Gustav Klimt called him ‘the greatest talent of the younger generation’. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen showed the work of Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), the master painter who has inspired generations of artists. This major retrospective brought together Kokoschka’s confrontational portraits more than half a century after his work was last exhibited in the Netherlands.The exhibition was a huge success, and more than 115,000 people visited the museum while it was running.
In 1950 Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen was the first Dutch museum to purchase a painting by Oskar Kokoschka, ‘The Mandrill’ of 1926. 150 paintings and drawings from private collections and major museums such as MoMA and Tate were assembled in Rotterdam. In eight themes the exhibition offers a personal perspective of the painter around the period of the First and Second World War. From a serie of children's portraits, portraits of the Viennese elite to politically charged allegories. The exhibition began with Kokoschka’s earliest portraits and his discovery by the famous modernist architect Adolf Loos in 1908. The exhibition ended with his last self-portrait (1971/1972). With the title ‘Time, Gentlemen Please’, the announcement for final orders in British pubs, Kokoschka prefigures his own death.
Man and the world
Kokoschka began to explore an individual path even during his studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna. In the period dominated by Art Nouveau with an emphasis on ornament, he focussed on people. Kokoschka’s portraits show us how he viewed mankind and the world. In a television interview in 1966, Kokoschka said that he was interested in a ‘person’s aura in space’. He thought it was important to express the sitter’s psyche. He often made his models look older, as if he could see into the future. The result was that many clients did not buy their unflattering portraits. Kokoschka’s works are characterised by bold colours and dynamic brushwork. This is typical of Expressionism, a movement typified by exaggerated forms, bright colours and distorted reality.
In addition to numerous portraits of people, the exhibition also featured more than twenty paintings of animals. Kokoschka was fascinated by animals, in which he often detected human characteristics. He painted the ‘Mandrill’ in London Zoo, outside public opening times. In the evening he was admitted to the zoo by zoologist Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous Huxley, the author of ‘Brave New World’. Rather than depict the monkey in his small cage with thick bars, Kokoschka shows it in its natural environment.
Adolf Loos and friends
Kokoschka’s success was largely due to the modernist architect Adolf Loos. His circle of friends in Vienna’s intellectual and cultural elite became Kokoschka’s biggest clients. These included the writer Karl Kraus and the art historian Karl Maria Swoboda. Music also played an import ant part in Kokoschka’s life, and through Loos he became acquainted with the composers Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern and Egon Wellesz.
Kokoschka and love
At the age of twenty-six Kokoschka met the love of his life: Alma Mahler, the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler. She was a great source of inspiration during their three-year relationship. In addition to writing 400 love letters, he painted a portrait of Alma in the style of the Mona Lisa, three double portraits - one of which is included in the exhibition - and numerous prints and drawings. Soon after their relationship ended, Alma married the architect and founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius. It took Kokoschka a long time to recover from the break-up; he even had a doll made in Alma’s likeness.
‘Oskar Kokoschka - Portraits of People and Animals’ has been curated by guest curator is Beatrice von Bormann.
Video's on ARTtube
Watch the episode ‘Monkey Say, Monkey Do’ in which visitors are given an impassioned introduction to Kokoschka’s work. In the AVRO programme ‘Art Tracks’ Dutch hip-hop artists Brainpower and Zanillya compose a number inspired by the painting ‘Double Portrait of Carl Georg Heise and Hans Mardersteig’. Watch the episode here.
To mark the occasion of the exhibition in her museum, Bregje van der Laar - known from Boijmans TV - brings the Austrian artist back to life in an intimate conversation based on a programme shown on German television in 1966. Watch the interview here on ARTtube.
There were three special afternoon events with lectures, workshops, films or music. The museum was also organising a family day.
The exhibition was accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue with essays by Beatrice von Bormann, Katharina Erling and Régine Bonnefoit. The catalogue is available for €35.95 in the museum shop, from webshop.boijmans.nl and in all good bookshops. ISBN: 978-90-6918-267-4
The exhibition 'Oskar Kokoschka - Portraits of People and Animals' was made possible by the generous support from the Special Benefactors, the BankGiro Loterij, Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds (made possible by Breeman Talle Fonds), SNS REAAL Fonds, Ploum Lodder Princen, Zabawas, AON Artscope, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands on behalf of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, K.F. Hein Foundation, and Crown.