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Oskar Kokoschka's Retrospective: the Remarkable Life of a Restless Migrant, Expressionist, Lover

Updated: Feb 18

"I used to be too subjective, and I was always tempted to find my inner self in the exterior and dissipate my imagination on other people and on life." OK...

OK – this is how Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), signed his paintings, and so he is referred to throughout the exhibition "Oskar Kokoschka. A Retrospective", thoughtfully curated by Cathérine Hug, staged at the Kunsthaus Zürich.

"However, it's more than OK... It's the whole spectrum of well-cultured, extraordinary personalities, carrying viewer's imagination back to Vienna's café society and its lavish ballrooms," I think to myself whilst walking from portrait to portrait of such Kokoschka's contemporaries as a painter Felix Albrecht Harta, musician Egon Wellesz or architect Adolf Loos.

A portrait of Felix Albrecht Harta (1909)

Having in mind that Kokoschka considered hands every personality's essential feature, it's no wonder that most of the portraits highlight sitters' hands in an expressive way, with striking colours and bold brushstrokes.

It's difficult not to notice the portrait of Felix Albrecht Harta's (1909). Imperfect in a conventional viewer's eyes, but incredibly expressive and bold as if the power of this human being was concentrated in his hands. Kokoschka didn't merely replicate the reality, but, as it's inherent to Expressionism, endeavoured to expose that individual spirit, hidden under the skin.

Detail of Felix Albrecht Harta's portrait (1909)

Not only does the retrospective classify Kokoschka's oeuvre chronologically, it recognises the cities, where he resided. He was a world (or should I say distinctively European?) citizen with pacifistic views, who remained on the move throughout his life, tirelessly searching and discovering. Vienna, Dresden, Prague, London and elsewhere in Europe – his motifs of starting over often pertained to the two world wars, which affected him as a human being (depression after horrors on the front line of WWI) and as an artist (Nazies denounced his art as "degenerate art", he fled to London during WWII).

Kokoschka didn't limit himself to the (commissioned) portrait painting. He also was an avid landscape painter, who depicted London, Berlin, Amsterdam and other European cities in a lively, energetic, painterly manner. "London, Richmond Terrace" (1926) is only one of the picturesque examples at this exhibition, so the viewers might have chances to find their favourite cityscapes as well.

"London, Richmond Terrace" (1926)

Not only landscapes and social circles drove Kokoschka's artistic intentions. There are works that were created simply out of love. One of the loved ones was a woman, who left the artist so hurt and broken, that he decided to heal his wounds on the front-line of World War I.

Her name was Alma Mahler, a Viennese-born composer and an influential socialite, whose fashionable salon was part of the artistic scene in Vienna. Kokoschka's obsession with this dazzling woman is exposed through portraits, fans and other artwork at the exhibition. Unfortunately, all the adoration laid on canvas and other surfaces didn't make her stay as she was an independent woman, who couldn't bear her lover's jealousy.

During the post-war period Kokoschka searched for inspiration in Ancient Greece. He was a firm anti-nationalist, who adhered to the principle that civilisation's achievements did not emerge from the background of national but rather European and even global dynamics.

Amongst such epic works as "The Prometheus Triptych" there is a vivid, racy statement of Ancient love "Theseus and Antiope" (1958-1974). The myth goes like this: Theseus, the king of Athens, abducted Antiope, the leader of the Amazons, the tribe of women warriors. Antiope fell in love with Theseus and betrayed the Amazons of her own free will.

"Theseus and Antiope" (1958-1974)

Kokoschka's life was long and fascinating, so is the exhibition. This retrospective is so immersive, comprehensive and remarkable, that it deserves to travel the cities as much as Kokoschka did and even further. At the rise of populism and nationalism in recent years, Kokoschka's anti-nationalistic views, personal traumatising experience of chauvinism and enduring focus on individual expression are as relevant as ever.


"Oskar Kokoschka. A Retrospective"

Open until 10 Mar 2019

Kunsthaus Zürich

Heimplatz 1, 8001 Zürich, Switzerland

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