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April 22, 2020

The Bizarre Story of Oskar Kokoschka and His Life-Size Alma Mahler Doll

Alma Mahler (1879–1964) was a Viennese socialite and arts patron whose infamous romantic life inspired composers, painters, and novelists, including Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Franz Werfel, and others. Between her marriages to Mahler (who died in 1911) and Gropius (in 1915), Alma had a turbulent affair with the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980), who memorialized her in his painting The Bride of the Wind, 1913-14 (just before their relationship ended).

Unable to forget his muse and lover, in July 1918 Kokoschka ordered a life-size doll from the Munich doll-maker Hermine Moos as a substitute for his lost love. It was to be made to look exactly like Alma Mahler.

Hermine Moos working on the faux Alma Mahler.

On July 22 he already returned a model of the head, having checked it and made suggestions as to how the work should proceed. “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.”

Kokoschka provided Moos with many detailed drawings and a life sized oil sketch. On August 20, 1918 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!”

Kokoschka’s letter to Hermine Moos.

In December Kokoschka eagerly demanded of Hermine Moos: “Can the mouth be opened? Are there teeth and a tongue inside? I hope.”

The doll was not finished until the second half of February 1919. On February 22 Kokoschka asked to have the doll sent to him. 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.

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.

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...”

Alma Mahler by Oskar Kokoschka, 1912.

The Bride of the Wind or The Tempest, oil on canvas, a self-portrait expressing his unrequited love for Alma Mahler, widow of composer Gustav Mahler, 1914.

Kokoschka’s 1919 painting of his doll, Woman in Blue.

Self-portrait with Doll, 1920. As seen in this self-portrait, Kokoschka’s paintings of the doll would often drift into more sexually suggestive/aggressive themes.

Young Alma Mahler.

Young Oskar Kokoschka, ca. 1910.


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