On an early morning in 1919, police knocked on the door of Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka. They were inquiring about the decapitated body lying immobile on his lawn.
“In our dressing gowns we went down to the garden,” Kokoschka wrote in a series of letters that he later published, referring to himself and a circle of artist friends who’d attended his Dionysian fete the night before. They looked upon the female-appearing body, “headless and apparently drenched in blood.” Kokoschka admitted to officials that he had beheaded the figure in a fit of alcohol-abetted rage.
But he’d suffer no consequences for the act of violence. Because the body, heinously mutilated as it was, was that of a life-size female doll.
A painting depicting happier times between the artist and his favorite toy is currently on view inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Breuer outpost, part of the exhibition “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now).” The Expressionist portrait, its shady tones punctuated with streaks of red, appears to feature a fully clothed man and a completely naked woman, her hands clinging awkwardly to her chest and her breasts exposed. With his right index finger, the man points to her crotch like a kindergarten teacher signaling a keyword on a blackboard.
The clothed man is Kokoschka and the nude woman is his doll. It’s a weird painting, whose backstory is even weirder.
Kokoschka painted the work, titled “Self-Portrait with Doll,” in 1922. As the title suggests, the aforementioned female form isn’t a woman, but a toy, made in the likeness of his former lover and muse, the prolific composer Alma Mahler. Nearly 100 years before incel forum frequenters were contemplating “sexual redistribution” schemes that may or may not involve sex robots, the 20th century painter was appeasing his lack of romantic gratification by means of a sex doll modeled after his ex-girlfriend.
Mahler met Kokoschka, an enfant terrible of the art world, in 1912, one year after the death of her husband, Gustav Mahler. “Suddenly, he pulled me into his arms,” Alma Mahler reportedly wrote of their first meeting. “For me it was a strange, almost shocking and violent hug.”
Mahler soon developed a fiery relationship with Kokoschka ― a man she described as “the wildest beast of all,” whose “pulpy, pulsing passion [...] seems to have been both an intense blessing and a curse.” At the time, she was also involved with architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.
Mahler and Kokoschka’s affair was dramatic, so much so that the latter’s mother eventually got involved, threatening Mahler: “If you see Oskar again, I´ll shoot you dead!” When Mahler opted to terminate a pregnancy, Kokoschka ― the father ― was devastated; the incident compelled him to join the Austrian cavalry in 1914. The next year he learned that Mahler and her beau Gropius had married.
Despondent at the prospect of losing her ― a lover, and the object of much of his art ― Kokoschka did what any scorned man would do. He hired a dollmaker to create an inanimate object in the shape of his lost love. The doll version of Mahler did not need to provide consent for the use of her nude image and other acts. Whether it could actually deliver real fulfillment, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat might wonder, is indeed another matter. Whether it would end in a unbelievable display of violent misogyny, well, that was perhaps pretty much inevitable.
In July 1918, Kokoschka reached out to renowned dollmaker Hermine Moos and commissioned her to create a simulacrum of his bygone ― though still very much living ― flame. His demands, as archived in a series of letters, are painstakingly clear. They are also not not creepy.
“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,” Kokoschka wrote. “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.”
The talk of rumps and limbs is a little much, perhaps. Don’t worry, it gets stranger.
“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.”
Of course doll Alma ― or Doll-ma as she’ll henceforth be known ― was to be both looked at and touched, as Kokoschka’s published letters make abundantly clear. (At one point, he asks whether Doll-ma’s mouth can be opened and if it will have “teeth and a tongue inside.”) He lays it all out in writing: “The point of all this for me is an experience which I must be able to embrace!”
Women’s bodies have long been trusted subjects of male artists deemed the most brilliant art history has to offer: Rubens, Ingres, Picasso, Gauguin ― the list goes way on. Most often, these women are passively posed, depicted as sexualized yet not-confrontational, nearly as appealing and non-threatening as inanimate objects. While Kokoschka’s decision to transition from a living, breathing subject to a stuffed one is surely icky, it is not so much anomalous as a carnivalesque exaggeration of artists’ habitual treatment of their muses, who serve as both subjects and lovers.
Kokoschka’s letters culminate with a plea straight from George Bernard Shaw’s playbook: “If you are able to carry out this task as I would wish, to deceive me with such magic that when I see it and touch it imagine that I have the woman of my dreams in front of me, then dear Fräulein Moos, I will be eternally indebted to your skills of invention and your womanly sensitivity as you may already have deduced from the discussion we had.”
As it turned out, Doll-ma ― completed in 1919 ― was not a dead ringer for Alma. She was just, more dead. Hoos constructed the doll of feathery swansong, and thus, it more closely resembled a cursed bird-woman than a human being. Hoos deviated from Kokoschka’s naturalistic directives, instead endowing Doll-ma with a decidedly otherworldly feel ― more avant-garde artwork than mannequin.
Bonnie Roos, an English professor at West Texas A&M University, theorized that Hoos ― a notably skilled dollmaker of her time ― might have purposefully provided Doll-ma with a not-so-touchable, goose-like flesh in an effort to derail Kokoschka’s erotic fantasies and male artist machismo. Roos compared Hoos’ creation to experimental, feminist pieces by artists like Erna Muth, Relly Mailander and Hannah Höch, which turned conventional body beauty standards imposed upon women’s bodies inside out.
Kokoschka’s displeasure with the result was evident in his next letter to Moos, in which he compared the doll’s exterior to “a polar-bear pelt, suitable for a shaggy imitation bedside rug rather than the soft and pliable skin of a woman.”
The artist lamented, “Even attempting to pull on one stocking would be like asking a French dancing-master to waltz with a polar bear.”
Still, the artist got some use out of his new toy. He brought it to the opera, hosted parties in its name and even hired a maid to dress it up and wait on it.
Kokoschka also painted three portraits of his furry friend, “Woman in Blue” (1919), “Painter with Doll” (1920–21) and “At the Easel” (1922). The latter of the three is the most unsettling, with Kokoschka breaking the fourth wall, paintbrush in hand, conflating the viewer with the invisible canvas he’s about to mark up. Unlike in the other two paintings, where Doll-ma vaguely resembles a human, in “At the Easel” the doll is perched awkwardly toward the edge of the canvas, almost out of view. Its body is collapsed and hunched over, its gaze cockeyed and distant. Kokoschka squeezes its thigh with one hand while holding his brush with the other. It appears more like a prop than a woman, perhaps illustrating the artist’s growing disgust with his subject/object.
The bizarre relationship between Oskar and Doll-ma ended that fateful night when the artist became unable to bear its “inescapable thingness,” as The Met so genially put it. So he threw a Dionysian party and enlisted his maid to dress up Doll-ma in her most fashionable ensemble.
The fete ended in dollicide.
“When dawn broke — I was quite drunk, as was everyone else — I beheaded it out in the garden and broke a bottle of red wine over its head,” he recalled. Police questioned Kokoschka the following morning about the scarlet-soaked, headless body in his yard. In executing the brutal act, Kokoschka seems to have conflated his rage toward both Alma and Doll-ma, murdering his Pygmalion-style doll-child as it prevented his own child from being born.
Doll-ma’s end was marked by an abnormal act of violence. This too, serves as a warped variation on the pattern of abuse powerful, male artists sometimes inflict upon their muses. Some, like Picasso and Gauguin, predate Kokoschka. Other more contemporary figures, like Terry Richardson, Nobuyoshi Araki and Chuck Close, are now being held accountable for their alleged transgressions. At the very least, the women who posed for them and allegedly suffered at their hands now have an opportunity to use their voices. That’s more than can be said for Doll-ma.
When asked whether Kokoschka’s actions correspond with the toxic male behavior being discussed and challenged today, Bonnie Roos replied: “What I can suggest, I think, is that Western art history and literatures have a long tradition of aestheticizing violent misogyny [...] and Kokoschka participated in this tradition. But so do many women’s romance novels.[...] It has always been present within our culture. It has always been excused by the craftsmanship and supposed ‘genius’ of those who depicted it, and defended by those who assess it.”