Through these eleven illustrations of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata no. 60, “O Eternity, Thou Word of Thunder,” Oskar Kokoschka attempted to exorcise the pain from his tormented relationship with Alma Mahler, his lover for nearly two tumultuous years. Kokoschka remained infatuated with her, even after she rebuffed his marriage proposal and aborted his child. The pianist Leo Kestenberg, a friend of Kokoschka’s, first played the cantata for him, but Kokoschka insisted it was the libretto, not Bach’s music, that prompted him to make the prints.
Bach’s cantata presents a dialogue between Fear and Hope. In these prints, Kokoschka casts himself in the role of Hope, while Mahler plays Fear. Guided by Fear, Hope sets down a road that leads to his death (although the cantata itself sounds a positive note of divine salvation). Throughout, Kokoschka cites earlier works and weaves in biographical allusions to his relationship with Mahler. The imagery in Drachen über einer Flamme (Dragons over a flame) recalls his attempts to protect the pregnant Mahler from seeing frightening reptiles, while the final print reprises imagery from the poster for his earlier play Mörderer, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, hope of woman). In the penultimate print, Kokoschka depicts himself standing in a grave, an acknowledgement of guilt for the failed relationship. As he later stated, “I am in the grave, slain by own my jealousy.”
In printmaking, Kokoschka preferred lithography for its directness and the rich range of tonal values that he could wrest from the lithographic crayon. He used the power of light and shadow to evoke emotion in these prints.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.