Oskar Kokoschka: Degenerate Artist or Expressionist Genius?

Oskar Kokoschka is one of the most prominent figures of the expressionism art movement. He disobeyed the rules and norms of art and followed his own path and ideas.

Mar 1, 2020By Vladislav Tchakarov, BA History


Kokoschka was a pioneer of the art movement of expressionism and a self-proclaimed martyr of the arts. He was regarded as one of the artists among the many inhumanely-talented painters of the early twentieth century that did not follow the rules and norms of art.

Born in 1886 in Pöchlarn, Austria, Oskar Kokoschka died 93 years later in Montreux, Switzerland. He outlived his other famous compatriots that left a clear mark on the history of European modernism – Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. At only 27, he was already described as “one of the old masters but born hopelessly late.”


Oskar Kokoschka’s Paintings Went Beyond The Accepted Norms

“Nude with Back Turned”, 1907, drawing
Nude with Back Turned”, 1907, drawing


From his very first canvas, the extravagant painter escaped from the embroidered diapers of the Viennese secession, which, at that time, defied triumph in all spheres of art. Kokoschka grabbed the brush, not to paint an unreal but esthetic world, but to engage in heated discussions about the mysteries of the human mentality, those dark depths inhabited by the unconscious.


In 1908, he displayed his nude drawings that interpreted the relationship between man and woman as a mixture of sexual desire and violence. He then painted the Holy Virgin as a murderously seductive, fatal woman. Needless to say, the reactions that his paintings provoked mixed feelings.


Oskar Kokoschka Was Expelled From The Academy of Arts and Crafts in Vienna

“Adolf Loos”, 1909, a portrait of Adolf Loos by Kokoschka
Adolf Loos”, 1909, a portrait of Adolf Loos by Kokoschka


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Kokoschka was both demonized and welcomed as a messiah. When his first paintings appeared and drew attention, he was quickly thrown out by the prestigious Academy of Arts and Crafts. Nevertheless, he was accepted as a beloved student by the influential architect and social reformer Adolf Loos.


It was Loos who organized his first solo exhibition in Berlin in 1910. At that time, Kokoschka kept his head shaved and painted his self-portraits with the appearance of an intellectual prisoner, punished for his innovative ideas.


The everlasting furious criticism eventually became his best advertisement. He quickly emerged on the European art scene with the speed, brilliance, and arrogance of a rock star. However, such a comparison would be incomplete if the star had no problem with addiction.


The Addiction Behind Oskar Kokoschka’s Fruitful Imagination Was A Woman

The woman who appeared in the life of the young artist was the remarkable Alma Mahler – a beauty, musician, host of one of the most visited intellectual salons in Vienna and, by coincidence – the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler.


Alma Mahler, photograph
Alma Mahler, photograph


The two met on April 12, 1912, when Alma was seven years older. In the following ten years, his obsession with her was expressed in over 400 letters, several oil paintings, and countless drawings. The joy of life and the pain of death in their passionate relationship materialized in the tragic loss of one or possibly two unborn children. This traumatized Kokoschka for the rest of his days. He often said that he was painting so much only because he did not have any children.


Double portrait of Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, 1913
Double portrait of Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, 1913


Eventually, tired of the disappointing love, Kokoschka volunteered to participate in World War I while Alma soon remarried. The ultimate effect of the decision to join the army is that he became a sworn pacifist and anti-nationalist until his last day.


Oskar Kokoschka Ordered A Life-size Doll of Alma Mahler

https://mahlerfoundation.org/images/Contemporaries/KokoschkaDoll2.jpgThe Alma Doll, photograph
The Alma Doll, photograph


In 1918, having lived through several turbulent years and two lovers after parting with Mahler, Kokoschka ordered a well-known master in Stuttgart to make him a doll, which was a real-size copy of Alma.


“The Tempest”, 1914, the painting visualizes the destructive love between Kokoschka and Mahler
“The Tempest”, 1914, the painting visualizes the destructive love between Kokoschka and Mahler


The fixed idea of ​​an artificially created woman was not new – it has been known since the era of Romanticism. However, in the hands of the artist, this “perfect” Alma had more than therapeutic value. It was also a tool for new creative provocations.


For several years, the doll was a kind of surrogate muse. It was at the center of a multitude of paintings that illustrated the doomed attempt of the artist to breathe in the life of inanimate matter through his art.


In 1922, Kokoschka put a dramatic end to his personal and creative history with Mahler. He watered the doll wine and then decapitated it. This symbolic murder was the spectacular ending to his long and agonizing obsession with the woman and the topic of the eternal struggle between the sexes.


The Fascist Regimes Called Oskar Kokoschka A Degenerate Artist

Photograph of Oskar Kokoschka, 1951
Photograph of Oskar Kokoschka


In the 1930s, after many years of traveling and living in different European countries, Kokoschka finally turned his back to his native Austria. He married a Czech woman named Alda Palkovska, and continued his life in the true sense of the word transnational European – for many years with a Czechoslovakian, and then with a British passport.


“Self-Portrait of a Degenerate Artist”, 1937
“Self-Portrait of a Degenerate Artist”, 1937


The fascist regimes did not miss to condemn this apostasy. Mussolini publicly criticized him, and Nazi Germany named him in the so-called group “degenerates in the arts”. As a result, Kokoschka began to resist even more spectacularly to power, and in 1937, he painted his most famous self-portrait – “The Artist as Degenerate.”


Oskar Kokoschka Painted Over A Hundred Portraits


His initial interest in the genre of portraits was provoked entirely by his mentor Adolf Loos. He encouraged him to go beyond the ornamental facade of the human face and look at what is bubbling beneath the surface.


Portrait of Alma Mahler, 1912
Portrait of Alma Mahler, 1912


This approach is especially evident in the images of children. For most of them, idyllic innocence is shown in the fight against childhood fears, traumas, and waking maturity. At the same time, the portraits that Kokoschka painted documented not only his models’ anxieties, but also their personal fluctuations.


Oskar Kokoschka Was An Anti-Fascist But His Portrait Of Konrad Adenauer Can Still Be Seen Today In The Office Of Angela Merkel


The artist spent the years of World War II with his wife in London. All his public appearances at the time were of a fierce anti-fascist who sympathized with Soviet power.


Oskar Kokoschka and Konrad Adenauer in front of his portrait canvas, 1966
Oskar Kokoschka and Konrad Adenauer in front of his portrait canvas, 1966


Later, however, he reoriented himself and became the most beloved portraitist of the conservative political circles in West Germany. Today, in the office of Angela Merkel, is the portrait he painted of Konrad Adenauer. During this period, Kokoschka conveniently neglected his past as a publicly rejected artist, and without hesitation sought out former Nazi collectors to whom he offered his paintings.


Oskar Kokoschka’s Paintings Sold in Recent Auctions


Paintings by Kokoschka appear at auctions quite frequently. Impressively enough, his works attract a lot of attention and sell for millions of dollars and we will discuss two of the most expensive paintings sold by Sotheby’s in recent years.


Orpheus And Eurydice – Sold for 3,308,750 GBP

Artwork by Oskar Kokoschka, ORPHEUS UND EURYDIKE (ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE), Made of oil on canvas
Artwork by Oskar Kokoschka, ORPHEUS UND EURYDIKE (ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE), Made of oil on canvas


As obvious from the name of the painting, this artwork relates to Orpheus, one of the most important figures in Greek Mythology. It visualizes the tragic love story between Orpheus and his lover Eurydice which directly resembled Kokoschka’s personal love tragedy with Alma Mahler. Interestingly enough, Kokoschka also wrote a play with the same name which was later made into an opera as well.


The lot was estimated at £1 600 000 –2 000 000 but eventually sold for a total of £3,308,750 at Sotheby’s London in March 2017.


Joseph De Montesquiou-Fezensac Portrait – Sold for $20,395,200 USD

Artwork by Oskar Kokoschka, JOSEPH DE MONTESQUIOU-FEZENSAC, Made of Oil on canvas
Artwork by Oskar Kokoschka, JOSEPH DE MONTESQUIOU-FEZENSAC, Made of Oil on canvas


Kokoschka spent some time in the Swiss village of Leysin, where he accompanied his mentor and friend Adolf Loos on an important journey. Loos’s girlfriend, Bessie Bruce had tuberculosis and resided at the Mont Blanc sanatorium for treatment.


Kokoschka drew many portraits during his time in Leysin, including this one of Joseph de Montesquiou Fezensac, future Duke of Fezensac, who was also a patient at the sanatorium. It is curious that years later, Kokoschka described the Duke as a degenerate-looking man.


The painting and nearly 400 other works were confiscated from Kokoschka by the Nazis in 1937. It was later sold to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, where it resided until 2018. The heirs to the former owner, Alfred Flechtheim, restituted the painting and sold it at Sotheby’s, New York on 12 November 2018 for an artist record price of $20,395,200 USD.

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By Vladislav TchakarovBA HistoryVladislav Tchakarov is a History student at Sofia University in Bulgaria and a contributing writer at TheCollector. Originally from Bulgaria, he moved to the Netherlands to work and study Business Management before realizing that his passion for history is too great which lead to his return to Bulgaria and the beginning of his History studies.