Incredible Figurative Painter


Marina Betist
11 January 2014 - 12:00am

The famed Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka aimed to be the “most important figurative painter of the 20th century” and the on-going exhibition at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in The Netherlands left MARINA BETIST gobsmacked.

The extraordinary Austrian painter, writer and theatre producer Oskar Kokoschka, who died in 1980 at the age of 94, was described as “The greatest talent of the younger generation” by the  legendary Austrian artist Gustav Klimt in 1908.

At the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam until Jan 19, some 150 paintings and drawings of Kokoschka (1886, Vienna -1980, Villeneuve) showcase the incredible talent of the gifted artist.

Entitled, “Portraits of People and Animals”, the exhibition is organised under eight categories. From portraits of children and animals to the portraits of Vienna’s social elite, the works were painstakingly selected from distinguished collections.

Highlighting the period between and around World War I & II, the exhibition presents a fascinating view of Kokoschka’s early portraits in 1906 till his last self-portrait at the age of 86.

Incidentally, The National Gallery in London has just concluded an exhibition on European portraits. “Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900”exhibition which ended on Jan 12 was dedicated to portrait paintings at the beginning of the 20th century.

Vienna was an important centre for the arts at the time, where one could experience the variety of cultures and styles. Artists, writers, theatre producers, architects and musicians greatly influenced each other.

Kokoschka’s works spanned seven decades and he was one of the most influential painters of the 20th century. Not only did he survive the two World Wars, he also travelled throughout Europe and North Africa. Besides Vienna, he also lived for a period of time in Berlin, Dresden, Paris and London.

Regarded as a rebellious artist as well as a humanist, Kokoschka was inspired by the love of life as well as affected by the misery caused by wars and politics.

In 1908, Adolf Loos, a famous architect in Vienna, discovered the talents of Kokoschka. As a true patron, he convinced many of his friends and business associates to have their portraits painted by the young artist.

As was fashionable at the time, the portrait became a status symbol and those who could afford it, had their portrait painted by a well-known artist.

Most clients would prefer a traditional style of portraiture. But equally popular, were the avant-garde painters like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and even Kokoschka.

Unfortunately for Kokoschka, his paintings were rarely bought by his clients or sitters. This was probably because he used to paint people in an unattractive way and older than their age.

He executed exuberant brushstrokes in vibrant colours that reflected the personality of the subject or even, sometimes an animal.

“We retrieve ourselves in the human soul,” he was quoted as saying. He reacted against his contemporaries whom he felt focused too much on the “ornamentation”(Jugendstil).

Thanks to Adolf Loos, who bought many of his portraits, Kokoschka enjoyed a steady source of income. And Loos, at the same time, built up a large collection of his works.

Upon close inspection of Kokoschka’s portraits, the most striking parts are the large hands and the face.

Kokoschka often painted his models while they were moving, this led to a highly expressive way of depicting their hands.

The facial expressions were typically far from happy, as the painter showed the ‘dark side’ of the personality or as he once said, “I try to find the aura of my model”.

An outstanding feature of his artwork, was the continuation of his fluid brush strokes into the background. They show the same colours and “movement” on the face while the expression was always the focal point of the painting.

Though Kokoschka was a tormented soul, his paintings glow with energy and reflect the joy of creating, intensified by the use of thick, oil paint in different colours.

In 1912, Kokoschka met the “love of his life” Alma Mahler, the widow of the famous composer. They had a turbulent affair which ended three years later.

Kokoschka could never forget her and she was for many years still a subject of his paintings.

In 1914, Kokoschka joined the army but became seriously wounded and ended up in a sanatorium. After the war, in 1919, he became a professor at the Dresden Art Academy.                                                                                  

At the time, Dresden was an inspiring and liberal city and his style soon transformed from being austere and realistic to an exuberant style with thick layers of paint in bright and strong colours.

During World War Two, the Nazis declared Kokoschka’s artwork as ‘Entartete  Kunst’ meaning  “degenerate art” which was “harmful to the German soul”. This categorisation was based on his use of bright colors, his free brush strokes and especially, his fondness for “uncovering the soul of the personality”. All in contradiction to the formal art as dictated by the Nazis.

Socially and politically engaged, Kokoschka openly condemned the politics of Nazi Germany.

Before and during World War Two. With his future wife Olda Palkovska (1915-2004) in tow, he fled to England in 1938. They stayed till 1953 when they moved to Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of his life.

He continued to portray political leaders like Golda Meir and Konrad Adenhauer to achieve his ambition to be the “most important figurative painter of the 20th century”.

  • “Portraits of People and Animals” is on at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam The Netherlands ( till Jan 19.
  • Based in Penang but with frequent trips to her native Holland, the writer who freelances as an art consultant, is actually a museologist by training.

Oskar Kokoschka, Time, Gentlemen Please, 1971-72, oil on canvas, 130 x 100 cm. Collection Tate, Londen, purchase 1986. Photo: © Tate, London 2013. © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka, Vevey / 2013, ProLitteris

 Oskar Kokoschka, Self-Portrait 1917, 1917, Oil on canvas, 79 x 63 cm, Collection Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal. © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka, Vevey / 2013, ProLitteris.

Oskar Kokoschka, “Pietà” (playbill for the Kunstschau Vienna), 1908, published 1909, colour lithograph, 125.5 x 81 cm.Collection Museum derModerne Salzburg. © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka, Vevey / 2013, ProLitteris.