Oskar Kokoschka
Oskar Kokoschka; drawing by David Levine

Vienna, Paris, and New York have mounted large shows to satisfy and clarify the current interest in Austrian culture of the turn of the century; London has proceeded more modestly but with great effect. Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra offered a two-season series, “Mahler, Vienna and the Twentieth Century.” Austrian plays of the era have been performed, including a Tom Stoppard adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei (under the title Dalliance).1 London University’s School of Slavonic Studies conducted a symposium to widen—with the help of East Europeans—the narrow concentration of current scholarship on Vienna to the multicultural empire. Finally, the Tate Gallery presented “Oskar Kokoschka, 1886–1980,” the most comprehensive exhibition of that artist’s work ever mounted. A version of this show, truncated but still of substantial scale, can now be seen at the Guggenheim.

The Tate show was a model of its kind, serving both connoisseur and general public. The curator, Richard Calvocoressi, divided Kokoschka’s works into seven periods which, though they could not be firmly classified, helped to order one’s perceptions of an oeuvre often bewilderingly variegated in style and idea. The catalog too is exemplary, with short essays by Calvocoressi describing each period and with illuminating commentary for the greater part of the 241 works displayed. For an artist as preoccupied as Kokoschka at crucial stages of his career with general ideas, with music, myth, and drama, and with the teaching of art, special essays by such knowledgeable critics as Werner Hofmann, Peter Vergo, and the Austrian painter Georg Eisler offer needed understanding.

Particularly ingenious was the Tate exhibition’s provision of biographical background, so desirable for a painter and poet preoccupied now with his own emotional problems, now with problems of politics such as the counterrevolution in Austria and the rise of Hitler. This was dealt with in a selection of documents, photographs, and explanatory material, entitled “Archive of a Life,” that greeted the visitor in the show’s vestibule. There he could, if interested, fortify his historical understanding before or after seeing the paintings, without the danger of distraction from the art itself that can arise when much explanatory material is placed close to it.

The Guggenheim has cut out all of these devices to enrich the viewer’s comprehension of the art. The essays on special aspects of Kokoschka’s life and work are excised from its version of the catalog, as are all but a few of Calvocoressi’s invaluable critical analyses of the separate works. The “Archive of a Life” is completely eliminated from the show itself. One remembers fondly the Guggenheim’s exhibition of 1982, “Kandinsky in Munich,” where the artist’s original qualities stood out the more clearly for being presented in his cultural connections. This time at the Guggenheim, as at MOMA in its recent Vienna show, l’art pour l’art governs New York curatorial practice as opposed to recent European efforts to find satisfactory forms of presenting the surrounding culture. In the case of Kokoschka, a maverick artist whose concerns oscillated between existential anguish, psychological exploration, humanistic faith and political commitment, attention to his ideas and largely extrapainterly involvements is at once more necessary and more difficult than in the case of painters working in a well-established tradition or in a stable company of fellow artists. In the otherwise rich Guggenheim show and its handsome catalog, the lack of such attention is a sad defect.


Oskar Kokoschka did not set out to be a painter. Coming from a Prague family of goldsmiths, he attended the Austrian Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts), preparing himself to teach art in the public schools. Kokoschka’s own teachers, unlike those at the more conservative Academy of Fine Arts where aspiring painters were trained, were Vienna’s best avant-garde artists. Most had participated in the Secession, the organized group that launched the modern movement in 1897. Originally they had been concerned both with creating a fine art reflecting the problems of modern man and with the regeneration of the living environment. Within a few years, however, they had shifted their emphasis to the second of these aims, and to the applied arts. The young Kokoschka was thus educated by people who brought a rich variety of skills, sensibilities, and experience as fine artists to their task of creating the use objects of a new aesthetic life style.

The teacher-training program of the Kunstgewerbeschule provided a dimension particularly important to liberating Kokoschka’s talent. Progressive in aim, it was conceived to elicit the creativity of children rather than induct them into the adult world of art through the traditional training in imitative drawing. A sympathetic observer of the children’s art classes of the Kunstgewerbeschule’s principal educator, Professor Franz Cizek, reported: “Everything elemental, subconscious and unconsumed is fostered and protected…. The uninhibited, the instinctual, become luminous here as [the] essentially human.” This had its implications for Kokoschka’s formation, too. While in design classes his teachers gave him the techniques and a varied formal decorative idiom to produce graphics of all kinds for people of artistic refinement—book plates, posters, illustrations, post cards—they also encouraged him to find his own road as an artist in a wider sense, a road which led him, quite unassisted, to a revolutionary expressionism completely at odds with their own hedonistic aestheticism.


In Kunstschau 1908 and Kunstschau 1909, exhibitions prepared by the Secessionists to celebrate the emperor Francis Joseph’s semicentennial, Kokoschka made his debut as an artist, and revealed in this striking first appearance the wide range of his talent. In 1908, he contributed works of stylized folk design to the children’s and graphics exhibits—among them a remarkable book, The Dreaming Boys, in which he chronicled his sexual awakening in intense free verse rein-forced by decorative color prints in the manner of his teachers. In 1909, he mounted a play conceived in a more strident spirit. Entitled Murderer, Hope of Women, it linked sex and violence in an aggressive, staccato rhetoric, both visual and poetic. Shocking in its unsublimated originality and force, this play can take its place as one of the pathbreaking works of Austrian Expressionism alongside young Robert Musil’s early novel of sexual awakening and social violence, The Confusions of Young Törless (1906), and with Arnold Schoenberg’s terrifying musical psychodrama, Erwartung (“Expectation”) (1909).

The radicalism of Kokoschka’s contributions to the Kunstschau drew the attention of the architect Adolf Loos. That implacable foe of the aestheticism of Kokoschka’s teachers adopted the young rebel as a potential ally in his crusade against the beautified life. Loos freed Kokoschka from economic dependence upon the Wiener Werkstätte, the craft workshop of his teachers, and pushed him instead in the direction of portrait painting, finding him patrons among his friends and acquaintances.

Loos’s circle, which Kokoschka joined, was something new in the sociology of the Austrian intelligentsia, which had always been an integral part of upper-class society. Abjuring by virtue of the radicalism of their ideas the kind of support from the state and the educated elite that the Secessionists still enjoyed, this new avant-garde became an autonomous social group, developing an informal but effective system of mutual promotion and psychological support. As its negative consequence, the estrangement that its members felt from Austrian culture and society as a whole was reinforced. Where the first generation of modernists—Klimt, Mahler, et al.—had hoped to reinvigorate Austrian culture, this second one virtually withdrew recognition from it. Der Ruf, one of the avant-garde magazines, proclaimed this indifference to an Austrian identity in an article entitled “Down with the Border Posts!” (the boundaries between Austria and other countries). And, in fact, the artists of the new generation made their homes or sought their livelihood as often in Berlin or Switzerland as in Vienna. Thus it was that Kokoschka, too, became—to use an image he devised in one of the finest paintings at the Guggenheim—a “Knight Errant,” floating suspended above a turbulent world.

In the half-decade after his entry into the Loos circle, Kokoschka produced the astounding series of brilliant psychological portraits that are likely to remain his chief claim as an artist. Ironically, his restless, often anguished, even histrionic search for self in the self-portraits of these years seems to have fueled his uncanny gift for capturing the spiritual essence of his subjects. “A person is not a still life,” Kokoschka wrote in retrospect about his portraits. Faces dispose of a “delegated power” of the consciousness, a consciousness at once dynamic and static, “letting the current run and the visions [and faces] be.” The artist did not paint the body, but the “real presence” of the other’s essential, vital character—“real presence” in an almost theological sense; i.e., incarnate in the body.

The Guggenheim show displays the early portraits handsomely, according enough space to each so that its unique character stands forth. For every personality Kokoschka seems to find another painterly technique. In the wonderful double portrait of an art-historian couple, Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, he creates through scoring the painted surface an almost electrical field of mental energy in which these two sharp and sensitive intellectuals are bound in communion. Other pictures of Kokoschka’s admired older friends—Karl Kraus, Peter Altenberg, Adolf Loos,2 Herwarth Walden, Paul Scheerbart—are not mere portraits; they are psychological essays. In the Tate exhibition the paintings of the avant-garde editor Herwarth Walden and the musical theorist and composer Egon Wellesz were hung side by side, revealing a contrast between two types of intellectuals: the avant-garde critic and the comprehending academic. The critic, Walden, is presented in steely profile, tense and alert as a hungry animal, his cooly penetrating eye searching for his quarry, ready to blaze in righteous wrath. Wellesz, on the other hand, is the synthetic intellect incarnate, his right hand resolutely closed, his left sensitively open. His figure is bedded in a softly modulated atmospheric background crosshatched with light beams that flow over his shoulders as if to provide substance for his integrative reflection.


The Guggenheim’s curator, Thomas Messer, uses juxtaposition in a different but no less revealing way. He intermingles drawings and watercolors with the oils, showing the different sides of Kokoschka’s progress as an artist, especially in these early years. Beside the portraits in oil of two of the intellectuals, Walden and the architectural poet Paul Scheerbart, two drawings of each are hung, one in pen-and-ink, the other in pencil. Kokoschka’s sense of the power of each medium is so great that one feels one is being shown three different aspects of the same personality as only pencil, India ink, or oil can capture each. Of these, ink seems to achieve the sharpest, most aggressive characterization, almost to the point of caricature.

Kokoschka’s tempestuous love affair with Alma Mahler, which began in 1912, profoundly affected his painting. In the oil portraits before 1912, light functions in an almost Neoplatonic way as a penetrating but extrinsic radiating spirit, the source of life. The faces and hands of the subjects carry the psychological messages; the body as a whole does not speak. Body language, so central to Kokoschka’s contemporary, Egon Schiele, is muted. Once Alma Mahler has entered Kokoschka’s life, the body gains both solidity and character, and paint is applied with broader, bolder strokes to constitute it. In the many portraits of Oscar and Alma, both single and double, in oil, drawings, and graphics, it is not so much the psyche of the persons that is portrayed, as the emotion he or she experiences—anguish, bliss, etc.

In the drawings, a similar change appears: Kokoschka seems to put aside his incisive, caricaturing pen and reach for charcoal or a softer pencil more suitable for shading and the molded image. In the wonderful series of drawings and lithos, Bach Cantata: “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” (“O Eternity, Thou Terrible Word”), in which Kokoschka allegorizes the mortal peril and dependency of his passion for Alma, an active, powerful body movement comes into its own.

The Guggenheim curators place a few drawings from this cycle alongside the newly corporeal canvases of the same period, making one conscious of Kokoschka’s turn from the individualized intellectual delineation of the psyche in the Loos period portraits to a more traditional, generalized representation of the body and its universal gestures of feeling. This is not to suggest that in the years with Alma, between 1912 and 1915, Kokoschka abandoned expressiveness as his central concern. Its persistence is attested by the Knight Errant. In this self-portrait conceived in the closing desperate moments of his love affair and in the atmosphere of the world war, the artist unfolds in a quasi-baroque symbolic vision the cosmic importance for him of that central problem of the Central European expressionist: alienation.


Shaken by the affair with Alma and severely traumatized by his battle experience and injury on the Russian front that resulted in repeated stays in hospitals, Kokoschka fell into emotional disorientation and artistic insecurity after 1915. Only in Dresden did he find a new style closely akin to the North German expressionists with whom he now consorted. His new paintings are composed out of large bright swatches of primary colors, utterly different from all that went before. His paintings of Dresden itself, strong in deliberate sensuous appeal, are among his finest works, and mark the beginning of several decades of concern with the city as subject, one far removed from the psychological preoccupations of the prewar years.

“A humanist by inclination and an expressionist by instinct”: this characterization of Kokoschka in a Guggenheim wall text, generally valid, loses its force in the mid-1920s. Entering a contract with the Berlin dealer Paul Cassirer, Kokoschka wandered over Europe—especially England and Scotland—producing largely landscape paintings. Among the best of these are views of London perceived from above in a wide panoramic arc. There is a restored vitality in these canvases, in which buildings are constructed, as it were, of shafts of colored light, complementing the steadier swirls of color in which sky and rivers are rendered. Far less successful are the natural landscapes of Cornwall and elsewhere. Kokoschka there seems to put in suspension his conception of light as a spiritual quality, treating it as merely “a sensory stimulus of the retina,” from which, as Werner Hofmann observes in his contribution to the Tate catalog, he had generally kept his distance. Even the portraits of the years after World War I lack the power of the early works. Kokoschka, essentially a spiritual painter and an artist of ideas, falters and goes bland when he seeks to follow the path of sensuous delight and structural analysis so brilliantly laid out for painting by the French impressionists and their successors.

It was politics that breathed new life into Kokoschka’s art in the 1930s. “The politics of the artist,” Stephen Spender once observed, “is the politics of the unpolitical, embraced for the sake of life and not of politics.” To Oskar Kokoschka the judgment perfectly applies. With the rise of Hitler and the Catholic counterrevolution of 1934 in Austria, Kokoschka rediscovered the Czech humanist Johann Comenius. A work of Comenius, Orbis sensualium pictus, which had enthralled Kokoschka in his youth—it was an attempt to project humanistic, cosmopolitan values through educating the senses—captured his imagination again. In the face of Austrian neofascism (against which he wrote a pamphlet), Kokoschka removed to Czechoslovakia, where he saw in President Jan Masaryk a realization in modern politics of Comenius’s ancient wisdom. His portrait of Masaryk, with the image of Comenius at his side and Prague in the background, combines portraiture and cityscape in a way that would have been impossible for the artist before. This is not psychological portraiture but political idealism. Prague became Kokoschka’s gleaming city on a hill, and that is the way he portrayed it in several fine canvases on view in the current show.

The Munich Pact dashed Kokoschka’s hopes for Czechoslovakia. In October 1938, he left for London with his wife-to-be, Olda Palkovská. He memorialized the event with its convergence of love and exile in Prague, Nostalgia, a darkly moving last painting of the city wherein the emigrants wait upon the river’s bank. In London, Kokoschka became active almost at once in Central European anti-Hitler organizations. He produced a series of little-known political paintings—mordant, heavy indictments of the European rulers reminiscent, as Calvocoressi suggests, of English eighteenth-century cartoons. Anschluss, Munich, and the failure to open a second front are among the subjects of these angry allegories. Kokoschka’s politics never claimed primacy in his moral scale of humane values. A large canvas, What we are fighting for, which he executed for a show aimed at strengthening war morale, was a murderous picture of war itself and the sufferings it caused—in the manner of Karl Kraus.

After the war, Kokoschka returned to the Continent, and tried to express his humanism in teaching as well as in moralistic paintings on classical themes. I do not believe that he ever recovered after World War I the strength of his first decade of work as an expressionistic artist and painter of the psyche. His alienation had truly been the source of his power, once he found the small circle of intellectuals who understood it, if they did not wholly share it. Neither politics nor his later love rekindled the flame that Loos and Alma Mahler had fed both in their own way and that Alma’s betrayal and Europe’s war had killed.

“Loneliness,” writes Kokoschka in a moment of rare self-insight, “compels every man, like a primitive, to invent the idea of society. But the knowledge that every society must remain a utopia forces one to take flight into loneliness.” “Let us understand Expressionism as the living voice of man, who is to recreate his own universe.” Kokoschka’s glories as an artist—and perhaps his emptinesses as well—result from his setting himself that impossible task.

This Issue

January 15, 1987