Kokoschka was a painter, printmaker, and writer who forged an expressive style that sought to convey emotion and humanistic ideals. Born in a small town in Lower Austria, he was raised under difficult economic circumstances—yet was able to move to Vienna, where he trained at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) between 1904 and 1909. Kokoschka admired the work of Gustav Klimt and other members of the avant-garde Vienna Secession movement. Many of Kokoschka’s early works, which stressed heightened emotionality, proved controversial, and when he exhibited them in 1908 and 1909 critics derided them as the work of a madman. Through his supporter, the influential architect Adolph Loos, he became friends with members of Viennese intellectual circles, many of whose portraits he painted. His early portraits in particular demonstrate how he strove to convey the psychological and spiritual aspects of his sitters. He also created drawings early in his career for the journal Der Sturm; these illustrations wereadmired by German Expressionists
In the wake of a tumultuous affair with Alma Mahler (widow of Gustav Mahler and a composer herself), which effected much of his work, Kokoschka volunteered for military service at the outbreak of World War I and suffered serious wounds while serving on the Eastern Front. In 1916 he moved to Dresden; three years later he became professor of the art academy. His work shifted from a focus on angst-ridden figures to a more colorful palette, and townscapes became his major subject. Kokoschka left Dresden in 1923 to travel across Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. He painted panoramic pictures of cities depicted from elevated viewpoints, with vibrant colors and lively brushwork. After fighting in Vienna gave rise to an authoritarian regime, Kokoschka settled in Prague in 1935 and became a Czechoslovak citizen. His work was seized by the Nazis and displayed in their infamous Degenerate Art exhibition. When the Nazis invaded, Kokoschka took refuge in London, becoming a British citizen in 1947. Dedicated to Republicanism and humanist values, he created works that responded to the crisis of the Second World War. During the last several decades of his life, he traveled extensively in Europe and the United States, continuing to paint landscapes, portraits, and mythical and allegorical scenes. From 1953 to 1963, Kokoschka ran a summer academy in Salzburg, attracting young artists from around the world. He reclaimed his Austrian citizenship toward the end of his life.