Under the opposing forces of the sun and moon, a flayed, blood-red man collapses into the arms of a ghastly pale woman. In this poster advertising the premiere of his play Mörderer, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, hope of women), Kokoschka manipulates the Christian iconography of the Pietà, which traditionally shows a mother cradling her dead son. Hung all over the city, the poster, with its graphic imagery, announced the brutal and bizarre events of the drama, which stages an epic, bloody battle between the sexes. Kokoschka’s deliberately crude lettering reinforces the barbarity of the events. As the poster suggests, the woman at first seems to slay the man, but in the end he emerges victorious.
The play befuddled, amused, and offended the audience of its single performance on July 5, 1909, at the Kunstschau exhibition in Vienna, a venue otherwise filled with exquisitely refined designs by contemporary European artists. Kokoschka later reminisced, “If the term Expressionism has any meaning, then this is its earliest manifestation.”
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.