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Love story in paintings: Oskar Kokoschka, Alma Mahler and Olda Palkovská

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Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka was in love twice. His first relationship lasted for three years, and the second — 44. The first had hundreds of biographical and belles-lettres works (as well as articles in glossy magazines) written about, while the second one can boast only a few references. The first woman was older than Kokoschka, and the second one — much younger. He painted the first one every day, while the second one appears only in a few of his paintings. He was obsessed with the first one and he was happy with the second. The first one was Alma Mahler and the second — Olda Palkovská.

Before the storm

When Oskar Kokoschka first met Alma Mahler at the house of her stepfather, the woman was still wearing a mourning veil. It happened less than a year after the death of her first husband, the famous composer and conductor Gustav Mahler.

She lived with Mahler for 10 years, gave birth to two daughters and buried one of them. She abandoned her own career as a composer, got bored and tired of being married and subject to the strict order of her husband’s life, got into several love affairs, traveled to America with Mahler, visited all the best spa resorts from sheer boredom, met Viennese celebrities. She was 33. After the death of her husband, Alma got quite a good pension, had a reputation as the most beautiful woman in Vienna, slammed the doors in the faces of several of her husband’s acquaintances, continued to enjoy freedom, assisted biologist Paul Kammerer in his experiments with mantis, but when he threatened to kill himself because of her indifference, decided to quickly put an end to her career as a biologist. By the way, Kammerer still committed suicide 15 years later, but due to the fact that his research and experiments were found to be falsified rather than because of the unhappy love.

Alma always managed to guess whether men who wanted to get closer to her possessed enough genius to tolerate their craziness, unattractiveness, Jewish roots, difference in age and other things she considered flaws. And when that degree of genius was sufficient, she was ready to tolerate a lot.
  • Oskar Kokoschka, 1909. Photo: www.leopoldmuseum.org
  • Alma Mahler, 1909. Photo: www.alma-mahler.at
Oskar Kokoschka was a young scandalous Viennese star. In 1911, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand himself, walking through the galleries of the artist association Hagenbund, where twenty of Kokoschka’s paintings were shown, stated indignantly, "This fellow’s bones ought to be broken in his body!" However, less-known critics didn’t shy away from testing out a strong skeleton of the young rebel Kokoschka either. Back then, the newspapers wrote of the putrid scent emanating from the artist’s portraits, and all his models being affected by leprosy, eczema, arthritis, and even worse illnesses, judging by their images.

Oskar met Alma Mahler at the age of 26 and by that time, he had already participated in Klimt's exhibition of avant-garde artists and wrote and staged his outrageous play Murderer, Hope of Women, which caused a huge scandal. He was involved with the avant-garde journal Der Sturm and enlisted the strong support of the trendy architect Adolf Loos, who not only recommended Kokoschka to his rich customers, but also paid for his travels. Because of his provocative erotic drawings, Kokoschka was fired — first from a teaching position, and later — from Art workshops, where he used to draw sketches for postcards and illustrations for children’s books. He was on everyone’s lips: those of journalists, bohemian public in taverns and cabarets, wealthy bourgeois at garden parties. It was probably at one of these events where Carl Moll, Alma’s stepfather, heard about Kokoschka. Soon, the artist was commissioned to paint a portrait of the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler.

The Tempest

"How beautiful she was, how seductive behind her veil of dreams! I was enchanted by her!" recalled Kokoschka. He decided to depict Alma as Mona Lisa — those were the years of the sensational world-wide fame of Leonardo's painting: in 1911, it was stolen from the Louvre, its' reproduction constantly appeared on the front pages of newspapers, while journalists kept making assumptions and theories. Within several years of searching, it became the most replicated and recognizable painting, the most mourned loss of the museum and the object of the most intriguing criminal story. So Alma had to be the new Mona Lisa.
Oskar Kokoschka. Alma Mahler

Kokoschka fell in love at their first meeting — and wrote a long letter containing love confession as soon as he got home. He was passionate, assertive, reckless, and seemed to be a really brilliant young man, which was quite important for Alma. Just in case, she didn’t stop her correspondence with one of her previous lovers, the architect Walter Gropius. And kept secret her relationship with Kokoschka — just in case as well. But rumors of such overwhelming love affairs are spread instantly. At the exhibition of the Berlin Secession, Gropius got to see the double portrait of Alma and Oskar with the title Engagement written under it. In the painting, their bodies are intertwined, almost joined like those of conjoined twins, his big hand carefully protects her hand while they are in bed, wearing robes. Everything was too obvious. And then Gropius himself put an end to their correspondence.

Of course, there was no engagement. Oskar was desperately jealous of Alma’s affection for her friends, passersby, and even her dead husband. In his studio, the artist would put her red night gown on and work wearing it. He painted only her: naked, dressed, sleeping. He tied himself up in knots, when Alma forgot to write him a letter. She had to write him every day, look only at him, spend every night sleeping only with him, and marry him. "I must have you for my wife or my genius will self-destruct. You must resuscitate my soul, each night, like an elixir," he demanded in one of his letters. But Alma wasn’t planning on getting married yet and certainly did not want to have a child from the insane Kokoschka. She did not hesitate to have an abortion — her obsessed lover was still a child himself! He took the blood-stained dressing off of her, carried it with him and kept repeating: "This is my only child and always will be."
Alma got tired. She went on more and more small trips with her friend — and spent there more and more time. Dozens of years later, Alma admitted that Kokoschka was her only boyfriend, whose work she truly loved. Neither Mahler’s music, nor the novels of Franz Werfel (her third husband) brought her as much pleasure as Kokoschka’s paintings. But it became more difficult for her to put up with his relentless passion. Just then, in 1913, she made it a condition that she would marry Kokoschka if he created a masterpiece. And he obediently painted that masterpiece: he and Alma are in bed, in the middle of an impending storm, she sleeps and clings to him, he looks through the element that came upon, and protects her sleep. The Bride of the Wind really turned out to be a masterpiece — and soon Alma would have to come up with new excuses to get out of that oppressive relationship. But there was no need to do it — the war began.

A soldier, a professor, a fetishist


When World War I began, it was enough for Alma to call Kokoschka a coward several times so that he enrolled in the 15th Imperial Dragoons, a crack cavalry regiment, and even decided that he did it voluntarily. He sold The Bride of the Wind to buy the best horse. He went to the photo studio and took a few pictures in his new shining uniform. And that was the end of the romantic part of his military career.
Then began the mud, the horror and the pain of war. Kokoschka was wounded in the head, left on the battlefield, and some soldier even tried to finish him off with a bayonet. He lost his memory — and the Viennese newspapers declared him dead. Alma hurried to the artist’s studio to take all her letters and the most revealing drawings that could have gone down in history. When Alma’s friends told her in which hospital her brave knight was recovering, she said: "None of this, however, bothers me. I don’t believe he’s as badly wounded as he says he is. I don’t believe one thing this man says anymore." They would never see each other again.

For several years, Oskar would be tormented by hallucinations and terrible memories, but his break with Alma Mahler made him suffer even more. He continued to paint her — and when her image faded from his memory, he ordered a doll, which had to resemble his beloved women as precisely as possible. In the evenings, he dressed up the rag Alma in silk and lace and took her with him to the opera and parties. And during the day, he taught at the Dresden Academy of Art. He also travelled and painted a lot, which made his pain gradually subside.

Alma married the same Walter Gropius, with whom she continued to correspond (just in case) at the peak of her relationship with Kokoschka. That marriage was agonizing for Alma, who was used to the high society: even though Gropius was really handsome, no one knew about him. During the war, he was doing the most mediocre work ever: training military dogs at an army communications school. Alma was outraged — her husband had to be first class. If she had put up with the unknown architect Gropius for several more years, she would have received her portion of honors and the realization of her conceited hopes when he founded the most avant-garde school — Bauhaus.

But she didn’t — and got married for the third time. With the writer Franz Werfel. During the reign of the National Socialists, she and her husband fled to America — and in the end, turned out to be completely unhappy in their marriage. A Jewish husband, even though a talented and famous one, often got on Alma’s nerves just by his physical presence, and she started taking a liberty of going on anti-Semitic rants at friendly dinners. She spent the rest of her life making money off copyrights for Mahler’s music and Werfel’s novels.

After his break with Alma, Oskar Kokoschka was single for 20 years — and met his future and only wife at the age of 50.

Viennese pie recipe

In the 1920s, Kokoschka traveled to Europe, Asia and North Africa. He quit his career as a teacher at the Dresden Academy, visited Paris, and finally got to Prague in 1934. Kokoschka’s father was a Czech; his sister lived in Prague since 1919. What’s more, a year before that trip, Czech gallery owner Hugo Feigl held a personal exhibition of the artist — and it enjoyed great success. Kokoschka went to a city in which he could easily find friends and fellow-thinkers, but had no plans to stay there. He wanted to go as far as possible: the Far East would be a nice place to flee from the new German government and the presentiment of an inevitable catastrophe.

Kokoschka spent four years in Prague, painting dozens of amazing views of the city from his favorite point of view — through the eyes of a bird hovering over the city. He created an association of creative people in that city, learnt that his paintings had been confiscated from German museums and participated in the Degenerate Art exhibition and heard in one of the radio programs that the German authorities promised to hang him on the first lamppost as soon as they get to Prague. It was there, where he finally met young Oldriska Aloisie (Olda) Palkovská at a dinner in the house of her father, a lawyer and a great connoisseur of art.

  • Olda Palkovská, 1936. Photo: www.leopoldmuseum.org
  • Oskar Kokoschka on the balcony of his studio in Prague, 1936. Photo: www.altertuemliches.at
Olda was 29 years younger than Kokoschka — and her parents, though appreciated Oskar as an artist, were not very happy about their daughter’s decision and the prospect of getting a son-in-law. But the girl was uncompromising.

When, according to the Munich Agreement, part of Czechoslovakia was given to Germany in 1938, Olda and Oskar decided to leave Prague. It was no longer safe for the "degenerate" artist to stay in that city. They moved to London together — and in spite of the difficulties looming over Europe as a whole, Oskar Kokoschka’s personal notes became calm and peaceful for the first time in many years. For the first time, he stopped thinking about death and being afraid — he wrote about his new partner cooking a delicious rice pudding and chocolate Viennese pie. Every evening they went out to watch a movie in the cinema next door, discussed their favorite directors and walked.

They spent the whole war in London, became British citizens and got married in an air-raid shelter in Hampstead in 1941. Oskar Kokoschka’s work Christ helps the starving children was posted in London underground stations — in memory of the children who died of cold and hunger during the war and as a call to donate to charity in order not to let the rest die.

Olda and Oskar Kokoschka in Villeneuve, 1975.
Olda and Oskar Kokoschka in London, 1939.
Olda and Oskar Kokoschka in Venice, 1948.
Olda and Oskar Kokoschka in Villeneuve, 1980, the year of the artist's death.
Olda and Oskar Kokoschka on the terrace of the house in Villeneuve, 1970.
After all the flees, moves and travels, Olda and Oskar Kokoschka finally bought their own house: they lived together in a small villa in Villeneuve, on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland for 27 years — until the artist’s death. It was Oskar’s old dream and a place where he lived longer than anywhere else in his life. Back in 1919, after traveling to Switzerland, he called this country his spiritual homeland and wrote to his friends: "If you could discover a true friend of art who would loan me Fr.100,000 and a little house with vines, then I would give him, completely, all my breath and all my love for five years — or, even more clearly, everything that is most beautiful: all I could dream, paint and write."

After the death of her husband, Olda Palkovská took all his diaries and letters and gave them to the Zürich Central Library. For the remaining years, she devoted herself to searching, buying, and collecting manuscripts, sketches, and photographs of her husband. She donated every new discovery to the library archive, and later — to the Foundation in memory of Oskar Kokoschka, which she founded herself.

When it comes to Alma Mahler, recalling Kokoschka in her autobiography, she stated that he had not painted anything worthwhile after the break with her.


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Main illustration: Oskar Kokoschka. Portrait of Olda Palkovská, Self-Portrait, Portrait of Alma Mahler
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