Kunsthaus Zürich

Oskar Kokoschka. A Retrospective

14 December 2018 – 10 March 2019

The Kunsthaus Zürich presents Oskar Kokoschka – Expressionist, migrant and pacifist – in the first retrospective of his work in Switzerland for 30 years. The highlights among the more than 200 exhibits include the monumental ‘Prometheus Triptych’ and the ‘Mural for Alma Mahler’, which have never before been seen in Switzerland.

Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980) is, along with Francis Picabia and Pablo Picasso, one of a generation of artists who retained their allegiance to figurative painting after the Second World War, even as abstract art was consolidating its predominance. It is also thanks to them that non-representational painting and figurative art can now be practised side by side without partisan feuding. Artists of the present day acknowledge their debt to Kokoschka in particular. For Nancy Spero, Herbert Brandl and Denis Savary, his expressionistic style is an explicit or implicit source of inspiration. They value the gestural articulation of his brushwork, praise his open-minded, cosmopolitan attitudes or share the pacifism that, especially after the traumatic experiences of the First World War, runs like a thread through Kokoschka’s work, life and legacy. Following his last major solo show in 1986, the Kunsthaus now sets out to acquaint a new generation of visitors with this artist, who died by Lake Geneva in 1980 and whose works are held in substantial numbers in both Vevey and Zurich.

Migrant, european, lover
The retrospective traces the motifs and motivations of a painter who felt at home in no fewer than five countries. Curator Cathérine Hug has brought together 100 paintings and an equal number of works on paper, photographs and letters from all phases of his career. They reveal that while Kokoschka’s art was defamed as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, the artist himself came through the ordeal relatively unscathed, making a living executing commissions for celebrated figures in the worlds of literature, architecture and politics. Some works were created simply out of love. Kokoschka painted a four-metre-long mural for Alma Mahler, which adorned the winter sitting room of her house in Breitenstein on the Semmering Pass for a number of decades. It depicts the couple as lovers in the midst of their tempestuous relationship. It was rediscovered in 1989 hidden beneath layers of paint and wallpaper by the owners of the house from 1987 to 1995, and was carefully uncovered and removed from the wall for conservation by restorers. Currently privately owned, the ‘al secco’ image has only been exhibited once before and is now on show in Zurich.
In exile Kokoschka becomes an indomitable champion of freedom, democracy and human rights; a humanist whose work is broad enough to encompass everything from landscapes and portraits to mythological figures and metaphors denouncing the horrors of war and defending the power of love and the beauty of nature. It is this independent-minded artistic language of political protest that makes Kokoschka unique.

Triptychs on show for the first time outside Britain
Two impressive triptychs, each around eight metres wide and two metres high – ‘The Prometheus Triptych’ (1950, Courtauld Gallery, London) and ‘Thermopylae’ (1954, University of Hamburg) – are the high point of Kokoschka’s mature oeuvre, and of this retrospective. The two works have only been shown together once before, at the Tate in 1962. They were created during a transitional phase: after a decade of wartime exile Kokoschka moved in 1953 to Villeneuve in Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1980. The imposing ‘Prometheus’ triptych – originally a ceiling decoration for an aristocratic client in London – has not been shown outside the British Isles since 1953, when it travelled to the Venice Biennale. Like the ‘Thermopylae’ triptych the depiction of Prometheus, originator of human civilization, enjoins human beings to come together as brothers and sisters in peace and freedom. Aside from their content, these works also document the creative process that set Kokoschka apart from his contemporaries. The brushwork and colour progressions reveal the artist’s movements – a performative production process unusual in figurative painting. Kokoschka, the Expressionist who remained faithful to figurativism and founded a ‘School of Seeing’ that endures to this day in Salzburg, was regarded by many at the time as anti-modern; in fact he fought for democratic access to education and an open society.

Accompanying programme
Reflecting the rich diversity of Kokoschka’s life – his periods abroad, his plays, his friendships with literary figures and Dadaists and with Wilhelm Wartmann, the first director of the Kunsthaus Zürich – the programme accompanying the exhibition is extensive and multifaceted.
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A catalogue in English and German (320 pages, 300 colour illustrations) published by Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, is available from the Kunsthaus shop and bookstores: ‘Oskar Kokoschka. Expressionist, Migrant, European’ with new scholarly essays by Régine Bonnefoit, Iris Bruderer-Oswald, Martina Ciardelli, Birgit Dalbajewa, Heike Eipeldauer, Katharina Erling, Cathérine Hug, Aglaja Kempf, Alexandra Matzner, Raimund Meyer, Bernadette Reinhold, Heinz Spielmann and Patrick Werkner.
Catalogue extract (PDF)

For more information concerning Oskar Kokoschka’s painted oeuvre please refer to: Katharina Erling and Walter Feilchenfeldt: Oskar Kokoschka. The Paintings Online, edited by the Fondation Oskar Kokoschka, Vevey.

The exhibition is a collaboration with the Leopold Museum, Vienna.

Curator: Cathérine Hug

Supported by:

UNIQA Österreich Versicherungen AG, Fine Art Insurance Switzerland
Federal Office of Culture
Hulda and Gustav Zumsteg Foundation
Boston Consulting Group
Truus and Gerrit van Riemsdijk Foundation
Dr. Georg and Josi Guggenheim Foundation
as well as other sponsors who prefer to remain anonymous.

Exhibition flyer
Exhibition flyer (PDF)
Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Scheerbart, 1910, 
huile sur toile, 70 × 47 cm, Neue Galerie New
York, don de la Serge and Vally Sabarsky Foundation, Inc., © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka / 2018 ProLitteris, Zurich
Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Scheerbart, 1910,
huile sur toile, 70 × 47 cm, Neue Galerie New
York, don de la Serge and Vally Sabarsky
Foundation, Inc., © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka /
2018 ProLitteris, Zurich
Oskar Kokoschka, Double Portrait of Oskar
Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, 1912/1913,
oil on canvas, 100 x 90 cm,
Museum Folkwang, Essen,
photo: Museum Folkwang Essen/Artothek,
© Fondation Oskar Kokoschka /
2018 ProLitteris, Zurich
Oskar Kokoschka, Die Prometheus Saga (Hades und Persephone, Apokalypse, Prometheus), 1950 (Detail, rechte Seite), Öl und Mischtechnik auf Leinwand, Prometheus: 239 x 234 cm
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London, © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka / 2018 ProLitteris, Zürich
Oskar Kokoschka, The Prometheus Triptych:
Hades and Persephone, Apocalypse,
Prometheus, 1950, (detail, right side)
oil and mixed technique on canvas,
Prometheus: 239 x 234 cm,
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld
Gallery, London, © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka /
2018 ProLitteris, Zurich
Oskar Kokoschka, Time, Gentlemen Please,
1971/1972, oil on canvas, 130 x 100 cm,
Tate: Purchased 1986, photo: Tate, London 2018,
© Fondation Oskar Kokoschka / 2018 ProLitteris, Zurich