Pöchlarn, Austria 1886 – 1980 Montreux, Switzerland
Kokoschka’s colour drawings are characterised by strong rhythmic hatchings in a somewhat nervous handwriting. One distinguishes trees, plants and grass, a sunlit hill and a strong sun in the blue sky beyond. There is a patch of yellow sunlight centre front.
Kokoschka, in an uncomplicated technique and using many coloured pencils, recorded all elements of the visual world. As if he – in shorthand
took notes of what he saw in nature and that his energetic direct lines and hatchings would record the plants, leaves, trees and sunlight, so that he would remember what he saw and experiences on this day and on this very spot in nature. The result is a colourful, vibrant, and very personal drawing.
In 1944 Kokoscha visited Ullapool in Ross-shire, in the Northwest Highlands, where he did our landscape and other pencil sketches.
In the summer of 1941, he had discovered the possibilities of colour pencil. Since, (until 1973) the artist would always carry colour pencils and a sketchbook with him. Those sketched landscapes would anticipate the colourful painted landscapes of the 1940’s and ‘50s.
In 1938 Kokoschka and his companion and friend, Olda Pavlovska, escaped the Nazis on the last plane leaving Prague. They settled in London. (They got married in Hampstead in 1941).
It wasn’t the first time he had to flee. Already in 1934, after his mother’s death, Kokoschka had left for Prague where he got acquainted with his future wife, Oldriska-Aloisie (known as ‘Olda’) in the house of her father, the lawyer Karel Bretislav Palkovsky.
In 1935 he painted a portrait of the founding president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš G. Masaryk. Their friendship resulted in Kokoschka’s acquiring Czech citizenship, the country where his father originated.
However, after the Munich agreement of 1938 Czechoslovakia had been surrendered to Germany.
Already at the Venice Biennale in 1932 Mussolini had made it clear that he did not like Kokoschka’s art. After that, the Nazis in Germany started attacking him and in 1937, his work was exposed at the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich.
In 1938, at Olda’s prompting he flees with her to England from the advancing National Socialists.
When Kokoschka left Czechoslovakia for London in 1938, he was only able to bring £5 in cash, a small suitcase and one painting. The Kokoschka’s were nearly penniless and Oskar believed that the Nazis had destroyed most of his work. More than four hundred of his works had been removed from German Museums. He fell into a deep depression. (After the war, he discovered that many works had been saved by shipping them to Switzerland).
It was not until 1939, when he started doing landscapes in watercolour at the South-Western coast at Polperro, that his condition improved.
Kokoschka’s career had always been eventful. From 1905 on, he studied at the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna. He also found work at the Wiener Werkstätte in 1907. He worked in oils and he wrote an illustrated children’s book and two plays that are now considered to mark the beginnings of expressionist theatre in Germany. In 1907, he exhibited in Vienna, but the expressionist qualities of his work caused a scandal and he was dismissed from both the School of Arts and Crafts and the Wiener Werkstätte. His protector, the modernist Adolf Loos, helped him secure some portrait commissions.
In 1910, in Berlin, he came into contact with art dealer Paul Cassirer. In 1911 he was appointed assistant teacher at the School of Arts and Crafts, the very school that had dismissed him only a few years earlier. Moreover, he started a passionate affair with the much elder Alma Mahler, widow of the famous composer.
In 1912 he exhibited with the Blaue Reiter in Munich.
His breaking up with Alma in 1913 made him flee into the war, but in 1915 he got seriously wounded.
In 1919 he was appointed professor at the Dresden Academy, and his reputation continued to rise. In 1922, he was invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. In 1924, he resigned from his post at the academy, by simply leaving a note at the porter and leaving town before any questions could be asked. He travelled extensively.
In 1932, again he exhibited at the Venice Biennale. After his departure for Czechoslovakia, he was offered a directorship at the School of Arts and Crafts and got a major retrospective in Austria in 1937. At the same time however, his work was exposed at the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich. The next year he would flee to London.
After the War
After the war, in the days of the cold war, his Czech nationality had become an impediment for travel and in 1947 he took the English nationality, (in 1978 would regain Austrian citizenship), but in 1953 the couple settled in Switzerland.
After the war, Kokoschka became a celebrated artist, certainly in Germany where a generation of politicians was eager to disassociate themselves from the Nazi past by commissioning portraits from a “degenerate” artist.
Nevertheless, Kokoschka could not shake the sense of being constantly under attack, instilled in him from his early days with Adolf Loos. Even in Germany, he was not accorded proper respect as the “inventor” of Expressionism, and on the international scene he felt swept aside by the rising tide of abstraction, a style he could neither understand nor condone. He had always been an outsider and it seems he could not reverse that role any more.
Kokoschka died a week shy of his 94th birthday in 1980.
After his death, there was a revival of interest with important retrospectives of his work, notably in 1986 in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, the Tate Gallery in London and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
More recently, in 2008, there was a retrospective in the Albertina in Vienna and in 2013/14 in the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam.
His work is represented in almost every major museum in the world.
Oskar Kokoschka, (Pöchlarn, Austria 1886 – 1980 Montreux, Switzerland), Colour pencil on paper 27 x 37 cm
Monogrammed and dated lower left side
Provenance: Roswitha Haftmann Modern Art, Zürich, May 1982; private collection, Switzerland.
This drawing was acquired at Roswitha Haftmann Modern Art in Zürich in 1982. From 1971 until 1973, Haftmann ran the Zürich Dependence of the Marlborough Gallery, who also represented Kokoschka. Roswitha Haftmann Modern Art would organise many exhibitions, among which a Kokoschka exhibition in 1976.