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The following text was written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher of Laguna Woods, California:
Oscar Kokoschka, the son of a fairly poor Czech goldsmith, was born in 1886 in Pochlam, Austria and raised in Vienna, the great hothouse of modernism in economic, social and ethnic areas. By the time he was twenty-two he was labeled a "public terror". He was the "enfant terrible" of Viennese Expressionism as early as 1907. He first caused an uproar at an 1908 exhibition in Vienna; he became so controversial that he fled to Berlin in 1909. His contact with German expressionists there helped deepen his art.
"Kokoschka had an extraordinary life which is mirrored in his art. He changed nationalities twice; he lived in practically half the capital cities of Europe and he survived two World Wars."(1) His early drawings are related to the nervous mannered work of Klimt and Schiele. However, Kokoschka quickly came into his own, abandoning style in order to explore the inner feelings of his sitters. He painted only people who interested him and never allowed his sitters to pose. Instead, he would have them move around and would talk to them so that he could get a sense of their feelings and personalities.
Kokoschka had a stormy and painful affair with Alma Mahler (widow of the composer) which led to a brilliant series of poignant and often self-mocking paintings and drawings. During the course of the three-year affair, she aborted Kokoschka's child, the only one he would ever father, and finally she jilted him for the architect Walter Gropius. In 1915, although he didn't even know how to ride a horse, he enlisted in an elite cavalry unit of the Austro-Hungarian army. Eventually, having been wounded in a lung and in the head, and suffering from shell shock, he retired to Dresden to convalesce. Not surprisingly, his art took an unexpected turn: he became a master of land- and cityscapes.
At the age of sixty-two, Kokoschka was still as self-assured as ever. "Though I am no great painter", he said, "I prefer my own pictures to any other. Art is dying; I am its oxygen. When Kokoshka is finished, true art will be finished." Had Kokoschka stopped painting at the beginning of World War I, his place in art history would have already been secure. But he continued well into his eighties, producing an oeuvre of considerable vigor and strength.
He was a skeptic but never a pessimist; he left behind a body of work that is ultimately life-affirming and optimistic. Just before World War II he fled to London.
Throughout these decades Kokoschka remained the rebellious outsider. In and out of fashion, now poor, now prosperous, he pursued the role of an embattled humanist, crusading against the conformity of modern times. Kokoschka's last years were spent in Switzerland and Austria, where he taught, painted and worked on his memoirs. In 1953, he opened a summer art school called the School of Vision in a castle overlooking Salzburg. Young artists flocked there and impassioned and tireless, he worked with two hundred students every day. Kokoschka continued to pour his thought and vision into tempestuous, vibrant paintings which he signed wih the brusque "O.K." that became famous throughout the art world.
He died in Montreux, Switzerland in February 1980 at the age of ninety-three.
1 Quote from Calvocoressi in article by Ruth Bass in Art News, February 1987
Time Magazine, March 14, 1969, August 29, 1955 and July 12, 1948
Mark Stevens in Newsweek, March 3, 1980
Master Paintings from the Phillips Collection