Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Remembering a Veteran: Oskar Kokoschka, Cavalryman, and Artist

The later well known painter, graphic artist, stage designer, and poet Oskar Kokoschka was born at Pöchlarn (Lower Austria) on the 1 March 1886. After successfully graduating from the Kunstgewerbeschule at Vienna he got his first job (1907–1909) at the famous Wiener Werkstätte. At this time he was influenced by the Jugendstil movement, but he soon ventured into the Expressionist movement. His first exhibition was in 1908 at the Kunstschau Wien, and in 1910 he started regularly to contribute to the expressionistic magazine Der Sturm and wrote some theater plays. In April 1912 he meet Alma Mahler for the first time. Oskar Kokoschka was deeply impressed by the widow of Gustav Mahler, seven years his senior, and wrote more than 400 letters to her in the following three years and painted the famous double portrait of them in 1913. The lesson ended painfully for him  in 1915 when she married the architect Walter Gropius. She left Gropius in 1918, married Franz Werfel in 1929 while Kokoschka was in Germany, and he never tried to contact her again.

As with so many artists of his generation his relationship with the military authorities was not a close one, but when the war started Kokoschka immediately volunteered for the army. He performed his one volunteers year for officer candidates with dragoon regiment number 3 and was then transferred as a Fähnrich to the 4th squadron of dragoon regiment number 15. On the 29 August 1915 his squadron was ambushed at a small wood near Sikiryczy in Volhynia. During the ensuing heavy fighting, the unit suffered many causalities. All the officers and aspirant officers were killed or captured by the Russians. Fähnrich Kokoschka who performed heroically during this action was so seriously wounded during his capture that his men later reported him as dead. Three days later some Austrian infantry units were able to free five wounded prisoners near the railway station at Kiwercy from the Russians—and Fähnrich Kokoschka was one on them. For his outstanding bravery he was decorated with the Silver Bravery Medal, 1st class, but his wounds were so serious that his promotion to Leutnant der Reserve on 1 August 1916 still found him in hospital. At the end of 1916 he returned to his regiment and earned the Karl Troop Cross during the following month, but his old wounds still troubled him, and consequently he was sent on 21 January 1918 with five months half-pay to Oberloschwitz near Dresden to recuperate. Kokoschka never returned to active duty, but finally he was promoted to Oberleutnant der Reserve on 1 November 1918.

A Village with Trench Running Through on the Isonzo  Front, 1916
Kokoschka Was Wounded for the Second Time in This Sector

After the war Kokoschka stayed in Germany as a teacher at the Kunstakademie in Dresden until 1924 followed by extensive travels through Europe, North Africa, and the Orient. In 1926 Ernst Krenek made an opera out of his play Orpheus und Eurydike. In 1933 he settled down in Vienna but moved to Prague a year later, where he painted his self portrait Selbstbildnis eines entarteten Künstlers in 1937. Between 1938 and 1953 he lived in Great Britain and moved then to Villneuve Lake Geneva. In the same year he founded his summer academy "Schule des Sehen" at the castle of Hohensalzburg, which he managed as a director until 1962. During these years he often designed costumes and stage sets for theaters like the outfit for the Zauberflöte at the Salzburger Festspiele in 1955. On the occasion of the large exhibition of his work at the Künstlerhaus in Vienna in 1958 he said: "Ich habe nie einer Schule angehört, nie eine Mode nachgeahmt. Ahmt man eine Mode nach, ist man immer 50 Jahre zu spät dran. Ich war immer allein," which exactly expressed the unique status of his multi-layered opus. Oskar Kokoschka died on 22 February 1980 at Montreux (Switzerland).

Source: Austro-Hungarian Land Forces 1848–1918,  by Glenn Jewison & Jörg C. Steiner

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