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Focus on Oskar Kokoschka

[2019年05月07日]

A powerful force in Expressionism, Oskar Kokoschka was a prolific and complex artist. Known above all for his paintings, he was also an engraver, an author and a set designer. Today his work is enjoying plenty of exposure

Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century… the 18 year-old Oskar KOKOSCHKA (1886-1980) was admitted to the city’s Arts & Crafts School in 1904. At the time, Vienna was a particularly ‘revolutionary’ environment, both intellectually and artistically: Schönberg was advancing his twelve-tone music system, Freud was developing psychoanalysis and Klimt was creating his best works. The young Kokoschka was captivated by oil painting, lithography and dramaturgy and he showed an irresistible desire to express himself. Years later, when talking about his motivation, he said “I think I am the only real Expressionist (…) I was not an Expressionist because Expressionism was a movement in Modern painting. I did not take part in any movement. I am an Expressionist because the only thing I know how to do is express life… The fourth dimension in my paintings is a projection of myself.

Kokoschka’s early self-expression came through in portraits, a medium he initiated in 1908 and that he continued to practice throughout his life. Encouraged by a number of patrons (notably architect Adolf Loos who supported him all his life), he was strongly criticised by others. Some even tried to get him kicked out of the school, and, when he exhibited his works with the Viennese Secession in 1908, his critics described his exhibition room as a “cabinet of horrors. Strong colours, abstract backgrounds, sharp lines… Kokoschka by-passed existing conventions, even if it meant distorting shapes. His vision of art was at a higher level… seeking to depict what was behind the visible, the intangible beneath the tangible… Over the following decades his art triggered a whole series of polemics and shocked reactions.

In WWI, Kokoschka was seriously injured on the Ukrainian front. After the war, he suffered a period of anthropophobia and retreated to the mountains. In 1919, the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts offered him a professorship… a first sign of recognition. From 1923 to 1933 Kokoschka travelled extensively painting landscapes in Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa and (after Paris) moved to Prague when the first signs of Nazism began to emerge in Europe. Kokoschka’s work was included in the Nazi Party’s infamous 1937 exhibition of “degenerate” art in Munich. In 1938, he moved to London and in 1953 he settled in Switzerland where he died in 1980.

In his real life Kokoschka started in Vienna and ended in Switzerland; moving in the opposite direction, a major retrospective is currently showing at the Zurich Kunsthaus (Dec. 2018 – March 2019) and continuing at the Leopold Museum in Vienna until 8 July 2019. A very ambitious project, the show is the fruit of a close collaboration between the Oskar Foundation Kokoschka in Vevey and the Oskar Kokoschka Research Center in Vienna, and it traces all of the painters creative periods with nearly 250 works and documents. With his visibility substantially boosted by the retrospective, the artist’s work is enjoying substantial upside on the auction market, as illustrated by the recent sale of his portrait of Monsieur Montesquiou-Fezensac.

Portrait of a record….

Oskar Kokoschka met Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac and his wife in January 1910 at the Mont Blanc sanatorium in Leysin, Switzerland, and painted their portrait. On the canvas there is nothing to distract the viewer from the figures… the background is neutral, the clothes are simple, nothing to indicate the social status of his models. Kokoschka did not paint personalities wearing social masks; he wanted to bring out the deep character of the soul. He had a distinctly personal technique as well, clearly based on his talent for drawing and often using his fingers directly on the canvas … his nails to pick out the hem of a jacket or mark the outline of a bustier. A few months later, Kokoschka presented his first solo exhibition at the Cassirer Gallery in Berlin. Of the 27 paintings in the catalogue, most had been painted in less than a year. The portrait of Joseph de Montesquiou-Fesenzac was acquired from that exhibition by the dealer Alfred Flechteim. Forced to leave Düsseldorf in 1933 because of his Jewish origins, the gallerist (Cassirer) left his business to his assistant, Alex Vömel, who hastened to join the Nazi party and aryanize the superb collection of his former employer. He sold the portrait to the Nationalmuseum of Sweden in 1934. Passing into the collections of the Moderna Museet Stockholm, it was returned earlier this year to Michael Hulton, Flechtheim’s rightful heir. On 12 November 2018, Sotheby’s offered the painting for sale in New York where it fetched over $20 million, an all-time record for Kokoschka. The result represented a superb posthumous tribute to the artist and the collector… particularly as his previous auction peak was just a fifth of that amount: in 2017 his canvas Orpheus und Eurydike fetched $4 million, also at Sotheby’s.

Now that the market has received such a clear signal on a work as important as the Montesquiou-Fezensac portrait, it will undoubtedly be more inclined to show its support for the artist. A substantial Kokoschka re-valuation is now happening and the artist has now risen substantially in the market’s global rankings after a best-ever annual auction turnover… ahead of Hans Arp and Robert Motherwell.

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