Kokoschka Charles Bridge in Prague

Artwork of the Month, March 2023: Charles Bridge in Prague by Oskar Kokoschka (1934)

Prague’s breath-taking riverside location on the Vltava with the Hradčany, Charles Bridge and the Old Town never ceases to excite travellers and tourists alike. Prague has also always been considered a city with a life of its own, with winding streets, dark Gothic architecture and haunting ghosts making it a magical place in literature and art. Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980) drew on these and other qualities of the picturesquely situated city in his sixteen Prague landscapes, painted between 1934 and 1938 when he was a refugee in the city and before he emigrated to England. In the 1930s, the city became the hub of emigrants in Europe when the National Socialists seized power in Germany and the political climate in Austria also became increasingly conservative with the rise of Austro-Fascism in 1934.[1] Research often speaks of artists or arts in exile, but how much the artists were really affected by their travel stops is often difficult to assess. Often it was the hardship of political persecution and closing escape corridors that drove the artists from place to place in Europe, without one city in particular sticking in their memory or shaping their artistic practices. Chain migration is the term often used for this. Migration research, which has been enlivened by recent events in art history, is concerned with such cities of arrival, which had a particular influence on the emigrants, but which were often close beforehand through personal relationships.[2]

Kokoschka Charles Bridge in Prague

Oskar Kokoschka: Charles Bridge in Prague, 1934, National Gallery, Prague – photo © Národní galerie v Praze 2023; © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka / OOA-S 2023

Kokoschka was one such emigrant: his sister Bertha had lived in the city of Prague since 1918 and it was here that he first met his future wife Olda Palkovská (1915–2004).[3] In addition, he explored the cultural history of Czechoslovakia, with the philosopher Jan Amos Komenský (Jan Comenius, 1592–1670) and the tradition of humanism, which he believed realised in President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850–1937). Based on his cityscape with a view of Charles Bridge, this article will explore these questions of mutual influence.

Oskar Kokoschka

Kokoschka was born in Pöchlarn in Austria in 1886. His father was a commercial agent and his grandfather was a goldsmith from Prague, a link he always referred to. Kokoschka was able to study at the School of Applied Arts in Vienna from 1905 to 1909 thanks to the support of Carl Otto Czeschka (1878–1960), an important designer at the Wiener Werkstätte.[4] Kokoschka was regarded early on as an enfant terrible who caused a stir with his paintings at the 1908 Kunstschau in Vienna, a seminal event of Viennese modernism, and with the New Art Group (Neukunstgruppe), a group of younger artists around Egon Schiele (1890–1918). This image of a scandalous painter still often dominates the reception of Kokoschka today.[5] In addition to his expressive art, Kokoschka also attracted attention with provocative texts for plays such as Murderer, the Hope of Women (1909).

In 1910 Kokoschka went to Berlin and established contacts with the art market there. His first major exhibitions followed, including a ground-breaking show at the Hagenbund in Vienna in 1911. In the same year, he met Alma Mahler (1879–1964), with whom he had a three-year relationship that ultimately failed. After their separation, Kokoschka volunteered for the ‘Archduke Joseph’ Dragoon Regiment No. 15 in 1914 and was seriously wounded in the First World War on the eastern front in Galicia in 1915. After his recovery, he worked as a war painter on the Isonzo Front in Italy in 1916. In 1917 he moved to Dresden, where he held a professorship at the academy from 1919 to 1926. He took a leave of absence from the professorship in 1924 to further his international career. During this time, he undertook numerous journeys through Europe, North Africa and also the eastern Mediterranean region, during which he already produced numerous cityscapes and landscapes.

Returning to Vienna in 1931, he intended to live permanently in the city again, yet he continued to travel constantly. After the death of his mother in 1933, the increasing pressure of National Socialism and the Austro-Fascism of the so-called ‘Ständestaat’ forced him to emigrate to Prague in 1934.[6] In 1935 he received Czechoslovak citizenship. He painted a number of works there, including a portrait of President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the series of sixteen Prague city views that is the focus here, and several other central works, including Self-Portrait of a Degenerate Artist. In 1937 Kokoschka was prominent in the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition organised by the Nazi regime in Munich, in which they vilified modern art that they considered harmful, combined with large waves of confiscations and destruction. A simultaneous Kokoschka exhibition in Vienna and Salzburg, organized by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer (1864–1945) and Carl Moll (1861–1945), had little impact and its standing remains ambivalent.[7] Kokoschka founded the Oskar Kokoschka Bund (Oskar Kokoschka Asssociation) in Prague in the same year, with which he organised events and exhibitions against Nazi art. In 1938 he fled to England, due to the danger of invasion by the Nazis, and he became involved in several Austrian exile organisations and exile magazines there, also appearing frequently as a speaker. After the war he moved to Switzerland and, in 1953, founded the Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg at the Hohensalzburg Fortress. Travelling and official activities alternated thereafter. Kokoschka died in Montreux in 1980.

Charles Bridge (1934)

The shape of the Charles Bridge fluctuates between rich colours. Kokoschka’s cityscape shows the famous bridge, the old town and the well-known spires seen from Kampa Park. Kokoschka has chosen a relatively low vantage point for this painting but manages to capture the sensation of the wide river and the city view. He works in broad brushstrokes with crosswise strokes. The water takes up the largest part of the picture, the architecture is only hinted at but clearly visible in the background. A larger boat approaches from the right, otherwise the scene is still. Like most of his Prague landscape paintings, the city seems to flicker, even to pass away, in his expressive baroque style. Kokoschka thought that he painted ‘not to represent the topography of the city, nor to capture momentary sensations in an Impressionist manner, but because cities are built upon sand, and their inhabitants neither preserve the past nor count on the future.’[8] Kokoschka thus seems to be concerned with holding on to a historical time, a timeless image of Prague which is somewhat resistant to change and modernity. Nevertheless, the bright colours here could depict the impression of a beautiful summer day on the Vltava, despite his dislike of Impressionism.

Shortly after its completion, the painting was purchased by the German section of the Modern Gallery in Prague. The work was shown in an exhibition at Hugo Feigl’s gallery, from where the museum bought it on 5 December 1934 for the price of 38,000 crowns.[9] Hugo Feigl (1889–1961), the brother of the painter Bedřich Feigl (1884–1965), supported Kokoschka during his time in Prague and was one of his most important contacts. Kokoschka kept a close eye on the art market, as he was dependent on the income. The painting of Charles Bridge quickly became extremely popular and was shown in Zurich in 1935, in the international exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1937 and then in the Austrian Museum of Art and Industry in Vienna.

Kokoschka, View of Prague

Oskar Kokoschka: Prague from Kramář’s Villa, 1934-1935, National Gallery, Prague – photo © Národní galerie v Praze 2023; © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka / OOA-S 2023

Looking at the series as a whole, there was an emphasis on the Charles Bridge with at least three other views of Charles Bridge among Kokoschka’s works. One version seen from the Monastery of Knights of the Cross with the Red Star employs a closer perspective. Many other impressive views of Prague exist, such as the one seen from the Kramář Villa, or from the Strahov Monastery, as well as two from the Vltava River Bank, showing Charles Bridge from the north. Kokoschka’s series of landscapes show a relatively free choice of location, but mostly depict main axes of the city along the river. From 1935 the artist acquired a studio on the top floor of the Bellevue on the Smetana bank with a good vantage point. From then on, he created many landscapes from the vantage point of the studio there. Sometimes he also chose a viewpoint opposite the Charles Bridge in the direction of Petřín Hill.

Kokoschka in his studio in Prague

Oskar Kokoschka in his studio, photograph, 1935

A good idea of Kokoschka’s visual process can be gained from an interview with the Austrian art historian Edith Hoffmann (1907–2016), who visited him at the time. Hoffmann was a young scholar who studied in Vienna, Munich and Berlin with, among others, Wilhelm Pinder, but emigrated to England as early as 1934 due to her Jewish origins.

Double page: Prague Landscape from the studio. Unusual angle, to the right of the hill with the castle and cathedral. Nothing but two arches of the old bridge. The river cuts deep into the hills, which open like the water, which itself glimmers in all colours: violet, blue, yellow, red, orange. The houses of the Old Town (are dancing?) around the dome of the Church of St. Nicholas. Red, yellow, green (flashing?) in the sky. The division of the river, the island surrounded by masses of water, gives the picture its composition. On the right side it ascends to the Castle, following the longer course of the river. The steep spire of the turret of the cathedral is the highest point, descending to the left.[10]

Colours flash and buildings dance. Kokoschka takes up the impression of the city in a very animated way, still thinking like an expressionist and in colours. Thus the sixteen landscapes give a panorama of the city of Prague without exploring unknown places, but proceed partly serially in repeated colour impressions, partly phenomenologically to catch the city’s face. He was also active painting at the same time in Ostrava, where his wife Olda’s parents came from. In the summer of 1937, at his grandparents’ home in Ostravice, he created two impressive landscape paintings of the region barely 40 km behind the industrial city of Ostrava. They form a kind of counterpart to the cityscapes with their rural atmosphere.

Kokoschka, Nostalgia

Oskar Kokoschka: Prague, Nostalgia, 1938, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh – photo: National Galleries of Scotland © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka / OOA-S 2023

The series of Prague cityscapes did not come to an end until London, when the picture Prague, Nostalgia was painted. The title speaks volumes about the desire to hold on to the old city of Prague as a symbol of the old Europe and the world before the Nazi invasion. Kokoschka painted the view, which again shows the Charles Bridge from the left, from memory and this time added some figures in the foreground. A man and woman in the foreground and an enigmatic head on the right have always ensured that the painting can be interpreted as a picture of Kokoschka’s escape. In any case, this marks the end of Kokoschka’s stay in Prague, which was made impossible by the approach of the Nazis.

Kokoschka in Prague’s political and artistic network

In addition to the idealistic motives, practical questions were also in the foreground. Kokoschka was the namesake for the artists’ group, the Oskar Kokoschka Bund. The artist was only slightly concerned with the art of his Czech colleagues. He had an exchange with Josef Gočár (1880–1945) and the Mánes Artists’ Association, the largest one in the early twentieth century in Prague. As an artist, he particularly appreciated the work of Václav Špála (1885–1946) and the younger colleague Bohdan Heřmanský (Theodor Herzmansky, 1900–1974), whom Kokoschka had known beforehand. Heřmanský met the Austrian painter Anton Kolig (1886–1950) through a school friend and became his pupil in the remote village of Nötsch in Carinthia in 1921. After study trips, Heřmanský settled in Prague in 1928 and from then on used only the Czech version of his name. In 1935 he produced a Prague cityscape (fig. 5), which shows a view of the area below Vyšehrad, below Prague Castle. Unlike Kokoschka, he depicted the houses of the cityscape as two-dimensional cubes and decidedly as a modern, industrial city.

Bohdan Heřmanský, Below Vyšehrad, Narodní Galerie, Prague

Bohdan Heřmanský: Below Vyšehrad, 1935, National Gallery, Prague – photo © Národní galerie v Praze 2023

Many different images of the city were fluctuating. It is not known, if, for instance, Kokoschka was aware of the official views of Prague from the period made by Jan Slavíček (1900–1970). The latter’s cityscapes were widely exhibited in Czechoslovakian pavilions at world fairs and bigger exhibitions in the 1920s. Seen as the most representative images of Prague by Czech officials, Slavíček’s cityscapes employed a different style than Kokoschka. Nevertheless, similarities can also be found, for instance in the atmosphere. As with Heřmanský, there is no evidence of Kokoschka directly being influenced by the artists in Prague or in the Kokoschka Bund. Many members of the Kokoschka Bund also emigrated to London and continued their political work there. Despite this lack of exchange, Kokoschka himself was tirelessly politically active, as shown by the poster on the Spanish Civil War. Kokoschka implements the call to help Basque children (Pomozte baskickým dětem!) with another Prague cityscape, in which the Hradčany is being bombed. The message is clear, if you do nothing, you are next. Prague thus remains a place of political destiny, even if Kokoschka only deals with the protagonists on site to a limited extent. In these contacts, the opportunities and limitations of exchange in migration become apparent.

Prague as a cosmopolitan place

Kokoschka associated a lot with the ‘immortal’ city of Prague. He saw the city as a cosmopolitan place where, during the Renaissance and Baroque eras, many peoples came together to strive for great art and architecture, whether German, Czech, Austrian or Italian.[11] At this time Kokoschka held a decidedly humanist world view, which was also expressed in his writings of the time. In 1934 began working on a play about the Bohemian Renaissance educational reformer Jan Amos Komenský, which was not performed until 1972, and he continued to do so until the early 1940s in England. Komenský was born in 1592 in South Moravia and became an intellectual symbol of the Czechs in view of his humanist philosophy. Kokoschka was concerned with a pacifist reading of Komenský in the interwar period, with which peace could be brought about through the development of elementary schools and education. To this end, Kokoschka wrote a kind of homage to popular education in the Prager Tageblatt (Prague Daily) in 1935. Kokoschka also represented the Prague Union for Rights and Freedoms at the peace conference in Brussels in 1936, where he also spoke at length about the Humanists and Komenský. His gallerist Hugo Feigl also gave him a book during this period on Petr Chelčický (c. 1390–1460), a lay theologian and reformer who was born around 1390 and was one of the spiritual fathers of the Czech Brethren. As early as 1920, Kokoschka had written an essay on Komenský and his work ‘Orbis pictus’, which was a widely used youth and schoolbook from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century with a variety of illustrations. The humanist tradition became increasingly central to Kokoschka’s thinking. Kokoschka’s attachment to Komenský is best seen in the portrait of Masaryk, which also shows a Prague cityscape with the Hradčany on the right-hand side. The work shows Masaryk next to Komenský and in the centre in the background the other national hero Jan Hus (1370–1415), the theologian who defied the Catholic Church in the early 15th century. In the painting, Komenský shows his work Via Lucis, a philosophical work written in London in 1641 that advocated a kingdom of peace. Kokoschka saw Masaryk as standing in this tradition, and for the artist, Prague was the place where these ideals could be realised. The landscapes illustrate this mission indirectly by idealising the place as such. Perhaps Comenius was also a role model for Kokoschka as an emigrant in England. Kokoschka referred less to the Czech philosophers to connect them with the fate of the city of Prague than to evoke a general humanity. As a travelling and migrant artist, Kokoschka did not always succeed in establishing connections with local art and traditions. It was the uncertain conditions and many stops on his journey that instead kept him coming back to universal values. His landscapes of Prague, however, show the deep connection with the city and its picturesque beauty.

Christian Drobe

[1] Peter Becher and Sigrid Canz, eds, Drehscheibe Prag: Deutsche Emigranten 1933–1939 (Munich, 1989).

[2] Burcu Dogramaci, Mareike Hetschold and Laura Karp Lugo, eds, Arrival Cities: Migrating Artists and New Metropolitan Topographies in the 20th Century (Leuven, 2020).

[3] Heike Eipeldauer and Régine Bonnefoit, eds, Oskar Kokoschka – Expressionist, Migrant, Europäer: Eine Retrospektive (Heidelberg and Berlin, 2018); Agnes Tieze, ed., Oskar Kokoschka and the Prague Cultural Scene (Cologne, 2014).

[4] Rüdiger Görner, Oskar Kokoschka: Jahrhundertkünstler (Vienna, 2018).

[5] Dieter Buchhart, Fabrice Hergott, Anna Karina Hofbauer and Fanny Schulmann, eds, Oskar Kokoschka: un fauve à Vienne (Paris, 2022)

[6] Bernadette Reinhold, Oskar Kokoschka und Österreich: Facetten einer politischen Biografie (Vienna, 2023).

[7] Gloria Sultano and Patrick Werkner, Oskar Kokoschka: Kunst und Politik 1937–1950 (Vienna, 2003).

[8] Quoted in Tieze, Oskar Kokoschka and the Prague Cultural Scene, p. 106.

[9] Tietze, Oskar Kokoschka and the Prague Cultural Scene, p. 30.

[10] Tieze, Oskar Kokoschka and the Prague Cultural Scene, p. 37.

[11] Tieze, Oskar Kokoschka and the Prague Cultural Scene, p. 103.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/5APNM

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