This year marks the centenary of the birth of Oscar Kokoschka, one of the great figurative painters of this century. He is perhaps best known for his portraits, painted between 1909 and 1914 in Vienna and Berlin, of actors, musicians, artists and intellectuals—such as the satirist Karl Kraus, the architect Adolf Loos and Herwarth Walden, editor of the periodical Der Sturm, with whom Kokoschka briefly worked as an assistant.
Although Kokoschka was not Jewish, his milieu was influenced by numerous Jewish figures. Kokoschka depicted Jewish themes in some of his works, such as a series of lithographs based on the story of Saul and David. He created them in 1969 as a “voluntary confession” of the inner significance of his life—a life of wandering and searching. Kokoschka resigned a Professorship at the Dresden Academy in the 1920s to concentrate on painting and travel. In 1934, Kokoschka left Vienna for Prague after the banning of the Social Democratic Party. In Czechoslovakia, he painted a magnificent allegorical portrait of the President Tomas Masaryk.
Kokoschka conveyed through his art a deeply held belief in humanistic values. The Nazis, however, denounced his work as “degenerate” and with the invasion of Czechoslovakia, he fled once more, but this time to England. During the war, he played an active part in the anti-Nazi movement in London among exiled German-speaking artists and writers. He painted an important group of political satires and a portrait of the Soviet Ambassador, Ivan Maisky. Maisky, of Jewish origin, was well-known for his pro-Zionist sympathies which were born of talks with Ben-Gurion in London in 1941 and a visit two years later to the Yishuv and number of kibbutzim.
Kokoschka left Britain to establish his summer “school of seeing” at Salzburg in the early 1950s. He also became involved in the Salzburg Music Festival, designing sets, costumes and lighting for Wilhem Furtwangler’s production of The Magic Flute in 1955.
The Tate Gallery on London’s Millbank is hosting a Kokoschka exhibition of some 200 oil paintings, water colours and drawings this summer. An archive display which compliments the exhibition includes detailed material on the artist’s sojourn in Britain.
Jewish Quarterly Summer 1986