Young Girl in a Blue Coat

Oskar Kokoschka

(Pöchlarn, 1886 - Montreux, 1980)
Pencil and watercolour on paper 45.4 x 31.6 cm (17.9 x 12.4 in.) Signed lower right 'OK' and with a monogram 1907

In 1906, at the age of twenty, Oskar Kokoschka became a student at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts) in Vienna, where he attended the class taught by Otto Czeschka. From the beginning he focused on life drawing, of both the nude and of the figure in motion. By the summer semester of 1907 he had been granted sole use of a studio. There, as he was later to record (Oskar Kokoschka, Mein Leben, Munich 1971, pp. 50–51; cited here from Eng. trans., My Life, London 1974, p. 19), he “got the children of a circus family, who used to live by modelling in the winter when there was no other work, to play and leap around [so that he could capture in] lightning studies [. . . ] the various movements and twists of the body in action [. . . ]”. It was also in 1907 that the Viennese Galerie Miethke staged an exhibition of work by Paul Gauguin. As demonstrated by the present sheet, the figure’s somewhat exotic air and the clothing loosely and only partially covering the body (both characteristic of Gauguin) were to feature in Kokoschka’s own drawings.

Here, however, the coat or cloak thrown casually over the shoulder is supplied with a number of modish details: its double collar and its manifestly fashionable cut. On account, however, of its planar abstraction and its unified blue colouring, the garment, which here seems detached from the tender contours of the still androgynous girl’s body, gives the image as a whole the look of a collage. In rendering the figure, Kokoschka applies his watercolour very sparingly. The flesh tone itself has many a hint of pink, and the brown used for the hair recurs on the face, the breast and the toes. Through these means, Kokoschka situates the figure firmly within his sheet.

In this watercolour Kokoschka is already striking out in an entirely new expressive direction, which was indeed in keeping with the rapidly evolving socio-political mood of the time. He was now concerned not with the mandatory, universally valid figural stylisation favoured in the still prevalent ideals of beauty, but with his own particular sense of vocation and of inner necessity as a way to assert his artistic autonomy. This deliberate move away from the stiff, naturalistic rendering of the human body that was the norm at this time constituted Kokoschka’s first step towards a truly expressionistic art. It was through such spontaneous studies of figures at rest or in motion that he evolved his own, immensely distinctive drawing style.

This particular work evinces an additional aspect of the shift in style that was to characterise Kokoschka’s later oeuvre. It is detectable in his first attempts at an emphatically angular treatment of the body. The austere charm and almost cultic air of this presentation of the figure anticipates what we find in Kokoschka’s illustrations for his first published literary work, of 1908, Die Träumenden Knaben (The Dreaming Boys), and in the poster showing a youthful female figure, the “cotton picker”, which he designed to advertise that year’s great Viennese group exhibition, the Kunstschau, at which he showed publically for the first time.

(Christa Armann; translated from the German by Elizabeth Clegg)

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W&K-Wienerroither & Kohlbacher

"Early 20th Century Viennese Art and German Expressionism"

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