HERITAGE: Defiance of artist Oskar Kokoschka who fled Nazis and made Finchley Road his home

Oskar Kokoschka standing in front of one of his paintings in the 1970s. Picture: Interfoto/Lebrecht

Oskar Kokoschka standing in front of one of his paintings in the 1970s. Picture: Interfoto/Lebrecht - Credit: ATV

In the latest of our series exploring the lives and times of people commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin looks at the life of expressionistic artist Oskar Kokoschka.

Oskar Kokoschka was an outspoken artist who was forced to flee Europe as it fell to the Nazi-machine – a force he fiercely criticised and opposed.

The artist and writer (1886–1980) was born at Pöchlarn, a small town 60 miles west of Vienna, Austria. In 1887 the family settled in Vienna where he was educated. By 1904 Kokoschka had been awarded a state scholarship to the Kunstgewerbeschule (school of applied arts) and entered the faculty of painting to study.

In 1905 Kokoschka became an associate of the Wiener Werkstätte, the geometrizing design workshops, and by 1908 was holding evening classes at the Kunstgewerbeschule. It was here that he taught the practice of drawing naked figures in motion using circus children and street urchins as his models.

During the First World War Kokoschka enlisted in a smart cavalry regiment, writing of his rigorous initiation that, “technology, science and military training provide all our daily wants”. He was seriously wounded whilst fighting on the Russian front in the summer of 1915 and spent several months in hospital.

Suffering from shell-shock, Kokoschka was again hospitalised but late in 1916 managed to travel to Dresden, Germany, to convalesce. Here he befriended a crowd of pacifists, mainly expressionist actors, playwrights and poets, who feature in two important group portraits of this period, The Exiles and The Friends.

In the spring of 1926 he came to London where he spent six months. To mark entry to the United Kingdom, Kokoschka painted Dover Harbour.

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Firstly he stayed at the Savoy Hotel. From this vantage point he painted two different aspects of the Thames – one of Cleopatra’s Needle in the foreground and one of Waterloo Bridge with St Paul’s Cathedral in the distance.

Another painting excursion saw Kokoschka venture into portraiture in Regent’s Park Zoo. He was granted permission to paint outside normal opening hours by Julian Huxley and first set his easel up in the Monkey House at night and later, by day, in the large-cat section. He wrote of the experience of painting the lone mandrill, named George: “When I painted him, I saw a wild isolated fellow, almost my own image. Someone who wants to be alone.”

Two years later in 1928 Kokoschka held his first exhibition in Britain at the Leicester Galleries, London.

Just months after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, Kokoschka published an article in a German newspaper defending the German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann who, as a Jew, had been forced under the “Aryan paragraph” to resign from the Prussian Academy of Arts. Kokoschka’s anti-Nazi credentials were impeccable.

Throughout the 1930s he spoke out against their cultural and educational policies, while more and more of his works in German public collections were confiscated by the Nazis. In 1937 eight of his paintings were included in the Nazi Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. His response was to paint the ironically titled Portrait of a ‘Degenerate Artist’, a powerfully moving statement of defiance. The following year he was himself dismissed from the academy.

Throughout this period Kokoschka was living in Prague and it was here that he met his future wife, the young law student, Olda Palkovská (1915–2004). After the Munich agreement of September 1938 she persuaded him to leave Czechoslovakia and they fled to London on October 18, 1938.

After refuelling in Rotterdam, the KLM flight touched down at Croydon airport at 12.45 in the afternoon. Kokoschka had enjoyed the journey, “sunlit landscapes passed beneath us like photographs in a holiday brochure”.

The couple found temporary lodgings at 11a Belsize Avenue, in Belsize Park, and in their first days in London registered themselves with the police at the station in Bow Street, met with Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery and found their feet in the new city.

Old friends lent them £100 in the form of a banknote. Kokoschka wrote: “Compared with any of today’s banknotes... it was the most elegant form of money since gold went out of circulation... a masterpiece of craftsmanship, comparable to showpieces of the applied arts such as the Chippendale furniture and Lalique vases in the Victoria and Albert Museum.”

They then found small furnished rooms at 45a King Henry’s Road for a rent of two pounds ten shillings a week. Happy to be finally settled, Kokoschka set to work each day. Olda, on a small budget, managed to produce delicious meals, “including rice pudding and Viennese chocolate cake”.

By 1940 the couple had settled in a friend’s house in Boundary Road, St John’s Wood. The Swiss Cottage Odeon was nearby and the pair would often enjoy outings to the cinema, particularly enjoying Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 and Ginger Rodgers in Fifth Avenue Girl.

In late January 1941 the couple moved into Mandeville Court, an apartment block in Finchley Road. On April 16 incendiary bombs were dropped on the City of London and Kokoschka watched the flames from the building’s roof.

The next day the couple were due to meet with a City lawyer due to some issues with their paperwork. Kokoschka recalled the experience: “Without thinking we took the Tube and came to the surface in the midst of an inferno... We gave up our errand and turned back in a mood of exhilaration, such as is possible in the face of disaster only in England.”

A month later the couple were married in an air-raid shelter. The Kokoschka’s moved to 120 Eyre Court, Finchley Road, in the winter of 1946-7. The couple lived at the address until 1953 when they moved to a house overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

No 120 was retained as their London base until at least 1980 and the blue plaque there was the first to be installed, in 1986, after English Heritage took over the administration of the scheme.

As an émigré, Kokoschka’s adopted nation paid him a huge tribute by making him a CBE in 1959. In 1963 he was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford.