|Print | Back||July 13, 2015|
Moments in ArtEncounters, Half a Century Apart
by Lawrence Jeppson
Physically, painter Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) was big enough, 6'4", to have been an all-star professional football tackle, had he been born in another place and time.
Instead, he became one of the artists excoriated as degenerate by Adolf Hitler, who burned thousands of paintings created by a score of such artists. He managed to escape Austria before the German takeover, become a Czech citizen and then a British citizen, live in America, and finally settle in Switzerland.
It was there, in Villeneuve, near Montreux, where my good friend Joseph Cooper tracked him down, an event that Joe tells with undiminished glow so many years after it happened.
A tortured life led to Oskar’s meandering from country to country and continent to continent. Honed by tumultuous years, the 78-year-old man Cooper met in 1964 turned out to be affable and kind.
Oskar was the second child born to a Czech goldsmith. Shortly after his birth, a fire broke out in Pocharn, where he was born. The event gave him a lifelong belief in omens.
His older brother had died in infancy. Oskar was followed by a sister and a brother. The family was not prosperous, and Oscar’s first moves as a child were to ever-more-humble homes. Losing faith in his father, he drew closer to his mother and eventually, as the oldest sibling, felt he was head of the household.
He went to a secondary school where the emphasis was on science and language, subjects for which he had scant interest. During his lessons he buried himself in reading classic literature.
Sensing the boy’s abilities, a professor suggested he consider a career in fine art, an idea that was repugnant to Oskar’s father. Out of 153 applicants, Oskar became one of three accepted for admission to the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna. The school was not as prestigious as the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, where many of the teachers were caught up in the Vienna Secession, a modernist movement.
His best professor at Arts and Crafts, 1904-09, helped Oskar develop his own voice. However, the school gave him no formal training in painting, and he had to teach himself. While in school, helped by his professors and the Vienna Workshops, he was commissioned to paint fans, postcards, and children’s portraits.
In 1908, the Workshops published a volume of his poetry. He was 22. That same year his exhibit of paintings in the Vienna Kunstschau was so severely criticized that he was dismissed from his school. Architect Adolf Loos took a vigorous interest in him and began introducing him to the right people.
Oskar’s first important one-man show was at the well-respected Galerie Paul Cassirer in Berlin in 1910. Shortly afterwards he exhibited at the museum in Essen. From 1910-1914 he concentrated on portraiture.
Although Kokoschka kept a distance from the dominant German Expressionist movement, whose artists led to some of the most significant forays in modern art, he is considered one of its masters. Despite the individuality of this style, or maybe because of it, he began painting Viennese celebrities. In much later years he would paint Konrad Adenauer, who led post-Nazi Germany out of ruin.
In addition to poetry, Oskar began writing plays which were considered the first examples of Expressionist drama. In his own right, he became a Vienna semi-celebrity, invited to places where celebrities go.
In 1912, when Oskar was 26, he fell madly in love with Alma Schindler Mahler, the wife of Composer Victor Mahler (1860-1911).
Alma was studying ballet when she met Mahler, 19 years her senior. She rejected him because, she said, of “the scandals about him and every young woman who aspires to sing in opera.” Nonetheless, they married in 1902.
Writing in the Chicago Tribune, John von Rheim said of Alma, “She was wife to three famous husbands — composer Gustav Mahler, architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, and author Franz Werfel — mistress to artist Oskar Kokoschka, and lover to many other prominent men.”
Von Rhein quotes a variety of sources who call Alma “a monster,” “the worst human being I ever knew,” and “a grande dame and at the same time a cesspool.”
While Mahler was still alive, Alma reveled in a torrid relationship with Gropius. Then she took up with Kokoschka, playing one man against the other. After several years of intimacy with Oskar, Alma rejected him, “afraid of becoming too overcome with passion.”
Kokoschka never got over loving Alma, the subject of one of his greatest works, The Bride of the Wind (The Tempest). No surprise, he wrote poetry inspired by his passion for her.
Businessmen Isidor Zuckerman (1866-1946) and Emil Reitler regularly hosted Saturday and Sunday night suppers, salons known as the Vienna Gatherings. Reitler was a banker. Zuckerman’s fortune was based on a group of wood, timber, and plywood companies. These exploited large forests in Poland. (His son Karl established a plywood business near Liverpool. During WWII the company manufactured products used in airplanes and submarines.)
Oskar Kokoschka was a guest at these Vienna Gatherings.
Kokoschka divided his time between Berlin and Vienna. After volunteering for the Austrian cavalry at the outbreak of the Great War (WWI), in 1915 he was grievously wounded. The military doctors decided he was mentally unstable. Afterwards, he wandered about Europe painting landscapes in his own style.
He settled in Dresden and then accepted a professorship in its Academy. During the 1920s and 1930s he traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. In 1931, he returned to Vienna. Dismayed by the growing power of the Nazis, he moved to Prague in 1931, and acquired Czech citizenship.
Like all of the German Expressionists and other modern painters, Kokoschka was denounced as a degenerate by the Nazis. In Prague, he and other expatriates became known as the Oskar-Kokoschka-Bund. But when the Czechs began mobilizing to fight the feared Nazi invasion, he fled to England. The British were able to help all members of the OKB escape through Poland and Sweden.
The same year he fled to the UK, 1938, he enjoyed his first solo show in New York.
During the UK summers, Oskar and his wife lived in Scotland, where he painted watercolor landscapes.
Oskar became a British citizen in 1946, settled briefly in America the next year, then settled permanently in Switzerland, even though he regained Austrian citizenship in 1978.
Joseph Cooper’s artist wife Elaine was an artist and ardent admirer of Kokoschka’s art. In 1964, Joe went to Europe on an international marketing assignment for TWA. At a Frankfurt gallery he purchased two Kokoschka lithographs. He obtained a letter of introduction to the artist from the gallery but didn’t know where to find him.
Arriving in Zurich, Joe went for assistance to the American Counsel, which was able to supply address and a phone number.
Accompanied by a man from the United States government, Joe went from Zurich to Geneva, from where he telephoned Kokoschka. Joe was surprised when the artist answered his own phone and in English.
Joe explained that he was the grandson of Rose Zuckerman, Isidor Zuckerman’s sister. Yes, of course Oskar remembered the Zuckermans and the Vienna Gatherings half a century before.
Oskar agreed to meet Joe later that afternoon.
Still uncertain about the meeting, Joe and the other American drove a rented Volkswagon from Geneva to the other end of Lake Geneva, ate lunch at Chillon, visited the old castle immortalized by Byron’s poem “The Prisoner of Chillon,” and drove on to Villeneuve to have their few moments with the old artist. (Not interested in art, the other man was bored by the whole encounter.)
The half-hour meeting was warm and convivial. From the tubes he carried, Joe took out the two lithographs. One was signed, the other was not.
Kokoschka called his wife Olga and unrolled the lithographs on the dining table.
In a very nostalgic moment, he paused while examining the black and white portrait of Kathie Richter. She had been his mistress in Dresden, before he met Alma Mahler.
This litho was signed. Kokoschka took a piece of charcoal out of his pocket and made some enhancements to the portrait, making it a unique piece of far more value. “I remember her very well,” the painter mused. “I’ve just made it an artist’s proof.”
The other litho, of another girl friend, was unsigned. Kokoschka signed it.
Elaine Cooper was overjoyed to receive two pieces of art by one of her favorite artists.
Some years later in the Beverly Hills, CA home of his cousins who were descended from Emil Reitler of the Vienna Gatherings, Joe Cooper met Alma Mahler. “I was not impressed. Age had not preserved her beauty.”
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