Oskar Kokoschka: Un Fauve à Vienne

Wild Thing

October 12, 2022By Heidi EllisonArchive, Exhibitions

Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) was a wild young thing in staid turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna. A critic even called him the Oberwildling, or “head savage” of the exhibition ”Kunstschau,” where he exhibited his illustrated poem “The Dreaming Youths,” a tale of teenage sexual awakening, in 1908. Scandalized visitors to the exhibition were not pleased either and even left litter inside the open mouth of another work by the artist: his sculpted self-portrait.Many young rebels in the art world burn out early and never get a chance to grow old, but that was not the case with Kokoschka. From the iconoclastic young man with a kinky and sometimes aggressively misogynistic imagination, he seems to have matured and grown old gracefully. The exhibition “Oskar Kokoschka: Un Fauve à Vienne,” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris shows us the whole process.

In those early days in Vienna, Kokoschka was associated with the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) and was supported by Gustav Klimt. The exhibition gives us a glimpse of some of his graphic work from that period, including a charming set of postcards for children.

Kokoschka soon turned away from the prettiness of Vienna’s version of Art Nouveau and toward Expressionism, which suited him better. He had a new champion in the architect Adolf Loos, who found numerous portrait commissions for Kokoschka, fairly amazingly, since the artist took no pains to flatter his sitters. Witness the portrait “Père Hirsch (Vater Hirschl)” (1909), in which Kokoschka detailed the false teeth of the rich Hungarian to form a hideous leer on what looked like the death mask of a man he later described as irascible and stubborn.

Other portraits, of people he had more sympathetic feelings for, are much more sensitive, including the moving depiction of Swiss psychiatrist and scientist Auguste Forel (1910), who looks as if he is listening intently and compassionately to a patient, and the El Greco-inspired portrait of Carl Moll (1913), one of the founders of the Viennese Secession, who encouraged Kokoschka in his work and introduced him to the composer Alma Mahler. Note the treatment of the oversized, tortured-looking hands in these portraits and others.

A series of lithographs (1914, published in 1916) inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata no. 60 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (O Eternity, Thou Word of Thunder), plays out scenes from his tormented two-year relationship (from 1912 to ’14) with Mahler (who had previously been married to Gustav Mahler and would later wed architect Walter Gropius and then poet Franz Werfel). Kokoschka portrays himself as Hope and Mahler as Fear, who guides him to his death. In the final print, he stands in a grave, “slain by my own jealousy,” as he later said.

His obsession with Alma Mahler was also the subject of another series of lithographs, and in 1918, four years after their separation, he creepily had a naked, life-sized doll of his former lover (see the photos in the exhibition) made by doll-maker Hermine Moos as a receptacle for his affections: he specified that he sought “an experience I must be able to embrace!” After painting and drawing it over and over, in 1922, he held a party in its honor and beheaded it in the aftermath, claiming that he had finally been cured of his passion for Mahler.

After the horrors of World War I, during which Kokoschka was badly injured, he began to teach in Dresden before returning to Austria, from which he was forced to flee in 1934 when he was unsurprisingly deemed a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis. He spent the war years in Britain, where he painted anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi works as well as landscapes.

Kokoschka’s later years, spent in Switzerland with his much younger Czech wife, Oldřiška “Olda” Palkovská, seem to have been far more peaceful than his tumultuous early years, but he never gave up on his progressive ideas and continued to promulgate them through his writings and teaching.

In his last self-portrait, painted in 1971, “Time, Gentlemen Please” (the phrase used for last call in British pubs), Kokoschka pictures himself naked with a crazed look in his intense blue eyes, walking toward death through a door held open by Father Time. This painting has been compared to Picasso’s late work, but with its strident colors and mad-looking, misshapen figures, it reminded me of Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” paintings.

Kokoschka’s time had not yet come, however. He died nearly 9 years, in 1980, after painting what he thought was the last call.


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