Set in a barbaric antiquity, and against the backdrop of two chanting male and female choruses, Oskar Kokoschka’s notorious Expressionist play Mörderer, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, hope of women) dramatizes the eternal clash between the sexes. These illustrations emphasize the violent interactions between the two central figures, whose nude bodies are covered in expressive, netlike patterns of tattoos—at the time, signifiers of primitivism, criminality, and degeneracy.
In one scene, the woman pushes the blade into the man’s chest. The man, whose facial features and shaved head resemble those of Kokoschka himself, nevertheless rises up. In another, he towers over her on the cusp of triumph, with knife in hand, as the chorus looks on.
The play’s single performance at the Kunstschau exhibition in summer 1909 cemented Kokoschka’s reputation as Vienna’s wildest young artist. Shortly thereafter, his friend and supporter Adolf Loos introduced him to important Berlin dealer and publisher Herwarth Walden. Walden began promoting Kokoschka’s work in Germany and printed several of the artist’s drawings in his influential Expressionist periodical, Der Sturm. In 1916, Walden’s Verlag Der Sturm published this illustrated book, combining Kokoschka’s play with reproductions of related drawings (including four that had appeared in the periodical). Kokoschka hand-colored the reproductions in three copies; of these three, two are now in the Museum’s collection. Kokoschka dedicated the edition to Loos.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.