintings.
During the 1950’s, Kokoschka’s style is characterized by intense colors and prophetic themes while the medium is executed in a manner as to complement the intended emotional appeal. His style and composition evolved from non-traditional to traditional Renaissance, which served him well all throughout. In stating more precisely, his art was basically German Expressionist but looking through it deeply, one can see the influences of the Old Masters.