Self-Portrait, one hand touching the face

Self Portrait, one hand touching the face, 1918/19, Oskar Kokoschka, Leopold Museum, Vienna, Austria
Self Portrait, one hand touching the face, 1918/19, Oskar Kokoschka, Leopold Museum, Vienna, Austria

After Alma Mahler, whom Oskar Kokoschka passionately loved, left him abruptly in 1915 following a stormy three-year relationship, Kokoschka volunteered for war duty—and his emotional wounds were soon joined by physical ones: he was shot in the head and stabbed in the lungs. It was in a commensurately sorry state that he moved to Dresden in 1917. The self-portrait of 1918/19 clearly exhibits the incomparable sensitivity so typical of Kokoschka’s portraits, in which he managed like no other—thanks to his assured and pastose application of paint and the quite deliberately chosen gestures of the hands—to depict a subject’s emotional state on the canvas. The emotional crisis of Kokoschka, abandoned by his beloved and shattered by the war, is almost physically palpable. He signed numerous letters which he wrote during this period as “Lieutenant Glahn”, referring to a main character in Knut Hamsun’s novel Pan who was unsuccessful in coming to terms with life following his discharge from the military. Kokoschka’s uncertain, disturbed gaze and the gesture of placing a hand before his face clearly express the artist’s “lost” state and heighten the emotionally unstable impression which he makes.

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