Kokoschka was influenced by the elegant work of Klimt, but soon developed his own distinctive expressionist style (see expressionism). His early portraits (c.1909-14) emphasize psychological insight and tension (e.g., the portrait of Hans Tietze and his wife, 1909; Mus. of Modern Art, New York City). The same restless, energetic draftsmanship is characteristic of his expressionist landscapes and his striking posters and lithographs. His landscapes include Jerusalem (Detroit Inst. of Arts) and View of Prague (Phillips Memorial Gall., Washington, D.C.).
See his volume of watercolors, drawings, and writings (1962); reproductions of his work, comp. by B. Bultmann (1961), L. Goldscheider (1963), E. G. Rathenau (1970), and J. Tomeš (1972); biography by E. Hoffmann (1947).
Kokoschka's early career was marked by portraits of Viennese celebrities, painted in a nervously animated style. He served in the Austrian army in World War I and was wounded. At the hospital, the doctors decided that he was mentally unstable. Nevertheless, he continued to develop his career as an artist, traveling across Europe and painting the landscape.
Kokoschka had a passionate, often stormy affair with Alma Mahler, shortly after the death of her infant daughter and her affair with Walter Gropius. After several years together, Alma rejected him, explaining that she was afraid of being too overcome with passion. He continued to love her his entire life, and one of his greatest works The Tempest (Bride of the Wind) (at right below), is a tribute to her. The poet Georg Trakl visited the studio while Kokoschka was painting this masterpiece.
Deemed a degenerate by the Nazis, Kokoschka fled Austria in 1934 for Prague. There he founded the Oskar-Kokoschka-Bund with other expatriate artists. In 1938, when the Czechs began to mobilize for the expected invasion of the Wehrmacht, he fled to the United Kingdom and remained there during the war. With the help of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (later the Czech Refugee Trust Fund), all members of the OKB were able to escape through Poland and Sweden.
Kokoschka became a British citizen in 1946 and only in 1978 would regain Austrian citizenship. He travelled briefly to the United States in 1947 before settling in Switzerland, where he lived the rest of his life.
Kokoschka had much in common with his contemporary Max Beckmann. Both maintained their independence from German Expressionism, yet they are now regarded as its supreme masters, who delved deeply into the art of past masters to develop unique individual styles. Their individualism left them both orphaned from the main movements of Twentieth Century modernism. Both wrote eloquently of the need to develop the art of "seeing" (Kokoschka emphasized depth perception while Beckmann was concerned with mystical insight into the invisible realm), and both were masters of innovative oil painting techniques anchored in earlier traditions.
Kokoschka's last years were somewhat embittered, as he found himself marginalized as a curious footnote to art history. A noteworthy student of Kokoschka's "School of Seeing" was Konrad Juestel (1924-2001).
Kokoschka's literary works are as peculiar and interesting as his art. His memoir, A Sea Ringed with Visions, is as wildly psychedelic as anything written by others under the influence of actual hallucinogens. His short play "Murderer, the Hope of Women" (1909, set ten years later by Paul Hindemith as Morder, Hoffnung der Frauen) is often called the first Expressionist drama. His Orpheus und Eurydike (1918) became an opera by Ernst Krenek, who was first approached for incidental music.