Oskar Moll first studied biology, before taking up painting at the age of 22. Initially self-taught, he then trained in Berlin with Lovis Corinth, under whose influence he painted genre interiors and vedute in an Impressionist style with muted colours. After he had met the German Impressionist Ulrich Hübner, his palette became brighter and the paint application more pastose. He painted sun-drenched landscapes around Grafrath (Bavaria) and brightly coloured snow scenes, with which he made his début in 1905 at the Munich Secession. His first visit to Paris was in winter 1907, together with his wife, the sculptress Margarethe Haeffner (1884-1977; known as Marg); the following year he exhibited his work in the distinguished Salon d'Automne.
After the couple had been introduced by Lyonel Feininger into the legendary artists' circle at the Café du Dôme, Moll met Henri Matisse, under whose tutelage in the "Académie Matisse" he developed his distinctive style: consistent purity of colour, harmony of contrast, and a feeling for the balance between colour and form. Son of a Silesian factory-owner, Moll was financially independent, and between 1908 and 1914 he compiled a representative collection of works by Matisse.
It is primarily Moll's still lifes dating from between 1916 and 1918 that are reminiscent of his mentor, through their emphasis on ornamentation, the relation between the objects, the balance of line and colour, and the harmony of the chromatic modulation. Moll was musical, a keen cellist, and Matisse encouraged his polyphonic expressive language. Gradually, however, Moll found his own direction, differentiating his glowing colours more in the style of Paul Cézanne, by modulating the nuances; helpful here was the Neo-Impressionist technique of using short, methodical brush-strokes.
On travels in the south, from 1910 onwards, and armed with his Paris experience, Moll discovered an Arcadian world of colour and light. However, neither his airy southern palette nor his principle of "l'art pour l'art" brought him many adherents in his native land. In many of his pictures, landscape and still life blend into a synthesis, showing him as a Romantic – when, for instance, the view from a veranda or a balcony through the branches of an orchard recedes into a distant seascape with minute sailing-boats, or an Alpine landscape spreads out into a panorama under a cloudy sky. Without doubt, these fantastic atmospheric nature paintings dating from between 1912 and 1924, with their sublime chromatic improvisations, represent the acme of Moll's artistic development, demonstrating his great talent as an aquarellist.
Thus in his still lifes, the "colour symphonist" (as the painter Johannes Molzahn called him) tells of nature in all its radiant vitality. His study of biology, abandoned in 1893 in favour of art, served to refine his view of the natural world. The beauty of growing plants inspired his intuitive aesthetic sensibility for vegetable organisms. His passion for antiques took him to arts and crafts markets, and he enhanced his still lifes of fruit and flowers with handcrafted objects – clay amphorae, stone jugs, painted ceramic plates, long-necked wine bottles or costly glass goblets, amongst which might appear everyday objects such as fans, playing-cards, newspapers, pipes or paintbrushes. Until 1942, Moll always worked with the objects displayed before him; after the chaos of the war years, he painted these arrangements from memory, enriching his compositions with decorative fabrics and ornamental screens from Java or China, arranging in front of them Egyptian mummified heads, African carvings or plaster casts of busts or sculptures.
Between 1925 and 1932, he turned to a more static, geometric construction combining graphic and concrete sculptural elements. The influence of Cubism, through Fernand Léger, Louis Marcoussis and Jean Metzinger, can be attributed to his wife Marg, who was a pupil of Léger in 1924 and belonged, together with Delaunay and Gleizes, to the "Groupe 1940". This cubist-constructivist phase is also evident in Moll's work in the decorative arts. These are the expression of a synthesis of free and applied art which was taught at the Breslau Academy. Moll's concept, influenced by the Jugendstil artist August Endell, brought the Academy a nationwide reputation as an outstanding institution.
Moll's open, far-sighted approach as director of the Academy enabled him, despite resistance from colleagues, to implement personal appointments which brought the Academy a significant generational change. His efforts on behalf of the Bauhaus artists Oskar Schlemmer and Georg Muche, the Berlin architect Hans Scharoun, the commercial artist and painter Johannes Molzahn, and Alexander Kanoldt und Carlo Mense as representatives of New Objectivity, meant that multi-faceted artistic concepts of the Modern Movement were taught in 1920s Breslau. As a member of the Silesian Artists' Alliance, Moll organised exhibitions which triggered conflicts of interests between the essence of a national academy and the aims of the regional Artists' Alliance. Besides the demands of the nationally prominent Breslau Werkbund-Ausstellung [Work Federation Exhibition], which in 1929 offered an overview of contemporary trends in housing and architecture, Moll – as a member of the honorary committee – was particularly concerned to maintain a balance between all genres of the fine arts.
Moll was first and foremost a landscape and still-life painter, although he did produce the occasional portrait or nude, including the portraits painted in Breslau around 1930. Otherwise, he concentrated mostly on family portraits or private commissions, particularly during scarcities during the Hitler era. His pictures of bathing nudes or dreamy nymphs, painted around this time, aroused a longing for harmony between man and nature.
During the Nazi dictatorship, the "grand seigneur of delicate sensitivity" (as Hugo Hartung called him) shared the fate of many modern artists. The last ten years of his life were anything but easy. When Hitler bawled his speech on "degenerate art" into the microphones on 18 July 1937, and when later the contumelious exhibition was opened in the Hofgarten gallery in Munich, Oskar Moll was immediately discredited. This eminent personality refused to lend himself to any Nazi political aims or ideological programmes, however, but remained true to his humanist and intercultural ideals. He was severely distressed by the inhuman conduct of the Nazis. Not only did he forfeit his position and his reputation, but the house and studio in Berlin-Grunewald, designed by Hans Scharoun for him and his wife, was destroyed in an air raid in February 1944, along with his valuable art collection, including many of his own works.
Since his "inner emigration" Moll, now in compulsory retirement, had resumed his method of combining the objects in his pictures into a complete composition, in order to achieve a tautly structured, clearer formal vocabulary. The late snow scenes from the early 1940s, despite their atmospheric transparency, have a certain glassy hardness about them. His still lifes, now compiled from memory, are reduced to a few strongly outlined everyday objects. Nostalgic landscapes, in delicate pastel shades, with an elevated view of sailing-boats scattered on the Havel Lake or the Mediterranean, seem to hover gently and dreamily. This is already the retrospective view of a man in meditative mood, preparing for death. Oskar Moll died in Berlin on 19 August 1947. His legacy, decimated by the Nazi dictatorship and the war, and now occasionally represented in museums, is to be found primarily in private collections, and regularly at auctions.