The Expressionist Art of Oskar Kokoschka

The Expressionist Art of Oskar Kokoschka

May 25, 1984

AP Art History

Randy Schoenberg

Period 6, Third Trimester

To the modern eye, art is much more than a beautiful representation of man and his surroundings. Modern art must present much more than the external characteristics of nature; art must portray emotion, energy, psychological insight—the very essence of nature itself. (Of course, abstract art departs from this definition by even leaving nature out.) The modern definition of art, therefore, leaves room for experimentation with color, line, and form, and allows for an extremely personal form of self-expression.

Expressionism is a term which refers to those artists who departed in a very personal way from classical form and technique. Although never a member of any of the Expressionist schools (Die Brucke or Der Blaue Reiter), Oskar Kokoschka developed a personal style so unique in its expressionist quality and so insightful in its modern use of color and form that he is now considered one of the greatest objective expressionists. His ability to use bright “Fauvist” colors and broad rapid brushstrokes to create wildly psychological portraits and revealing landscapes as well as his ability to use elemental line to achieve the same effect in sketches makes his art appealing.

Oskar Kokoschka was born in Pochlam, near Vienna, on March 1, 1886.[1] He learned “a variety of artistic techniques” from the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna, “but not painting, which he acquired by teaching himself.”[2] That Kokoschka was self-taught is probably one reason that his technique is so individual and so unlike any other expressionist. Kokoschka also wrote expressionist plays in his early years which were published by the Weiner Werkstatten.[3] “In 1900 he went to Berlin and became a contributor to Der Sturm,[4] and after 1911 “took part in the exhibitions of Der Sturm and Sezession in Berlin, in Cologne, and in the new Sezession in Munich.”[5] His art went through a rapid series of changes and developments until 1924, “when he arrived at a synthesis of all these efforts toward completeness”[6] From beginning to end, however, Kokoschka’s style and form of expression remain relatively constant, especially in comparison to an artist like Pablo Picasso, who changed drastically in style many times during his equally long life. Kokoschka died in 1980 at the age of 93 a singular figure in art, he is almost unrepresented in terms of artists he has influenced with his style. But, one of the first  emancipators of artistic expression, Oskar Kokoschka will long be remembered as a great artist of the modern period. Kokoschka’s works can be divided into three categories: portraits, landscapes, and sketches or drawings. All three reveal different aspects of Kokoschka’s personal form of expression. The decorative aspects of line and color, inherited by Kokoschka from his Viennese forerunner, Gustav Klimt, add beauty to the paintings and drawings. His violent brushstrokes and strong lines established the very essence of expression.

Kokoschka painted many psychologically probing portraits, including some of such notable contemporaries as Adolf Loos, Karl Krauss, Peter Altenberg, Carl Moll, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, Pablo Casals, and Alma Mahler. There are three elements which make these portraits and self-portraits so powerful: the gesture of the hands, the use of bold colors, and the quick, tense brushstrokes. Kokoschka was able to apply expressionism to people and in a way that the abstractionist could not, and this makes him the most successful portraitists of the period.

Kokoschka’s portraits are half-length and usually of sitting models. The paintings feature the exposed parts of the body, head and hands against colorful and abstract background. In this respect, the hands become as expressive of the person’s character as the face. Whether the hands are open, folded, raised, or clenched, they are heavily painted in much the same manner as the fact. The hands, in these portraits emphasize the emotion of the subject. The intense face of Dr. Hermann Schwartzwald (1911)[7] is matched with two tightly clenched fists; in his Self Portrait with Alma Mahler (1913),[8] the hands gently touch one another as the two stare suspiciously out form the canvas; and in his portrait of Arnold Schoenberg (1924),[9] the hands are raised as if the composer were playing his cello (the cello is absent from the picture). It is clear that the gesture of the hands in Kokoschka’s portraits provide yet a further insight into the character of the subject and add a fundamental form of expression to his already enthralling paintings.

Kokoschka’s use of colors again contributes to the expressionist quality of the work. Almost fauvist in their strength, Kokoschka uses color to create depth in his portraits by creating a contrast between strongly painted figures in the foreground and more softly painted surfaces in the background. In his brilliantly colored Self Portrait with Arms Crossed (1922/23),[10] Kokoschka shows the influence of both Van Gogh and Klimt. The pink flesh of the face and hands is dabbed with green, red, and yellow, and stands out as the only non-unified surface in the composition. The painter’s bright (almost florescent) blue coat and red tie contrast very subtly with the pattern of lighter and weaker colors that make up the background to show depth.   Without use of perspective, Kokoschka uses color to contrast figures and surfaces and heighten the artistic beauty of the work.

The final aspect of his portraits is the use of broad brushstrokes to create expression and carefully outlined forms. His paint is applied with a ferocity and the energy is seen in the texture left by the dry brush. The multidirectional S-shaped and C-shaped strokes in his masterpiece, Tempest (1914),[11] place the tormented lovers in an ethereal space filled with furious currents. Kokoschka never lost this spontaneous quality as his later portraits are made up in the same way, his attack on the canvas hardly mellowing with age.

Kokoschka’s landscapes uncover a side of Expressionism in the artist rarely seen in others of this period. Throughout his career, he returned to the cityscapes, seascapes, and landscapes of Europe for inspiration. In them he realized an ordered, colorful, perhaps less modern, but highly emotional form of expressionism. Yet, while the subject and the composition may be Cezannesque, Kokoschka contributes to the landscape his unique vision of beauty with his bright colors and tumultuous brush strokes. Strong clouds of green, yellow, orange, purple, white, and blue have never looked so threatening as they do in Polperro (1939)[12] or so comforting as in Prague (1934/5).[13] It may be that the key to Kokoschka is his landscapes, for it is a sight not often seen in the expressionist’s art and one so important to Kokoschka’s development.

Finally, the third form of which Kokoschka was a master is drawing. In his sketches, the artist shows a full knowledge of the value of expression is simple dark lines. His linear drawings are as varied as his portraits, yet they have a clarity of outline and an expressive linearity paralleled only by his quick, broad brushstrokes. The spontaneity is evident in the almost haphazard application of curved and straight lines over many of the sketches, often extending over the outlined boundaries of the space. Kokoschka’s vision of positive and negative space in his drawings is uniquely expressionistic. Often, instead of shading, areas are darkened by a mass of thin lines moving in all directions. The result is a rough, scarred surface. Kokoschka’s mastery of pure line facilitates his expressionist purpose and accomplishes much in the creation of truly powerful pieces of modern art.

I first experienced Kokoschka’s power of expression through a portrait of my grandfather, Arnold Schoenberg. It moved me deeply because it gave me insight into the character of the grandfather I never met. Since then, I have seen much of Kokoschka’s work and have felt similarly about other of his portraits and paintings. Kokoschka was a product of his time and of his city, and as such, his portraits of the outstanding people of that time and place serve as mirrors into perhaps the most revolutionary period the world has ever experienced. It is no wonder at all that a man with such power with color, with line, and especially form would prefer objective art as his modes of expression. In over 70 years of painting, there is no duplication in his work. Whether portrait, landscape, or drawing it is pure emotional energy and psychological insight that cannot help but be successful as modern art.




Goldscheider, Ludwig. Kokoschka. (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1963)

Richard, Lionel. Phaidon Encyclopeida of Expressionism. (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1978)

Schmalenbach, Fritz. Oskar Kokoschka. (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1967).

Victoria and Albert Museum. Homage to Kokoschka. (Salzburg, Austria: Galerie Welz, 1958)

[1] Richard, Lionel. Phaidon Encyclopedia of Expression. “NY: EP Dutton, 1978, page 70).

[2] ibid. p. 70.

[3] ibid. p. 70.

[4] ibid. p. 70.

[5] ibid, p. 71.

[6] Schmalenbach, Fritz. Oskar Kokoschka (Greenwich, Conn.:   New York Graphic Society, Ltd. 1967, p. 11).

[7] ibid. p. 42.

[8] ibid. p. 46.

[9] ibid. p. 62.

[10] ibid. p. 58.

[11] ibid. p. 78.

[12] ibid. p. 73.

[13] ibid. p. 71.

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