In 1918, Kokoschka, twice wounded in the war, and seriously
shell-shocked, was convalescing in Dresden. He lodged in the
house of Dr Posse, director of the Dresden Art Gallery, who
kept a serving-maid, "a pretty young Saxon girl by
the name of Hulda. She had imagination," Kokoschka
remembered, "which is why she attracted my attention."
"Girl with Doll" (Reserl) (1921/22)
Oskar and Reserl, as the artist rechristened Hulda, liked
to play games: "When she served in my rooms she played
the part of a lady's maid, for which I provided her with a
cap and a batiste apron, together with black silk stockings
bought from a reserve soldier who had knocked around Paris
for a few years and now kept a black-market store."
"Above all Reserl helped with the fantasy game I
played with my doll", Kokoschka reported - a doll
that was intended to be an exact, life-size replica of his
former lover Alma Mahler, who, by that time, had already moved
on to poet Franz Werfel. "I wanted to have done with
the Alma Mahler business once and for all," Kokoschka
admitted, "and never again to fall victim to Pandora's
fatal box, which had already brought me so much suffering..."
Kokoschka commissioned the doll in summer 1918 from the Munich
avant-garde puppet-maker Hermine Moos. The artist's instructions,
conveyed in a mass of letters and drawings between August
1918 and February 1919, were painstakingly detailed:
"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 so!"
"I would die of jealousy," Kokoschka told
Moos in January 1919, "if some man were allowed to
touch the artificial woman in her nakedness with his hands
or glimpse her with his eyes! When shall I be able to hold
all this in my hands?"
Oskar Kokoschka: Reserl
So fixated was Kokoschka on the impending delivery of "my
beloved, for whom I am pining away," that not even
the charms of pretty Reserl, "whom no man had ever
seen naked," could distract him. Reserl herself was
very much in love with her master, whom she referred to as
»captain«, and to whom she showed every conceivable
devotion. She even carved his initials into her own breast
with a knife. Kokoschka remembered that Reserl one day crept
into his bed, whispering into his ear: "I am at your
service body and soul - dispose of me, Sir."
One day Dr Posse's father died, and Kokoschka was asked to
draw a portrait from the corpse before the undertaker arrived.
It was not a job he relished, and it depressed him. Reserl
sought to give him comfort: "Alone, I worked on my
drawing far into the night. Afterwards, wanting a bath, I
descended the dark stairs into the cellar, where stood a tall
water-butt for use of the whole household. Moonlight shone
through the cellar window, and there, to my surprise, like
Undine in the story, Reserl emerged from the water. With a
provocative casualness she said that she simply wished to
take my mind off thoughts of death... I liked the way she
blushed so readily; but by now I was preoccupied with anxious
thoughts about the arrival of the doll, for which I had bought
Parisian clothes and underwear."
The notorious Alma doll, a life-size
copy of Alma
The doll arrived in a large packing case full of shavings
in spring 1919. Inevitably it was a disappointment: "I
was honestly shocked by your doll," Kokoschka wrote
to Hermine Moos, "which, although I was long prepared
for a certain distance from reality, contradicts what I demanded
of it and hoped of you in too many ways!" Despite
his request for a skin that feels like natural skin, Moos'
creation had a skin of feathers: "The outer shell
is a polar-bear pelt, suitable for a shaggy imitation bedside
rug rather than the soft and pliable skin of a woman. The
result is that I cannot even dress the doll, which you knew
was my intention, let alone array her in delicate and precious
robes. Even attempting to pull on one stocking would be like
asking a French dancing-master to waltz with a polar bear!"
Nevertheless Kokoschka had eyes only for Alma's Double, to
whom he now transferred the extreme possessiveness on which
his relationship with the doll's life-model had foundered:
"Reserl and I called her simply the "Silent Woman".
Reserl was commissioned to spread rumours about the charms
and mysterious origins of the Silent Woman: for example, that
I had hired a horse and carriage to take her out on sunny
days, and rented a box at the Opera in order to show her off."
"Woman in Blue" (1919)
"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. The light I saw at that moment was without precedent.
The cloth-and-sawdust effigy, in which I vainly sought to
trace the features of Alma Mahler, was transfigured in a sudden
flash of inspiration into a painting - "The Woman in
Blue". The larva, after its long winter in the cocoon,
had emerged as a butterfly."
After having expended so much energy and expense on the doll's
creation, Kokoschka, a few months later, decided to dispose
of the fetish. He decided to have a big Party, with champagne
for all his friends, and there put an end to his inanimate
"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 following morning Kokoschka was woken by the police,
who were investigating a report of a possible murder. "In
our dressing gowns we went down to the garden, where the doll
lay, headless and apparently drenched in blood."
Matters were explained, Dr Posse smoothed things over, and
the corpse was removed.
"Self-portrait with Doll" (1920/21)
"The dustcart came in the grey light of dawn, and
carried away the dream of Eurydice's return," Kokoschka
remembered. "The doll was an image of a spent love
that no Pygmalion could bring to life."
Kokoschka drew and painted the doll in many poses, usually
of sexual availability. In his picture "Self-portrait
with Doll", which he painted from memory in 1920/21,
she lolls beside him on a sofa, naked. Kokoschka is fully
clothed. It is significant that he is pointing to the doll's
sexual parts with a look of resignation and indifference.
Reserl's vanished from Dresden in the 1920s, and today no-one
knows what has become of her...