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Oskar Kokoschka, the enfant terrible of the Vienna of Klimt and Freud, inspired an entire generation of artists. His portraits of people and animals are the subject of a major exhibition at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen this autumn. More than a hundred and forty of his paintings and drawings of leading figures within the Austrian avant-garde are coming to Rotterdam.
Oskar Kokoschka (Vienna 1886 – Villeneuve 1980) was one of the most important artists of Vienna’s avant-garde at the beginning of the twentieth century. This autumn, more than 33 years after Kokoschka’s death, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is presenting a survey of the work of this master. In 1950 Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen was the first Dutch museum to buy a painting by Kokoschka. Although there have regularly been large exhibitions of his work in Austria, Germany and the United States, it is more than half a century since his work was seen in this country. A hundred and forty paintings and drawings have been lent from private collections and museums around the world. His masterpieces ‘Mandrill’ (1926) and the ‘Double Portrait of Hans Mardersteig and Carl Georg Heise’ (1919) from the museum’s own collection form the starting point for this exhibition, which has been in preparation since 2010.
The combination of portraits of people and animals takes its inspiration from the exhibition ‘Bildnisse von Oskar Kokoschka – Menschen und Tiere’ at Kunstsalon Paul Cassirer in Berlin in 1927. Although people were the central subject matter in Kokoschka’s work and he said he wanted to paint ‘man’s aura in space’, he was also fascinated by animals and loved to paint them. Kokoschka’s portraits of people show how he viewed man and his role in society. His paintings offer a personal perspective on the great events in the period around the turn of the century and Europe’s dislocation by two world wars.
“Oskar Kokoschka – Portraits of people and animals” is divided into seven sections, including the circle around Adolf Loos, the artist’s love for Alma Mahler, portraits of children, political portraits, and portraits of animals. The exhibition, curated by guest curator Beatrice von Bormann, begins with the earliest portraits from around 1906 and works that Kokoschka made for the Wiener Werkstätte. It ends with his last self-portrait from 1971-72, in which he faces mortality. The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue with essays from internationally respected Kokoschka experts.
The famous modernist architect, Adolf Loos discovered Kokoschka at the groundbreaking Kunstschau, a large art exhibition held in Vienna in 1908. After seeing his work at this exhibition, Gustav Klimt called him, ‘the greatest talent of the younger generation’. In the years before the First World War, Loos convinced many of his friends and relatives to pose for Kokoschka, giving the young artist experience and broadening his intellectual horizon. Kokoschka often painted his models to look older than they were. His aim was not flattery. For him the sitters’ personality was more important than their appearance, so that each painting has its own style. As a result not all the clients bought their paintings and Loos was forced to buy them. Kokoschka described his way of painting as a vision that was revealed to him. He was convinced he could tell how people would look later in life. There are several recurring subjects in his work, such as portraits of musician, politicians, children, and animals. Kokoschka shared his love of music with Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, with whom he had a passionate love affair just before the First World War. After the war Kokoschka portrayed his new circle of friends in Dresden, mostly Expressionist poets and actors. It was in this period that he made his first political works, but this would become an important theme in 1937, when the Nazis declared Kokoschka a ‘degenerate’ artist and he was forced to flee to England. After the Second World War, Kokoschka did not return to Austria, but lived until his death in Villeneuve (Switzerland).
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