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Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). Szépmúvészeti Múzeum – Budapest. 1911.

Oskar Kokoschka was born in 1886 in Austria, in Pöchlarn, a little town on the Danube west of Vienna. He started to work in the Wiener Werkstätte, an artistic workshop dedicated to the symbolist, decorative Art Nouveau in which the major Austrian artists like Gustav Klimt were associated. Klimt supported him, as well as an architect Adolf Loos who was his first Maecenas. Loos took him on travels to Switzerland and Berlin. In the Berlin of 1911, just before the First World War, Kokoschka encountered Herwarth Walden, the director of the Expressionist magazine ‘Der Sturm’. Kokoschka discovered Expressionism and part of his work from that period on, especially his portraits, is fully Expressionist.

All art is to some degree expressionist, as it wants to imprint on the viewer an expression of its message. But the German and Austrian painters of that time intended to reduce images to the pure release of emotions. And then again, subject matter did not need to be so well detailed anymore since the expressive values of colours were discovered or re-discovered. Subject matter faded and colour and line took preponderance. The period was a time of great anxiety. In the German speaking societies of Europe, but also in other parts, a great unease with how society was evolving could be felt in art.

Still later, Kokoschka met the painters of the art movement ‘Der Blaue Reiter’, a movement originally founded in Munich, who were even less expressionists than colourists, and he worked also with them. Kokoschka was always a colourist and must have felt at home in the ‘Blaue Reiter’ movement.

In Berlin Kokoschka learned to know Alma Mahler, the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler and he fell madly in love with her. Kokoschka could not stay long in one place. He was restless, as he would be all his life. The couple visited Italy, Venice, and Naples. He made many passionate paintings and drawings of Alma, expressionist paintings of Alma and himself. But the relationship ended in 1914 and the disappointed Kokoschka engaged in the Austrian army C1 .

In August of 1915 Kokoschka was severely wounded at the Russian front. But he returned to the front, now at the border with Italy, where fierce battles took place between the Austrian and Italian armies. He made many war drawings of the front lines of the Isonzo River in Italy, of the region where he worked in a group of painters-reporters.

After the war, Kokoschka taught at the Academy of Dresden in Germany C1 . Dresden was a town in Eastern Germany, also with a tradition of artistic schools. In the beginning of the century the expressionist movement ‘Die Brücke’ was born here. Dresden marked a new, bright period for Kokoschka and slowly he reverted from expressionism to an individual style. He met a girl in Dresden, a student singer, Anna Kallin, and took her with him on new journeys through Europe C1 .

Kokoschka left Dresden already in 1923 and between the period of 1923 to 1934, restless as ever, he continued his frequent travels all over Europe: Switzerland, the South of France, Paris, London, Lyon, Bordeaux. He also saw Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Palestine. He remained three years in Paris, went through a period of depression, mainly in 1927, then returned to Vienna. In 1934, just after the death of his mother, Kokoschka lived in Prague, where he became a friend of the President of the Czecho-Slovakian republic Thomas Masaryk. Both were admirers of the Bohemian scholar Comenius.

In Prague also he met Olda Palkovska, a law student, and married her C1 . From that period, 1934 to 1938, date his many views of Prague, the capital of Bohemia. The Second World War threatened, so Kokoschka and his wife Olda left for London just before the German Nazi army entered Czechia. They stayed in Great Britain and lived mainly in Scotland with a Czech industrialist family, until 1953. From that period date wonderful landscapes of Scotland and even more wonderful colour drawings of flowers. These belong to the most intimate, delicate pictures of Kokoschka. Directly after the war, Kokoschka and Olda made many journeys to the South of France, Spain, Switzerland always, Rome, Florence, Greece, and Jerusalem.

In 1953 Kokoschka and his wife finally settled in Switzerland, in Villeneuve on the Leman Lake C1 . He visited other artists in Switzerland, among which the musician Pablo Casals of whom he made a portrait. Kokoschka continued his travels: Venice, Berlin, New York. He died in 1980 at the age of 94 in Montreux, Switzerland. So, Kokoschka’s life spanned the twentieth century in which he saw and participated in two world wars. Some years later after his death his wife Olda Kokoschka created a foundation in the Jenisch Museum of Vevey, Switzerland.

The ‘Veronica’ painting of Oskar Kokoschka in the Budapest Museum dates from 1911. It was painted in a period when Kokoschka travelled through Germany, Berlin and Vienna and during which he made several religious pictures. Kokoschka wanted to prove with this work that the idea to catch the essence, the lustre of a dying God on linen was a vision that not only medieval painters could comprehend and represent but also contemporary artists.

The story of Veronica is not recounted in the Gospels. According to the apocryphal texts of the ‘Acta Pilati’, Veronica was the woman that had been healed of haemorrhages by Jesus near Caesarea Philippi. She had asked and obtained a cloth with a painted picture of Jesus. She went to Rome with the picture and when Emperor Tiberius fell ill, showed it to him whereupon he was cured. Later, around 1300, Roger of Argenteuil was the probable source of a new version of this story. Veronica now had bene present at Calvary. Upon seeing Jesus in agony while he was bearing the cross, she had relieved Jesus by holding a cloth to his face to wipe away the blood and sweat. Then the features of Jesus had become imprinted on the cloth.

Medieval legend says that Veronica came out of her house while Jesus was on the road to Calvary. She used her veil to wipe the sweat of his face and thus Jesus’ features were miraculously imprinted on the cloth. This cloth, the Sudarium or vernicle, is preserved as a relic in the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Rome. It was a very famous relic of Rome. The current Sudarium may however not be the original. During the sack of Rome of 1527, the German Protestant soldiers of the Catholic Emperor Charles V passed along the image U11 . The Veronica was so important because it was supposed to be one of the only true images of Jesus known in medieval Europe. The origin of the name Veronica may be of the Greek words ‘Vera Icona’ or ‘True Image’.

Kokoschka’s Veronica comes out of the vortices of time as a mystic appearance. She is surrounded by the white radiation of saints. She is in the red colour of blood, representing the suffering of Jesus on the road to Calvary. Veronica holds tenderly the linen cloth with the face of Christ as if it were her own child. The face on the linen is equally impregnated with red blood that is still drooping from the veil. Veronica also is a suffering woman. Her face is very white. She has rough and unkempt, long red hair. She has lips kept together in a determined way, long eyes that look inwardly at her own misery and she has the hard face of a German working woman who has had her share of unhappiness, hardships and death. She wears a simple red robe and the bright red colour of blood also comes from her body as can be seen just over her right breast.

Kokoschka made a compelling visionary image of Veronica in which he blended the medieval legend, the mystic story and his uneasy feelings on society of Germany, Austria and Czechia at a time just before the First World War. Particularly the expression of Veronica and the use of the red colours are premonitory. Soon, European women would have no male children anymore to hold. They could only look tenderly at the photographs of their children fallen on the war front and bow their faces to memories of their boys.

Kokoschka’s image is a very spiritual one, appealing to very strong emotions and very much a picture of its time. There is a definite feeling of sameness in emotions when we look at the pictures of Bosch, Lotto or Kokoschka. They are images of suffering people made by artists who were profoundly touched by the injustice, violence, lack of tolerance and all the ugliness that can happen in life when people attack on each other. These feelings were universal, the more sensitive painters did not accept them but abhorred them, and hinted at the severe rejection given by Jesus in the Gospels.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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