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Art History Weirdness: Oskar Kokoschka and his Alma Mahler Doll

DECEMBER 2, 2014

For the past several years I have been teaching Art History at Champlain College in Burlington, VT. In the course of research for my lectures I ran into this little ditty, and although it isn't exactly about illustration, I thought the art centric denizens of Drawger would enjoy it.
In 1912 the great Austrian expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka started a passionate, tempestuous  affair with Alma Mahler. Alma was coming off a bad stretch. Her first husband, Gustov Mahler, 19 years her senior and Director of the Vienna Opera, had died in 1911.Three years earlier, their daughter, Maria had died of scarlett fever. In the wake of Maria's death, Alma had begun an affair with the Bauhaus architect, Walter Gropius. But with Gustov's death, Alma quit Gropius.
Enter Oskar. It has been said that when Kokoschka wasn't making love to her, he was painting her. Kokoschka painted and drew Alma compulsively and is the subject of his best known painting, Bride of the Wind. It is considered his crowning achievement and a tribute to his love for her.
Oskar Kokoschka - Bride of the Wind - 1914-15

Kokoschka's intense possessiveness wore on Alma, and the emotional vicissitudes of the relationship tired them both. Alma eventually rejected Kokoschka after a 3 year relationship, explaining that she was afraid of being too overcome with passion.
Kokoschka was devastated and in 1915 volunteered for service as an Austrian cavalryman in WWI. In the same year he was seriously wounded, shell shocked on two occasions. While recovering in a hospital in Dresden, doctors decided he was mentally unstable.
Here's where it gets weird.

In 1918, upon his release and recovery, Kokoschka hires a Munich dollmaker, Hermine Moos, to fashion a life-sized doll of Alma Mahler. Kokoschka provided Moos with many detailed drawings and a life sized oil sketch.On August 20, I9I8 he wrote to Moos:
"Yesterday I sent a life-size drawing of my beloved and I ask you to copy this most carefully and to transform it into reality. Pay special attention to the dimensions of the head and neck, to the ribcage, the rump and the limbs. And take to heart the contours of body, e.g., the line of the neck to the back, the curve of the belly. Please permit my sense of touch to take pleasure in those places where layers of fat or muscle suddenly give way to a sinewy covering of skin. For the first layer (inside) please use fine, curly horsehair; you must buy an old sofa or something similar; have the horsehair disinfected. Then, over that, a layer of pouches stuffed with down, cottonwool for the seat and breasts. The point of all this for me is an experience which I must be able to embrace!" In December Kokoschka eagerly demanded of Hermine Moos: "Can the mouth be opened? Are there teeth and a tongue inside? I hope." 

The packing-case arrived. Kokoschka writes: "In a state of feverish anticipation, like Orpheus calling Eurydice back from the Underworld, I freed the effigy of Alma Mahler from its packing. As I lifted it into the light of day, the image of her I had preserved in my memory stirred into life. "He got his servant to spread rumors about the doll, to give the public impression that she was a real woman: "for example, that he' had hired a horse and carriage to take her out on sunny days, and rented a box for her at the Opera in order to show her off"
Alma Mahler doll with Hermine Moos (?)

Kokoschka was ultimately disappointed with the result, a clumsy construction of fabric and wood wool. He complained that the shag carpet-like skin was not life-like enough. Despite the doll's shortcomings, she turned out to be a compliant substitute companion and muse. The live Alma Mahler long gone, Kokoschka started a series of paintings of the doll.
Oskar Kokoschka - Woman in blue - 1919

Oskar Kokoschka - Self Portrait with Doll - 1920-21

Kokoschka drew and painted the doll in many poses, many of them sexually suggestive. (See painting above.) More than 80 pen and ink drawings survive

After several moths, despite Kokoschka's effort, expense and energy, he decided to dispense with the fetish. "I engaged a chamber orchestra from the Opera. The musicians, in formal dress, played in the garden, seated in a Baroque fountain whose waters cooled the warm evening air. A Venetian courtesan, famed for her beauty and wearing a very low-necked dress, insisted on seeing the Silent Woman face to face, supposing her to be a rival. She must have felt like a cat trying to catch a butterfly through a window-pane; she simply could not understand. Reserl paraded the doll as if at a fashion show; the courtesan asked whether I slept with the doll, and whether it looked like anyone I had been in love with... In the course of the Party the doll lost its head and was doused in red wine. We were all drunk."
The next day, a Police patrol happened to glance through the gates, and seeing what was apparently the body of a naked woman covered with blood, they burst into the house suspecting some crime of passion. And for that matter, that's what it was... because in that night I had killed Alma... In the grey morning light the refuse collectors removed Kokoschka’s dream of Eurydice's return.
© 2022 Hal Mayforth