Oskar wild

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 15

Oskar Kokoschka was at the vanguard of the cultural whirlwind that swept through Europe at the start of the 20th century. William O'Reilly portrays an incendiary artist

Oskar Kokoschka burst like a grenade into the combustible world of turn-of-the century Vienna. On being shown an exhibition of his work, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand exclaimed, "Someone should take this fellow out and break his legs."

Vienna was in turmoil – a battleground between Conservatism and the Avant Garde in the run up to the First Word War, where the raw individuality of a rising generation of artists such as Kokoschka challenged the official artists of the Academy. Leon Trotsky, a recent escapee from Siberian exile after the failed revolution of 1905, played chess most evenings at the Kaffeehaus Central, a cobblestone's throw from the imperial court, where the spiritual heirs to the Holy Roman Empire struggled to contain the empire's 12 nationalities, six official languages and five religions.

In 1897, Gustav Klimt and likeminded artists broke away from this established order to form the Viennese Secession. Like Klimt, Kokoschka came from a family of artisan-craftsmen of moderate means. Born in 1886, he studied at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts from 1905-1909. This enabled him to move freely between decorative and painterly work in a manner that was anathema to the Academy. He drew on the influence of the Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, just as he did on Van Gogh and Gauguin.

Sitzender bärtiger Mann, one of Kokoschka's earliest mature works, will be offered at Bonhams in New York in May. Drawn in 1907, it is an outstanding example of his mastery of these influences. In this period he hired destitute men and the children of circus families to model for him, giving his work an arresting honesty and freedom typical of the emerging Expressionist movement. This freedom was deeply threatening to rigid Viennese society: while the city was one of the richest in Europe, its immigrant population was one of the poorest. The man's malnourished torso, his arms with their clotted veins, and his hands, nose and ears raw with exposure are their own testimony.

Kokoschka's feeling for design is also apparent in the Greek key pattern formed by the shoulders and folded arms, the delicately twining strands of the beard and the confidently drawn contours. It was from the ground prepared by Kokoschka that Egon Schiele, younger by four years but a twin pioneer of Expressionism, developed his style.

Kokoschka found outlets for his talents by designing for the Wiener Werkstätte – the enterprise set up largely by artists, designers and architects of the Secession – and by illustrating children's books, although the force of his illustrations was often at odds with the subject matter. His plays laid the foundations of German Expressionist theater.

Perhaps most notoriously, in 1911 he began a volatile affair with Alma Mahler, the composer's widow. Alma was a noted society beauty and a talented composer on her own right. She had engaged in a long flirtation with Klimt, and after her marriage took Walter Gropius, then a young architect and later founder of the Bauhaus School, as a lover. Alma's relationship with Kokoschka was characteristically tumultuous, culminating in the great 1914 semi-nude double portrait, The Bride of the Wind.

The end of their affair coincided with the beginning of the First World War, leading Kokoschka to join up, apparently in an act of passive suicide. He was seriously injured and suffered a breakdown after returning to the Front. Such was his obsession that he commissioned a puppetmaker to build a life-size doll in Alma's image. After the war, Kokoschka settled in Germany and traveled and painted extensively in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. He returned to Vienna in 1931, but the city was to be a battleground yet again as Adolf Hitler, once an impoverished painter himself, rose to power. In 1937 the German government staged its Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. Nine of the works that Hitler had singled out were by Kokoschka. "I will purge the nation of them," Hitler said of the artists whose work he despised. Kokoschka retaliated by describing the Fuhrer as a "housepainter from Vienna".

The artist fled to England and became a British citizen, but settled eventually in Switzerland, where he died in 1980 – the original wild child of Viennese Modernism, who so vividly shaped the cultural landscape of Europe in the 20th century.

William O'Reilly is Director of Impressionist and Modern Art, Bonhams Americas and Asia.

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