Oskar Kokoschka

Biography of Oskar Kokoschka

Oskar Kokoschka is regarded as one of the most important and revered artists of the 20th Century. Renowned for the sense of humanity and compassion in his artwork, he left behind a stunning body of expressionist paintings and limited edition prints. Through his use of color and vigorous mark-making, he was able to express human character and psychological depth.


Born in Austria in 1886, Oskar Kokoschka studied at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts until he became dissatisfied with the lack of focus on the human figure. After leaving he taught himself to use oil paint, but was forced to devote much of his time to producing decorative work to pay his bills. It was not until he met Adolf Loos, the prominent architect, that his career as an artist really began to take off. Loos supported Kokoschka and helped place him in an artist milieu that brought with it commissions and greater publicity.


Early on what differentiated Oskar Kokoschka’s artwork from that of his contemporaries was his ability to express through color alone, the emotional elements of a scene. His artwork was nearly always characterized by an expressionist vigor and intensity, with a palpable sense of the artist’s emotional involvement in the subject being depicted. However, it was not until he began to devote much of his time to portraiture, where his subtly ability to draw out the character of the subject came to the fore, that Kokoschka began to achieve real success.


In 1911 Oskar Kokoschka met composer Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma Mahler, with whom he conducted a passionate three-year affair. The relationship came to an end on the outbreak of the First World War when Kokoschka enlisted in the Austrian army. Quickly injured, he spent the rest of the war devoted to writing theatrical plays. Disillusioned with the Russian Revolution which he had originally viewed with optimism, he renounced political militancy completely for its disregard for human suffering. He spent much of the 1920s working as a professor at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in Germany.


With the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, Oskar Kokoschka found his art labelled “Degenerate”, and his work was removed from German museums and collections. Despite there being a major exhibition of his work in Vienna that year, Kokoschka fled to London in 1938 (becoming a British National in 1947). After the war the artist became financially secure after a series of high-profile international exhibitions took place.


By 1948 his work was celebrated around the world and he had a travelling show in Boston, United States, 1948 and Haus der Kunst, Munich in 1950. He exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1922 and in 1948. His collected writings were published in 1956, around the same time as he was becoming interested in stage design. In 1962 he was honoured with a major retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London and again in 1986. In 2018 the Kunsthaus Zürich will conduct a large Retrospective spanning all the major phases of Oskar Kokoschka’s career. He died in Switzerland in 1980. Alongside Max Beckmann he is considered one of the leading lights of Expressionism.



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