Created over the course of a week in late February 1928, Exodus (Col de Sfa bei Biskra) is one of just five paintings Oskar Kokoschka created during his inaugural trip to North Africa, a long-awaited and much dreamed of voyage that took him away from Europe for almost six months. His travelling companion for much of the journey was Dr. Helmuth Lütjens, founding director of the Amsterdam branch of Paul Cassirer & Co., whom the artist had met in 1925 during a trip to the Netherlands. The pair arrived by boat into Carthage in early January, moving directly on to Tunis, where Kokoschka painted a view of the bustling Bab Souika market place from the roof of a local fruit merchant. After several weeks, they travelled in-land to Tozeur, encountering nomadic tribes along the route, before moving on to Biskra, Algeria, by car. Throughout the trip, Kokoschka was deeply impressed by the epic landscapes he encountered, their sweeping vistas and atmospheric play of light calling to mind scenes from the Old Testament and stoking his imagination.
Every morning between the 22nd and the 29th of February, Kokoschka had himself driven to the Col de Sfa, about eight kilometres north of Biskra, on the edge of the desert. From here, he could see nomadic tribes ‘far away on the plain, moving towards the Atlas, while from all directions other tribes were converging to join them’ (Kokoschka, quoted in S. Keegan, The Eye of God: A Life of Oskar Kokoschka, London, 1999, p. 156). Burning small bundles of newspaper in an effort to keep the clouds of mosquitos away from his eyes, Kokoschka began to paint the panoramic view from the foothills of the Aurès Mountains. Writing home to his family in Vienna, he described the scene: ‘I’m sitting in the desert and painting. I’m being driven back and forth by a car with my stuff. Every now and then caravans come by… They’re slowly pulling along their animals, camels and sheep in the mountains, because in the south, where the real desert is, it is already boiling’ (quoted in J. Winkler and K. Erling, Oskar Kokoschka: Die Gemalde 1906-1929, Salzburg, 1995, p. 141). Similarly, in a letter to his paramour Anna Kallin just a day after embarking upon the present composition, he proclaimed: ‘The landscape is really beautiful. You can see endlessly, lots of little hills’ (ibid.).
With its vivid, warm palette and flickering brushwork, Exodus (Col de Sfa bei Biskra) is filled with the evocative traces of Kokoschka’s experiences on the edge of the desert. The swirling sands stretch out before the viewer, capturing an impression of the endless arid wilderness as it extends towards the horizon. A caravan of people, camels, horses, goats and sheep makes its way along a path that snakes through the undulating landscape, their forms growing larger as they progress towards the artist, and yet still remaining dwarfed by the sheer immensity and expanse of their surroundings. As is typical of Kokoschka’s landscapes of this period, the scene is painted from an elevated viewpoint, accentuating the impression of depth as the eye is drawn towards the distant mountains, while the changeable sky casts a dynamic play of light and shadow across the scene.
Kokoschka’s technique had gradually evolved during his travels through the 1920s, in response to his desire to capture the scenes he encountered quickly, before he was forced to move on. He began to mix turpentine into his oil paints, lending his pigments a new, supple, flowing materiality that allowed him to switch between broad areas of atmospheric colour and passages of concentrated linear, graphic drawing. Here, the canvas is filled with these rippling, fluid strokes of the brush, the North African landscape and its inhabitants demarcated in a sparkling range of tones, from bright violet, burnt orange and scarlet reds, to subtly modulated golds, soft greens and cool blues.
At the end of a week working on the scene, Kokoschka declared Exodus (Col de Sfa bei Biskra) complete: ‘[...] my picture is finished. As good as a Reubens sketch. With an insane line like a Fragonard. And I would be jealous if someone else painted it again. Thank God!’ (ibid.). The painting was consigned to the Kunstsalon Paul Cassirer in Berlin on Kokoschka’s return to Europe, and purchased shortly thereafter by Max Warburg, the director of M. M. Warburg & Co. bank in Hamburg, and his wife Alice. The painting remained with the Warburgs when they emigrated to New York in the late 1930s, and subsequently passed to their son Eric, with whom it remained for a further three decades.