Bad Boy Kokoschka

An Exhibition of Rarely Seen Works Traces the Austrian Painter’s Metamorphosis From Talanted Academic to Bold Rebel

On The Town | Mariam Shalikashvili | March 2008

The poster, 1908, promoting the Sommertheater (left), Children Playing, 1909 (above), by Kokoschka (Photo: Courtesy of the Belvedere)

Oskar Kokoschka never really fit in. After floating through an education that never made any sense to him, he was thrown out of the School of Applied Arts (where he would one day teach) and drifted around the edges of the hot house of fin-de-siecle painting in Vienna.

The current exhibition of Kokoschka’s work at the Belvedere Museum traces this evolution in seven rooms of rarely exhibited early drawings and paintings, showing the metamorphosis of a talented young academic painter into a bold rebel, who dared to express the fundamental ideas of the Viennese modernist movement.

Entitled "TräumenderKnabe - Enfant Terrible" (Daydreamer – Troublemaker) the exhibition is dominated by paintings mesmerizing with the extravagance of the lines, the beauty of the composition of colors, the characters whose faces reflect the tensions of difficult childhood, unfulfilled dreams and sentiments of the young artist.

In 1907 at age of 21, Kokoschka started working for the Wiener Werkstätte.

As a first commission he created an illustrated storybook called The Dreaming Boys, exhibited in the opening room of the museum, consisting of the paintings and text as "a kind of record, in words and pictures of my own state of mind at the time," Kokoscka wrote later.

The stories in The Dreaming Boys have mythic qualities and are considered some of the most significant of the painter’s early works.

Entering the baroque rooms of the Lower Belvedere, the early sketches of Kokoschka nudes cover every wall, along with related pieces by August Rodin and Gustav Klimt, who were major influences. Life classes were compulsory at the School of Applied Arts were Kokoschka began his studies on scholarship in 1905. Thus these nude studies trace his transformation from an apprentice of classical drawing into an innovative modernist.

As we walk into the next room we see the poster from the 1908 Kunstschau, the advertisement that Kokoschka painted for his drama "Morder, Hoffnung der Frauen" (Murder, Hope of Women).

The play premiered at the "Internationale Kunstschau" (International Art Exhibition) in 1909 with leading actor Ernst Reinhold in the lead role.

"It was just what I had dreamed about women when I was younger," Kokoschka wrote about the themes of the play. "Now I am the stronger! I wouldn’t be swallowed by her." The poster – a monstrous woman embraced by a red creature that morphs into her dress – changed Kokoschka’s life. It became the icon of early Expressionism, drawing the attention of the architect Adolf Loos, who took him on as a protégé, introducing him to prospective buyers and gallerists.  In 1910 Kokoscka moved to Berlin, where he illustrated the famous Expressionist magazine "Der Sturm," for which Kokoschka designed covers for almost every issue.

In the next room, the journey through the world of Kokoschka is suddenly interrupted as you return to the baroque era of the palace itself, with massive sculptures, marble floor, two exquisite mantels opposite each other, huge ceiling, making you feel a little like a creature in an enchanted palace. The side doors opening onto a panoramic view up the terraced gardens of the Upper Belvedere.

The next room covers the paintings of the years 1909 and 1910. A portrait called Playing Children (1909) challenged the stereotypes of an idealized childhood: here a boy and a girl recline together, he is lying on one side, resting on his elbow, she is leaning back against the cushion of his stomach. Still they appear troubled, thoughts adrift.

The girl’s face is particularly affecting. It is not beautiful, like the Infanta of Velasquez and not merry either, like the renaissance portraits art lovers are accustomed to. It is out of proportion, fragmented, not so much to reveal a physical ugliness, but to make you look into depths of her eyes, finding there manifestation of the brokenness of a common child. The painting shows that moment of sudden anxiety, tension that suddenly infiltrates the mind of a carefree child at play, that carries its mind away.

Kokoschka was the son of a goldsmith, and learned early to honor beauty. He recalled later that he had learned from his father "to endure poverty rather than work slavishly at distasteful work." It may be these inner tensions of his own childhood that are reflected in the puzzled faces of the children in the painting.

The next few years were a period of torment for Kokoschka, as he was wrenched from an obsessive, six-year love affair with Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Gustav Mahler. After their separation in 1918, the broken-hearted Kokoscka ordered a life size representation of Alma from the doll maker Hermine Moos – to be copied from a life-sized sketch and additional details that he hoped would be a substitute for the woman he desired but couldn’t have.

A replica of the doll is seated on an armchair just inside the door to the next gallery.

The painter was very disappointed by the result: "Instead of a crazy illusion, instead of the seductive dream creature which I have been so feverishly obsessed with up until now, what stares back at me is a phantom …a sorry effort, a jointed doll. It was a terrible blow," Kokoschka wrote in a letter to Moos. "The outer covering is polar-bear fur, which would be suitable as an imitation of a shaggy bearskin bed rug, but never of the suppleness and softness of female skin, even though we would have always placed the deception of the sense of touch in the foreground," Kokoschka complained.

Despite his disappointment, Kokoschka kept the doll, using it as a model for his pictures: Frau in Blau (Woman in Blue 1919). However, his attempt to awaken the fetish to life through painting failed as well, and in 1920 Kokoschka destroyed the doll apparently ending his obsession with Alma Mahler.


Oskar Kokoschka:

Träumender Knabe -

Enfant Terrible

Jan. 24 – May 12

Lower Belvedere

3., Rennweg 6a

(01) 79 557 134

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