In 1909, Austrian writer Karl Kraus published an essay in the Viennese journal he edited, Die Fackel (The torch), on the real-life story of Elsie Sigel, a young white missionary murdered in New York that summer, allegedly by a Chinese waiter. As early as 1910, Kraus asked Oskar Kokoschka to make illustrations for a book edition. Kraus saw Kokoschka as a kindred spirit, someone who also exposed hypocrisy and rejected conventions in his work.
Sigel’s naked, strangled body had been found stuffed in a trunk in an apartment above a Chinese restaurant, along with 2,000 love letters from her and many other upper-class white women who had supposedly been seduced by the waiter suspected of the murder. Sigel had met him in the mission in Chinatown where she worked. The sexual and racial overtones of the events prompted salacious coverage in the press, and these distortions were the real subject of Kraus’s story.
Kokoschka’s prints have little to do with the murder. Instead, the eight lithographs are set in a place far away from New York and show the artist with Alma Mahler, one of fin-de-siècle Vienna’s most extraordinary women. Kokoschka used the commission to work through his unresolved pain over the abortion of their child. After various delays, the book finally appeared in 1914.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.