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Modernism/modernity 12.2 (2005) 291-309

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Oskar Kokoschka's Sex Toy:

The Women and the Doll Who Conceived the Artist

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
—William Butler Yeats, "Leda and the Swan" (1923)

Upon returning home from World War I, Oskar Kokoschka found that his lover, Alma Mahler, had married another man. In response, he commissioned the creation of a life-size doll to match Mahler's exact proportions. Kokoschka provoked rumor and scandal as he escorted his doll to the opera, held parties in its honor, and hired a maid to dress and service it. This provocative public performance inspired rampant speculation about what else, exactly, Kokoschka did with the doll. The doll met its "unnatural" demise when one of Kokoschka's parties got out of hand. Police questioned Kokoschka in the morning about a murder; a beheaded and bloody body was reportedly seen outside his home. Evidently it was the naked, wine-splattered doll, which had somehow lost its head during the revelries of the previous evening. This was the story that Kokoschka and his critics, both then and now, loved to tell, embellishing racy details, speaking to fetishism, sex dolls, pranks, and occasional misogyny.1 While titillating, Kokoschka's tumultuous relationship with Mahler and his spectacle with the doll mean little for scholars of modernism unless we can connect them to Kokoschka's project as an artist. Indeed, much less discussed than the doll episode are [End Page 291] the three "portraits" Kokoschka painted of the doll, and their connection to it. The first, Woman in Blue, 1919, is still considered Kokoschka's masterpiece of this period, though it is seldom analyzed in detail; and the two latter, Painter with Doll, 1920–21, and At the Easel, 1922, are among Kokoschka's numerous self-portraits, and rarely noted by critics.

My premise in this paper is that the doll itself must be considered an artistic project that enhances the significance of Kokoschka's doll paintings and illuminates our understanding of Kokoschka as a modernist artist. In the process it challenges the boundaries between art and life. To consider the doll as an artistic project, both as material art and as a kind of performance art, makes Kokoschka's biography significant—not only because he linked it publicly to his doll project, but also because biography was an integral aspect of the modernist agenda of bridging art and life—exemplified in the works of such artists as Giorgio de Chirico, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Certainly this process reveals Kokoschka's nostalgia for the traditional masculine artist-genius, embodied in the figure of Pygmalion. But what I find most fascinating about the subject is the women who inspire and create Kokoschka's infamous doll, especially Alma Mahler and Hermine Moos, who complicate Kokoschka's efforts to reinvent himself as the modernist masculine artist-genius. This paper concerns the mostly unspoken and unrecoverable influence of these women on Kokoschka's art and suggests the importance of gender and procreation in the art/life tensions of modernism. I speculate that the influence of these women is most evident not in Kokoschka's autobiographical writings and published letters, which generally conform to stereotypically masculine traditions, but instead in the three paintings Kokoschka creates of the doll and himself. These works betray a more subtle discomfort with the traditional masculine persona of Pygmalion as Kokoschka increasingly portrays himself as doll-like. They reveal that Kokoschka came to find himself a feminized object, even as his artistic gaze often disempowered and objectified the women who inspired him.

The paintings and the doll have garnered more tabloid interest than critical interest over the years. Perhaps this is because the earliest sources to document this event in Kokoschka's life dismissed the incident as temporary insanity: "If the story of the doll became the most notorious of the antics of...