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Book of the Week: 'Oskar Kokoschka: A Life'

Starting today, a new feature in which I write about an arts-related book that I am reading. First, "Oskar Kokoschka: A Life", by Frank Whitford (Atheneum, 1986).
This biography of the Austrian Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka is a good introduction to the artist and his life. It’s a little unbalanced, devoting half of its pages to the first thirty years of his life, and then squeezing the succeeding decades into the remaining pages. But the author may have taken that decision because Kokoschka lived into his nineties, and all the interesting stuff happened to him by the time he was in his mid-thirties.
And Kokoschka’s early adulthood was fascinating. I’ve known the outlines of his biography since I first got to know his work when I was a teenager, but this book told me lots of stuff I didn’t know. For example: his first training in art school was as a printmaker, and not a painter; when he exhibited his paintings for the first time in about 1908, his first plays were also staged, and for a little while his contemporaries thought he might become a writer and not an artist; he fought bravely in the Austrian army in the Great War, and was invalided out after being shot in the head and subjected to a slow, excruciating bayoneting in one of his lungs.
The most bizarre thing that sticks in my memory is the story of the doll. Starting in about 1911, Kokoschka had an affair with Alma Mahler, widow of the composer. It was stormy, filled with arguments, shouting, smashed vases, mutual betrayals and recriminations. After Kokoschka went into the army, Mahler transferred her affections elsewhere. When the war ended, Kokoschka, still obsessed with her memory, ordered a life-sized doll of her to be made by a top-of-the-line German doll-maker. The project took months, and this biography contains extracts from the letters K. sent, filled with minute details about the shape of her body, how the skin should feel, how the clothes (particularly her undergarments) should fit—even how the downy hair on her arms should feel. The doll-maker took this last instruction a bit too far, for when the doll was finally delivered and K., no doubt with trembling hands, began to undress his porcelain mistress, he discovered that Alma Mark II was more werewolf than cougar. Apparently this didn’t stop K. from taking her with him to cafes and restaurants in Berlin, to the annoyance of the post-war German bourgeoisie.
So if you like Expressionist art, the whole early-twentieth century late-Austro-Hungarian empire vibe, and the work of Oskar Kokoschka, this book, particularly the first half, is worth a read.

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