Prague’s breath-taking riverside location on the Vltava with the Hradčany, Charles Bridge and the Old Town never ceases to excite travellers and tourists alike. Prague has also always been considered a city with a life of its own, with winding streets, dark Gothic architecture and haunting ghosts making it a magical place in literature and art. Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980) drew on these and other qualities of the picturesquely situated city in his sixteen Prague landscapes, painted between 1934 and 1938 when he was a refugee in the city and before he emigrated to England. In the 1930s, the city became the hub of emigrants in Europe when the National Socialists seized power in Germany and the political climate in Austria also became increasingly conservative with the rise of Austro-Fascism in 1934. Research often speaks of artists or arts in exile, but how much the artists were really affected by their travel stops is often difficult to assess. Often it was the hardship of political persecution and closing escape corridors that drove the artists from place to place in Europe, without one city in particular sticking in their memory or shaping their artistic practices. Chain migration is the term often used for this. Migration research, which has been enlivened by recent events in art history, is concerned with such cities of arrival, which had a particular influence on the emigrants, but which were often close beforehand through personal relationships.
In June 1908, 22-year-old Oskar Kokoschka was introduced to the public at the Internationale Kunstschau in Vienna. A student at the Academy of Applied Arts, he exhibited the illustrated book The Dreaming Youths, commissioned by the Viennese Workshops a year earlier (Fig. 1). The book was not well received – as the Wiener Zeitung suggested, one ‘could not see anything more ridiculous’ at the exhibition. It would take another year for Kokoschka to manifest his position as enfant terrible of pre-war Austrian art: at the Kunstschau in 1909, he presented Murder, Hope of Women (Fig. 2). An expressionist play based on the struggle for power between male and female archetypes (the conqueror and the femme fatale), the performance caused so much outrage that its creator only narrowly escaped arrest. For all the scandal it caused, the play traced a significant shift in the artistic trajectory of Vienna 1900: moving away from the flowery decadence of art nouveau towards raw expressionism, a new generation of artists challenged the ideals of their predecessors at the dawn of the Great War. Continue reading