Vienna at the turn of the century was a feverish capital, the seat of the now unimaginable Hapsburg Empire which incorporated one-eighth of the population of Europe, “a meeting-place of Teuton and Slav.” This melting pot was an intensely creative intellectual center. Unfortunately, by the time-lag that usually occurs in the translation of foreign works into English, many of the writers are but names to us: Peter Altenberg, the most typical Viennese poet yet the most individual; the brilliant architect and theorist Adolf Loos; Karl Kraus, last of the great Viennese critics and editor of his own review The Torch as well as author of satirical poems and plays. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who invented a whole lyric world – at once Baroque, ironic, visionary – is known in the West at least for his libretti for Richard Strauss; while Arthur Schnitzler, author of Anatol and La Ronde is not completely unfamiliar. The musical names resound more comfortably: Hugo Wolf Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg; while all the world knows of the solemn bearded young Doctor Siegmund Freud and of the unknown, unemployed painter who peddled his pallid water-colors in the street and later, much later, became famous as Adolf Hitler.
Oskar Kokoschka (born of a family of goldsmiths in 1886, at Pochlarn on the Danube) came to this exciting atmosphere with all the bright curiosity of his youth and artistic bent, studied at the Arts and Crafts School from 1904, in 1908 showed his first pictures, published his first book, and shortly after created a stir with an expressionistic play. Visits to Munich and Berlin followed, and in the famous Cafe Megalomania in the latter city Kokoschka met Herwath Walden, editor of Der Sturm, who immediately engaged him to supply a weekly drawing of the personalities, mostly literary, of the times. Kokoschka worked steadily through 1910 and most of 1911 at these portrait sketches, from which the ones in these pages are selected to give the range of his style: from the nervous probing of the Schucking drawing through the casual ease of the Loos portrait to the bold brush-strokes of the head of Blümner.