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Oskar Kokoschka’s The Dreaming Youths

Part 1: Introduction

Renowned as an Expressionist painter, the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) began his career in the decorative arts, studying book illustration, printmaking and typography alongside life drawing at Vienna’s School of Applied Arts between 1904 and 1908. The Dreaming Youths, begun in November 1907 and printed the following June, was Kokoschka’s first major graphic series, produced at the age of 21 while he was still a student. It started as a commission for a children’s picture-book, but Kokoschka set aside his brief after the first illustration, adding verses to create a complex ‘picture-poem’ exploring the desires and anxieties of adolescent sexuality. He described it as ‘a kind of record, in words and pictures, of my own state of mind at the time’, in particular of his love for Lilith Lang, the sister of a fellow student, who appears with him in the final image, The Girl Li and I. He wrote later that ‘the book was my first love-letter’, although his relationship with Lilith had ended by the time it appeared.

The eight colour lithographs display a wide range of artistic influences, from the prevailing Jugendstil or Arts and Crafts aesthetic to Japanese woodcuts and medieval folk art. The stream-of-consciousness text which appears alongside the images also looks back to a medieval past in its use of traditional verse forms and the simple style of German folk-poems which were undergoing a widespread revival in the early 1900s. Yet the emotional intensity of the text, and its themes of sexual awakening, longing and even violence, point to a more radical, expressionist sensibility. It was the juxtaposition of the dreamlike, fairytale images with this jarring, tense prose that led one critic, Ludwig Hevesi, to warn that if the book was originally intended for children, it was certainly ‘not for the children of the philistine’.

The Dreaming Youths was not initially well received when it was exhibited at the Kunstschau, or Art Exhibition, in the summer of 1908, the first show organised jointly by the Klimt Group, The School of Applied Arts and the affiliated Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops). Few of the original 500 copies printed in 1908 were sold and 275 of them were later bought by Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig to be republished, newly bound, in 1917. Despite its lack of commercial success, however, The Dreaming Youths was one of Kokoschka’s most significant early statements, and the frank, erotic metaphor and personal mythology introduced here would become central to his later artistic productions, both visual and literary.

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