Oskar Kokoschka

Oscar Kocoschka

Oskar Kokoschka was born in Pochlarn, in 1886. He studied from 1904 to 1908 in Vienna and afterwards developed a reputation for what became known as "psychological portraits".

On the outbreak of the First World War he volunteered to join the cavalry. While on patrol on the Eastern Front Kocoschka was machine-gunned and bayoneted but was eventually rescued by his own men. After recovering in Vienna he was given the task of escorting journalists and war artists near the frontline.

After the war Kokoschka taught at the Dresden Academy of Art (1919-24). He then toured Europe painting Expressionist landscapes.

A strong opponent of Hitler's regime, Kokoschka moved to Prague in 1934 but with the arrival of the German Army in Czechoslovakia was forced to flee to England. Over the next few years Kocoschka painted a number of politically symbolic works.

Kokoschka became a British citizen in 1947 but decided to live in Villeneuve, Switzerland after 1953. His autobiography, My Life, was published in 1971. Oskar Kocoschka died in 1980.

Primary Sources

(1) Oskar Kokoschka, My Life (1971)

We made the endless journey to the Eastern Front in cattle trucks which also transported the horses. When we left Hungary, girls in colourful costumes brought us Tokay wine and cheered us; I lifted one girl on to my saddle. How proud I was to be on horseback! People in Galicia, the Austrian part of Poland, threw flowers and rejoiced in our coming; we were welcomed like liberators.

(2) Oskar Kokoschka, My Life (1971)

I had done all my examinations, but did not understand much about tactics, and I always volunteered to ride the advance patrol, with an experienced sergeant. So although I was an officer, my sergeant was in command of the patrol. At the beginning, we were not wearing field-grey. Our uniforms, red, blue and white, stood out only too well, and as I rode out, I felt spied upon by an unseen enemy in the dense, dark foliage of the forests.

The first dead that I encountered were young comrades-in-arms of my own, men with whom, only a few nights earlier, I had been sitting round the camp-fire in those Ukrainian forests, playing cards and joking. Not much more than boys they were, squatting there on the moss in their bright-coloured trousers, a group of them round a tree trunk.

From a branch a few paces further on a cap dangled, and on the next tree a dragoon's fur-lined blue cloak. He who had worn these things himself, hung naked, head downward, from a third tree.

(3) Oskar Kokoschka, My Life (1971)

There was something stirring at the edge of the forest. Dismount! Lead horses! Our line was joined by volunteers, and we beat forward into the bushes as if we were going to shoot pheasants. The Russians had lured us into a trap. I had actually set eyes on the Russian machine-gun before I felt a dull blow on my temple.

I only returned to my senses when enemy stretcher-bearers tipped me off their field-stretcher as a useless burden, beside a Russian with his belly torn open and an incredible mass of intestines oozing out. The stench was so frightful that I vomited, after which I regained full consciousness.

What horrified me most was that I couldn't scream. I couldn't utter any sound at all, and that was far worse than suddenly seeing a man standing over me. I opened my eyes wide, which hurt, because they were all sticky, but I had to see what he was going to do to me. Actually all I could see of him was his head and shoulders, but that was enough: he was in Russian uniform, and hence my enemy. I watched him so long that I thought I should have to wait all eternity while he stood in the moonlight setting his glittering bayonet at my breast.

In my right hand, the one that wasn't paralyzed, I could feel my revolver, strapped to my wrist. The revolver was aimed straight at the man's breast. The man couldn't see that, because as he bent over me he was in his own shadow. My finger pressed the cock. I managed to do it lightly, and only I heard it, but the sound went right through me. In accordance with regulations, there was a bullet in the chamber.

Then his bayonet pierced my jacket and I began sweating with pain. Now the point was beginning to pierce the skin, was searing into the flesh. My ribs were resisting, expanding, I couldn't breathe. My capacity for endurance was failing. It was unbearable. And still I went on telling myself, as I grew weaker and weaker: "Just a second more! This ordinary Russian is only obeying orders."

Then suddenly I felt quite light and a wave of happiness - never since then in all my life have I felt so physically - a sense of well-being positively flung me upward. I was buoyed up on the hot stream of blood from my lungs that I was coming out of my mouth and nostrils and ears. I was floating in mid-air. So this was all there was to dying? I couldn't help laughing in the man's face before I breathed my last. And the ordeal was over. All I took with me to the other side was the sight of his astonished eyes (as Kokoschka fired his gun). The enemy ran away, leaving his weapon sticking in my body.

What happened to me then I did not know. There are gaps in my memory. It seems that one, two, or more days later they lifted me into a railway wagon, and there was a Russian conscript who had lost both his feet who kept trying to push a withered apple into my mouth - but even a surgeon couldn't have opened it, my face was so swollen.