Literary Subjects

Back to all Themes
In part as a reaction to the flood of cheap paperbacks that came onto the market with the rise of mass literacy, many publishers began issuing exquisitely designed and luxuriously produced volumes with texts by classic or contemporary authors and prints by leading artists.
Modern artists in Germany and Austria frequently embraced literary motifs in their works by illustrating texts (which they sometimes wrote themselves) or by making series or portfolios of prints in which an extended narrative could be developed. The Expressionist era also witnessed a flourishing of book publishing.
<i>The Hunt</i> (plate 12) from <i>Verses Without Words</i>

Vasily Kandinsky

The Hunt (plate 12) from Verses Without Words


For Kandinsky, who wanted break down distinctions between the arts, woodcut was the artistic technique closest to lyric poetry, and the material itself sang with expressive potential. In Verses without Words, Kandinsky created evocative images distilled from his longings for Russia. In Klänge, a book he called his "musical album," he paired evocative sounds with reductive black-and-white prints.
<i>Judith Beheads Holofernes</i> (plate, folio 24) from <i>Das Buch Judith</i> (<i>The Book of Judith</i>)

Lovis Corinth

Judith Beheads Holofernes (plate, folio 24) from Das Buch Judith (The Book of Judith)


In this biblical story, Judith saves her people by murdering the despot Holofernes. Corinth heightens the narrative's emotional power and theatricality through his sensuous use of color. In this key scene, he places Judith in front of a blood-red curtain as she raises the blade to commit her heroic act.
Untitled from <i>Die Nibelungen</i> (<i>The Nibelungs</i>)

Carl Otto Czeschka

Untitled from Die Nibelungen (The Nibelungs)


Czeschka's stylized illustrations of the Nibelung saga—from an edition of the story made for Austrian schoolchildren—evoke the elegance and fantasy of a chivalrous past.
<i>Shaw or the Irony</i> (Poster for a Lecture by Egon Friedell)

Egon Schiele

Shaw or the Irony (Poster for a Lecture by Egon Friedell)

1910 (published 1912)


Oskar Kokoschka

Self-Portrait, Hand on Chest

(1911–12, published 1912)

Both of these posters use the artists' self-portraits to promote literary readings in Vienna. Kokoschka casts himself as Christ in an advertisement for his lecture "On the Nature of Visions," while Schiele's scowling face publicizes a lecture by Dr. Egon Friedell.
Drawing for <i>Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen</i> from the periodical <i>Der Sturm</i>

Oskar Kokoschka

Drawing for Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen from the periodical Der Sturm


Just a few months after its scandalous premiere in Vienna, Herwarth Walden published Kokoschka's play Murderer, Hope of Women, with this drawing, in his avant-garde journal Der Sturm (at left). In 1916, Walden published a book edition, including drawings that had originally appeared in Der Sturm (at right). Kokoschka's play dramatized what he saw as the eternal clash between the sexes.

Erich Heckel



In this woodcut, Heckel strips away the narrative—inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov—to focus on an intense standoff between two men. Heckel was a voracious reader of Dostoyevsky's novels, which probed the psychological tensions of the modern experience.
<i>Macbeth V</i>

Wilhelm Lehmbruck

Macbeth V

(1918, posthumously published 1920/21)

Lehmbruck captures the inner turmoil swirling around Macbeth, who is surrounded by skeletal faces and disappointed, attenuated figures that recall Gothic statuary. This print was originally intended for a portfolio of works by German artists honoring Shakespeare after World War I, but was only published later.
<i>The Whip</i> (in-text plate, page 18) from <i>Der Kopf</i> (<i>The Head</i>)

Ernst Barlach

The Whip (in-text plate, page 18) from Der Kopf (The Head)


Barlach depicts the uncontrollable violence of revolution in this illustration for Russian émigré Reinhold von Walter's poem "Petrograd 1918," which was published as Der Kopf. The fractured typeface harmonizes with Barlach's rough image to create a unified design in both text and image.
<i>Melancholia</i> from the periodical <i>Kündung</i>, vol. 1, no. 2 (February 1921)

Karl Opfermann

Melancholia from the periodical Kündung, vol. 1, no. 2 (February 1921)

1921 (executed 1920)

The deliberately crude style of this woodcut complements the unrefined and bombastic tone of August Stramm's Expressionist poem "Schwermut" (Melancholia). Die Kündung, a short-lived periodical published in Hamburg after World War I, gave equal weight to the visual arts and poetry and was particularly notable for its experimental use of typography.
<i>Portrait of Reinhard Piper</i>

Max Beckmann

Portrait of Reinhard Piper

(1920, published c. 1921)


Max Beckmann

The Tall Man from Annual Fair

(1921, published 1922)

In 1924, Beckmann wrote, "Beckmann loves Bach, Pelikan (the ink and oil-paint manufacturer), Piper (the publisher), and two or three other Germans." Reinhard Piper was primarily a publisher of literature and art books, but he also published around 80 prints by Beckmann. Beckmann not only made this portrait, but also included Piper in many other prints. In The Tall Man, Piper appears as a spectator in the bottom-right corner.
<i>Hoffmannesque Scene</i>

Paul Klee

Hoffmannesque Scene


Klee based this fanciful scene on Jacques Offenbach's comic opera Tales of Hoffmann, which staged selections from early 19th-century mystery writer E. T. A. Hoffmann.
1 of 15