Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) was an Austrian artist, playwright, and poet who made expressionistic portrait and landscape paintings. For instance, his portraits utilized conventional elements of portraiture but added modern techniques (such as the inclusion of hands) to bring an expressive element to the artwork. Kokoschka was also a forefather of the Viennese Avant-Garde with his bold lines, colours, and imagery that took inspiration from Medieval compositions.
His formal education in the arts began during his studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna (now the University of Applied Arts Vienna) from 1904-1909. The Kunstgewerbeschule was focused on architecture, crafts, modern design, and furniture, leaving Kokoschka with no formal training in painting. As such, his approach to the medium was deemed non-traditional and did not conform to the same techniques as those who had been formally trained. After completing his education, the artist became an art educator. He taught in Vienna from 1911-1913 and in Dresden from 1919-1923.
He described his artistic viewpoint in a speech he delivered in 1912, called “Von der Natur der Gesichte” (“On the Nature of Visions”). He discussed that the inspiration for his artwork stemmed from an acknowledgement of how his daily visual observations manifested in his inner imagination. In this way, his work was drawing from the subconscious experience rather than from optical vision. His theories on this subject matter have become the basis for understanding Viennese Expressionism.
Kokoschka painted the majority of his portraiture between 1909 and the beginning of World War I in 1914. Since many of the paintings were not commissioned by the sitter, he, like many other portrait painters of the time, had a lot of artistic freedom when it came to rendering their likeness. This included the use of expressive, sometimes harsh, colouring, bold lines, and solid backgrounds in dull colours. The completed portraits make reference to the human condition, decomposition, and the tensions of the sitters’ subconscious.
In 1910, Kokoschka moved to Berlin, Germany, and began working as an illustrator for Herwarth Walden’s magazine, Der Sturm. In its first year, 28 of Kokoschka’s drawings were published, and he continued to be a regular contributor over the course of its 22-year run. In Berlin, he became involved with Alma Mahler, his lover from 1912-1914, and his lifelong love interest (after their split in 1914 she remained a muse of sorts throughout his artistic career). In 1914, he volunteered as a cavalryman to fight in the War but was injured a year later. Beginning in 1919, he lived and worked in Dresden where he became embroiled in the Art Scoundrel Debates when he suggested that civil war fighting move outside the city to protect the artworks that were being caught in the crossfire. In 1931, Kokoschka moved back to Vienna where he received a number of commissions from local councils in honour of the city.
Three years later, Kokoschka was forced to flee to Prague when he was labelled a degenerate artist by the Nazis. He obtained his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1935, but he fled to the United Kingdom in 1938 when Czechoslovakia started mobilizing against the Nazi invasion. During the war, Kokoschka created anti-Fascist paintings. While living in the seaside town of Polperro in Cornwall, he also began to depict landscapes of the harbour that included embedded political allegories.
In 1947, Kokoschka became a British subject and did not regain his Austrian citizenship until 1978. He moved to Villeneuve, Switzerland, in 1953 and spent the rest of his life there. He died due to influenza complications in Montreaux, Switzerland, in 1980.