Carl Otto Czeschka’s eight double-page illustrations to Franz Keim’s abridged version of the Nibelung saga, a mythic tale of royal wealth and betrayal, evoke an elegant and enchanted world. Stylized toy soldiers and chessboard knights, like the ones the artist displayed at the Viennese Kunstschau exhibition in 1908, stand guard or enact epic battles. A Viking ship glides through choppy waters; the luminous geometric ornamentation on its sail epitomizes the Viennese use of lush surface patterning, in which exotic and folk sources were filtered through a distinctively modern aesthetic. The volume appealed to the widespread interest in untutored forms, such as “primitive” and children’s art, as a basis for cultural authenticity and renewal.
Czeschka’s designs elevate the simplified, populist interpretation by Keim, a former teacher and German nationalist. First published in 1909 as part of the thirty-four-volume series Gerlachs Jugendbücherei (Gerlach’s youth library) aimed at Austrian schoolchildren, the tiny, almost square-shaped book serves as a perfect realization of the Gesamtkunstwerk—a total work of art in which all elements follow a single artistic idea. Checkered borders frame every page. The text is set in a modernized blackletter type, suggestive of medieval calligraphy, by the famed Jugendstil artist Otto Eckmann. The Museum’s copy dates to 1920, when the publishers issued a second edition.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.