The National Gallery of Victoria recently purchased a copy of Oskar Kokoschka’s book Die träumenden Knaben (The dreaming boys). This was the first graphic work by the young Austrian artist, made when he was only twenty-one years old. Die träumenden Knaben features ten images, with two small black and white lithographs on the introductory pages, followed by eight full-page colour lithographs. The book was commissioned in 1907 by the Director of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna workshops), Fritz Wärndorfer, who had asked Kokoschka to design colour images for a children’s book. However, Kokoschka went beyond the brief and also wrote the story for Die träumenden Knaben, which was not so much a children’s tale as an autobiographical adolescent fantasy.
The sensual story is set in a fertile exotic landscape with vivid descriptions of smells and sounds, as well as the narrator’s physical sensations and dreamlike visions, concluding with an imaginary encounter with a young woman. In his autobiography Kokoschka wrote of Die träumenden Knaben:
I chose the title because the book was a kind of record, in words and pictures, of my own state of mind at the time. I was in love with the heroine, the girl Li ‘from the lost bird-forests of the north’, in real life a young Swedish girl called Lilith who attended the Kunstgewerbeschule [School of Arts and Crafts, Vienna], and wore a red peasant-weave skirt such as people were not used to seeing in Vienna. Red is my favourite colour and the book was my first love letter.
On each page the text is positioned in a vertical column alongside the image. Kokoschka was influenced by various traditions and particular artists when he designed the book. The simultaneous depiction of various moments in one image is reminiscent of medieval art, and the bold lines and bright colours of his compositions draw on traditional European folk art. The shadowless forms and stylised surface decoration reflect Jugendstil aesthetics, while the angular figures of the adolescent boy (Kokoschka) and girl (Li) on the last page – illustrated here – are inspired by the sculptures of the Belgian artist George Minne, as Kokoschka himself explained. All of these elements are integrated into a coherent and truly original artist’s book, which is prefaced with a dedication to Gustav Klimt, who had been one of Kokoschka’s teachers at the Kunstgewerbeschule.
Five hundred copies of Die träumenden Knaben was printed by Albert Berger and August Chwala in Vienna, and exhibited at the 1908 Wiener Werkstätte Kunstschau, along with the now lost tapestry design The dream bearers – these were the first works by Kokoschka ever to be exhibited. The tapestry met with harsh criticism, and not many orders for the book were received, thus only a small number of copies were bound and sold. In 1917 the German publisher Kurt Wolff bought 275 sets of the 1908 issue, and a new edition was bound and published in Leipzig. The NGV’s book is a pristine copy from this edition. Although it was not a great success at the time of its publication, the book is now considered as one of the most beautiful art books of the twentieth century, and it is generally recognised as foreshadowing Expressionist art.
Dr Petra Kayser, Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2017)