Like many other Oskar Kokoschka’s works, The Dreaming Youths met with mixed feelings from the public. In the end, it was meant to be a children’s picture book, but its images were penetrated with sensuality and eroticism, too “adult” to be shown to innocent eyes, according to many parents. “Not for children of the Philistines”, commented the art critic Ludwig Hevesi, yet the book was allowed to pass to print, thanks to the striking quality of its color lithographs.
Commissioned from young Kokoschka by the Wiener Werkstatte in 1907, the Dreaming Youths was begun in November 1907 and completed in March/April 1908. At that time, Kokoschka was studying at the Viennese School of Applied Arts, learning the Jugendstil style and looking up to the “Klimt Group” (indeed, the book was dedicated to Klimt “in admiration”). His course included printmaking, bookbinding, typography, and life drawing, for which Oskar studied children from circuses and street urchins.
Drawn rapidly and often in motion, Kokoschka’s sharp-cornered figures are partly inspired by Georges Minne’s sculptures, while the general style draws on Japanese woodcuts, Austrian medieval and folk art (which enjoyed a revival in those years), and Van Gogh‘s painting. Of course, the shadowless outlines and stylized decorations refer to the Jugendstil formation of Kokoschka, but rather than simply dialogue with the contemporary art styles, the lithographs foreshadow the intensity of Expressionism.
Exhibited during the summer show of the Secession, they represented a turning point for the 21-year-old artist. Not only did he make the images, but also dealt with typography and wrote the text, which is a “love poem”, written in prose. Its subject is the adolescent yearning for love, the erotic fantasies, and torments of the age of puberty, a theme complemented rather than explained by the images, in which sexual symbolism abounds (look out for repeating red elements, since red, his favorite color, became his symbol for female sexuality).
Expressive shapes of flowers and exotic trees, humans with outstretched arms or enveloped in draperies, foxes, stags, and fish, are all absorbed in melancholy and express an urgent need for intimacy and love, which as Kokoschka admitted, was a record of his own state of mind:
I was in love with the heroine, the girl Li ‘from the lost bird-forests of the North’, in real life a young Swedish girl called Lilith who attended the Kunstgewerbeschule [Applied Arts School] and wore a red peasant-weave skirt such as people were not used to seeing in Vienna. Red is my favorite color, and the book was my first love letter. But she had already gone out of my life by the time it appeared.
Oskar Kokoschka quoted in Paolo Boggio, The Stained Glass Islands, Analytical Commentary, 2011, Birmingham City University, UK, 12.