This was intended by Kokoschka to be a children's book, but the powerful Expressionist poem of sexual longing and suggestive images of dense forests, frolicking animals, and undulating waters teeming with jumping red fish are not typical children's fare. Although the flat bright colors and sharp black outlines are in keeping with the ornamental style then favored in Vienna, Kokoschka's awkward, gangly figures show him beginning to move towards a more emotionally expressive style and more provocative content. This is the first of many books he wrote and illustrated.
Oskar Kokoschka made major contributions to both Viennese and German Expressionist art during the early decades of the twentieth century. He began studying at the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna in 1904, and by 1907 had emerged as a new talent with the performance of his first play. In addition to a career in painting, Kokoschka was also a dedicated printmaker throughout his life, creating some five hundred prints. These included illustrations for books, posters, and postcards. His most remarkable printed projects were completed while he was a student in Vienna and later in Berlin, where he worked from 1909 to 1911.
Drawn to the philosophy of Vienna's Wiener Werkstätte (a design collective), which emphasized the interdependence of all forms of art, Kokoschka accepted a commission for a children's book from the collective in 1907. Only twenty years old at the time, he adopted a fairy-tale style to narrate his dreams about an unconsummated love for a fellow art student named Lilith. The book introduces the enduring importance of autobiography in Kokoschka's work and adopts the Werkstätte's interest in children's art, as well as the stylized treatment of figures and landscape so typical of the Viennese Art Nouveau. This project also reveals the artist's embrace of Symbolist themes of the period, including feelings of angst and insecurity, a rejection of modern industrialized society, and the struggle between the sexes.
In 1907, Fritz Waerndorfer, the financial backer of the Wiener Werkstätte, the leading design workshop in Vienna, commissioned Oskar Kokoschka, still a student at Vienna's Kunstgewerbeschule (School of decorative arts), to make an illustrated fairy tale for his children. Kokoschka instead delivered a haunting poem about awakening adolescent sexuality set on far-off islands, away from the modern city and bourgeois life. His carefully composed text alluded to classical and contemporary literature by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Viennese writer Peter Altenberg. Kokoschka dedicated the volume to artist Gustav Klimt, from whom he borrowed the square format for the images, which push the text to the margins. The stylized patterning in Kokoschka's lithographs is typical of the dominant decorative approach in fin-de-siècle Vienna, and show his confident assimilation of various "primitivist" currents in European art, such as in the cloisonné-like outlines, unconventional perspective, and flat planes of color.
The book debuted at the monumental Kunstschau exhibition in Vienna in 1908. The original printer, who worked with another publisher of a famous series of children's books, backed out upon seeing Kokoschka's proofs. The Wiener Werkstätte published the book under its own imprint. As anticipated, the work sold poorly. In 1917, publisher Kurt Wolff, who had befriended the artist, reissued 275 remainder copies.