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Oskar Kokoschka: The Artist of Intense Expressionistic Portraits

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Expressing human character and psychology through effects of color, formal distortion, and violent brushwork and creating tempestuous compositions with clashing colors and contorted angles, the Austrian painter, and writer, Oskar Kokoschka, is celebrated for his dark, emotionally turbulent figurative paintings and intense expressionistic portraits and landscapes.

One of the leading exponents of Expressionism, Kokoschka was born on March 1, 1886, in Pochlarn, a small town on the Danube, 100 kilometers west of Vienna. The second child of a traveling salesman Gustav Kokoschka, the artist spent most of his youth in Vienna. He attended elementary and high school in Vienna and received his first artistic impressions from the stained-glass windows and Baroque frescoes of the Church of the Piarist Order, where he sang in the choir.

At age 18, Kokoschka won a scholarship and entered the Kunstgewerbeschule, now the University of Applied Arts Vienna, in 1904 or 1905. While still a student, he painted fans and postcards for the Wiener Werkstatte, which published his first book of poetry in 1908. That same year, he was fiercely criticized for the works he exhibited in the Vienna ‘Kunstschau 1908’ and consequently was dismissed from the Kunstgewerbeschule. During this early period, he wrote plays that are considered among the first examples of expressionist drama.

In 1910, Kokoschka’s first solo show was held at the Galerie Paul Cassirer, Berlin, followed later that year by another at the Museum Folkwang Essen. The same year, he also began to contribute to Herwarth Walden’s periodical “Der Sturm”. From 1910 to 1914, Kokoschka concentrated on portraiture, dividing his time between Berlin and Vienna.

In 1915, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Kokoschka volunteered to serve on the eastern front, where he was seriously wounded. Still recuperating in 1917, he settled in Dresden and in 1919 accepted a professorship at the Akademie there. In 1918, Paul Westheim’s comprehensive monograph on the artist was published.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Kokoschka traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. In 1931, he returned to Vienna but, as a result of the Nazis’ growing power, he moved to Prague in 1935. Two years later, he acquired Czechoslovak citizenship. In 1937, the Nazis condemned his work as “degenerate art” and removed it from public view. From the advancing National Socialists, he fled to England in 1938. Later that year, his first solo show in the United States was organized at the Buchholz Gallery in New York.

In 1947, Kokoschka became a British national. Two important traveling shows of his work originated in Boston and Munich in 1948 and 1950, respectively. In 1953, he settled in Villeneuve, near Geneva, and began teaching at the Internationale Sommer Akademie fur Bildenden Kunste, where he initiated his Schule des Sehens.

Kokoschka’s collected writings were published in 1956, and around this time he became involved in stage design. In 1962, he was honored with a retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London.

At 93, Oskar Kokoschka died on February 22, 1980, in Montreux, Switzerland.


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