From July 16th through October 5th, the Neue Galerie in New York City will present an extensive retrospective of the works of 20th Century Austrian painter, poet, and playwright Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). The exhibition collects a wide swath of oil paintings and drawings, taken principally from Kokoschka’s portrait oeuvre and spanning a lifelong career that began in the early 1900s and extended to the artist’s death.
Kokoschka won early recognition in 1908 at the Vienna Kunstschau, where he was described by Gustav Klimt—then president of the Vienna Secession artists’ union—as “the outstanding talent among the younger generation.” Kokoschka’s primary artistic development took place during the German Expressionism movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and—even as Kokoschka distanced himself from the widely-regarded school of artists—scholars and critics continue to associate him with their work today, citing congruency in both style and choice of subject matter.
In discussing the aesthetics of Kokoschka’s relationship to his contemporaries, art historians have made note of Kokoschka’s individuality among German Expressionists by citing his early experiments with oil paints in the setting of portraiture. Kokoschka’s technical skills allowed him to engage in a sitting without preparatory studies, fixing his subjects on the canvas during their first sessions. In particular, critics of the day praised Kokoschka for having a unique mode of “seeing” that colored “a style of subtle departures from strict representation” in which “the subjects of his portraits are illuminated from within, rather than from an exterior light source… [animating] his sitters.” This characterization describes one of the many formal explorations taken up by the young Kokoschka and captured in his portraits, which have also been described as pioneering “a reevaluation of traditional vanishing-point depth perception that anticipated the flattened forms which would follow quickly in modern movements such as Cubism and Abstract Expressionism.”
Throughout his early career and despite misgivings surrounding his ostensible association with the German Expressionists, Kokoschka remained closely tied to the Wiener Werkstätte—an applied-arts-focused community of visual artists that evolved from the Vienna Secession. Many of the drawings that supplement the portraits presented by the Neue Galerie were prepared on commission from the Werkstätte, constituting a second glance at the ways in which Kokoschka’s artistic formation is closely tied to “the constraints of visual art as a professional endeavor,” or—in other words—to portraiture.
The young Kokoschka nurtured his self-expression in several media, including a host of literary pursuits. While none will be directly presented in coordination with this exhibition, Kokoschka’s language-oriented works were met with some enthusiasm. His autobiography—A Sea Ringed with Visions—has been categorized as “representative of the psychedelic thrust of late Romanticism,” while two dramatic works—Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen and Orpheus und Eurydike—were respectively characterized as “the first Expressionist drama” and a classic collaboration with Ernst Krenek, who transformed the latter into an opera after being approached to score incidental music for the short play.
Following service in the First World War and flight from Nazis surrounding the Second, Kokoschka settled in Switzerland in 1947, where he lived out the remainder of his life. If less prolific than his youth, Kokoschka’s late career is not without note and peppered by milestones, including the third annual Erasmus Prize, which Kokoschka and Belarusian artist Marc Chagall shared in 1960 for their “notable contributions to European culture, society, or social science.”
The Neue Galerie opened on New York City’s Museum Mile in 2001, where a collection of 20th Century German and Austrian art is presented alongside temporary exhibitions featuring individual artists from the same canon, in particular those associated with German Expressionism. Works by Oskar Kokoschka and Gustav Klimt constitute a large fraction of the permanent collection, and the current exhibition is characteristic of their favored focus efforts, which have previously examined Egon Schiele, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Otto Dix, and a number of Bauhaus artists. The museum also made news in July 2006, when it acquired Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I for $135 million, the highest price paid for a single painting to date. The painting has since remained on display as a centerpiece of the permanent collection.