About this work
Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.
Written in 1914 by Willy Seidel and later illustrated by Max Pechstein, Yali und sein weißes Weib (Yali and his white wife) is a fantasy about an innocent European woman in a faraway exotic land. Just a baby when her ship had run aground off the coast of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, she alone was spared from being massacred by the Ona tribe, who raised her as their own. Pechstein's eight illustrations locate the story in an undefined tropical paradise of palm trees and coconuts, with nude figures covered only occasionally by loincloths or shells. Although Seidel's novel is ostensibly set in South America, Pechstein based his imagery on the Palau Islands in the South Pacific, to which he had traveled in 1914.
Typical of European depictions of foreign lands at the time, both Seidel's text and Pechstein's illustrations contrast the heroine's "snow white" purity with the animalistic sexuality of her captors. Growing into a tall, blue-eyed blonde, she stands out from the stocky, dark-skinned tribesmen. She flees after Yali, a warrior, tries to have his way with her, and lives harmoniously with nature until she is recaptured and must spend the remainder of her days as Yali's wife.
These illustrations were some of the numerous prints Pechstein made for the Berlin-based dealer and print publisher Wolfgang Gurlitt, who had financed his trip to the Pacific.