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Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980)

Oskar Kokoschka was an Austrian artist and writer. Kokoschka is primarily known as an Expressionist painter. His early literary works − most importantly his first play Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen; Murderer, the Hope of Women − are, however, also regarded as important forerunners of Expressionism.

Kokoschka was born in 1886 in Pöchlarn in Austria. At the age of one, his family moved to Vienna where Kokoschka spent his youth. From 1905 to 1909 Kokoschka was educated at the Viennese School of Arts and Craft (Kunstgewerbeschule Wien). His first serious attempts as a writer date back to this period. The premiere of his play Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen; Murderer, the Hope of Women in 1909 caused a riot and a theatre scandal.

In 1910, Kokoschka moved to Berlin where he contributed to the expressionist journal ‘Der Sturm’ (‘The Tempest’). In 1911, Paul Cassirer, an influential German publisher, organized the first exhibition with paintings and illustrations by Kokoschka. Returning to Vienna in 1911, Kokoschka began a passionate romantic relationship with Alma Mahler, the former wife of Gustav Mahler and later wife of Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel, which lasted till 1914. Following the end of his involvement with Alma Mahler, Kokoschka volunteered as a soldier during World War I, in which he was seriously injured. After the war, Kokoschka moved to Dresden where he worked as a professor at the Art Academy. At the end of the 1920s, Kokoschka took extensive journeys through Europe, the Mediterranean area and Northern Africa.

At the beginning of the 1930s, Kokoschka settled in Vienna once again. Kokoschka’s designation by the Nazis as one of the most prominent representatives of ‘entartete Kunst’ (‘degenerate art’) forced him to flee Austria for Prague in 1934. In Prague, he met his future wife Olda Palkovská. In 1938, Kokoschka moved to Great Britain. During his exile, he supported artists and emigrants who had been persecuted by the Nazis. Soon after the war, major exhibitions of his work were shown in Zürich and Basel. In 1953, Kokoschka moved to Villeneuve in Switzerland. He died in Montreux in 1980.

Although Kokoschka’s chief artistic contributions are in painting, his early literary work, which deals primarily with the struggle between the sexes and draws heavily on the Classical and Christian tradition, is considered an important pre-stage to the Expressionist aesthetic; Kokoschka himself called his plays ‘Piloten des Expressionismus’ (‘pilots of Expressionism’). His early literary work can be regarded as a link between Viennese Modernism and Expressionism.

Literary works include:

Die träumenden Knaben (1908); The Dreaming Boys

Der weiße Tiertöter (1908); The White Beast Killer

Sphinx und Strohmann (1907); Sphinx and Straw Man

Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (1910); Murderer, the Hope of Women

Der brennende Dornbusch (1911); The Burning Bush

Hiob (1917); Job

Orpheus und Eurydike (1918); Orpheus and Eurydice

Further Reading in English

Alfred Weidinger, Kokoschka and Alma Mahler: Testimony to a Passionate Relationship (New York: Prestel, 1996)

Alfred Weidinger, Oskar Kokoschka: Dreaming Boy and Enfant Terrible. Early Graphic Works, 1902-1909 (Vienna: Albertina, 1996)

Frank Whitford, Oskar Kokoschka: A Life (London: Atheneum, 1986)

Henry I. Schvey, Oskar Kokoschka: The Painter as Playwright (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1982)

Further Reading in German

Oskar Kokoschka, Mein Leben (München: Bruckmann, 1971)

Hans Schumacher, „Oskar Kokoschka“, in Wolfgang Rothe (ed.), Expressionismus als Literatur. Gesammelte Studien (Bern: Francke, 1969), pp. 506-518

Heinz Spielmann, Oskar Kokoschka – Leben und Werk (Köln: Dumont, 2003)

Norbert Werner (ed.), Kokoschka – Leben und Werk in Daten und Bildern (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1991)