by Roderick Conway Morris

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Art and Society

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 25 October 1997
Brücke-Museum, Berlin
Berlin Street Scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1913-14



The end of the last century and the beginning of the current one was a time of unprecedented ferment in the visual arts in the German-speaking world and the period in which some of its most talented painters and sculptors finally broke free from Paris's all-pervasive influence, establishing themselves as a independent force in the overall development of 20th-century art.

It is not the least of the achievements of 'German Expressionism: Art and Society,' at Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal (until Jan. 11), that it succeeds in conveying some of the optimism and vibrancy of the era, as well as the disillusionment and bitterness, familiar from the works of Otto Dix and George Grosz, that came in the wake of war, failed revolution and dashed hopes. With about 250 works by 24 artists from 50 museums and collections in seven countries, the show provides as comprehensive an overview as one is likely to see.

Nineteenth-century Germany and Austria witnessed a proliferation of art societies and clubs, and during the last years of the century, the phenomenon of the Secessions, when groups of like-minded artists in Berlin, Munich, Vienna and elsewhere abandoned existing academies and societies to set up alternative ones (sometimes in due course to secede from the Secessions). This was the culture in which the Expressionists came into being, where even avant-garde movements formed themselves into recognizable clubs.

The two most notable to emerge were Die Bruecke (The Bridge) in Dresden in 1905, established by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel and Fritz Bleyl, and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), founded in Munich in 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc.

The artists of both coteries, which attracted further members, originally took an intense interest in nature and landscape. Though committed to reforming art and society, in their early days they seemed more Arcadian dreamers than angry young men. As Max Pechstein, an early recruit to Die Bruecke, recalled their half boy-scout, half bohemian ethos: 'We painter folk set out early every morning heavily laden with our gear, the models trailing behind with pockets full of eatables and drinkables. We lived in absolute harmony, working and bathing.'

Van Gogh, Gauguin and the Fauvists exercised a powerful grip on the minds and palettes of the young artists, as did African and Oceanic arts, but it was the path indicated by Edvard Munch, more than any other single painter, that many of them followed. While Kandinsky veered toward abstraction, however, the Bruecke group remained resolutely figurative.

The core members of Die Bruecke migrated between 1908 and 1911 to Berlin, a move that not only won them a wider public but also radically affected the kind of work they produced. The city's bright lights, teeming streets, stark juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, cafés, cabarets, prostitutes, and cosmopolitan ebb and flow, for Kirchner marked a high point in his experience of 'the ecstasy of seeing things for the first time.' His method of sketching on the spot, to capture the essence of the composition and discover innovative modes of expression to be transferred later onto canvas, was ideally suited to the restless, sexually charged spectacle he encountered.

Berlin life also proved a fruitful subject for Kirchner's lithographs and woodcuts, the latter forming a traditional German medium that he and his fellow Expressionists did much to revive.

Most of the Expressionists were caught up in the nationalistic fever that preceded World War I, perhaps the victims of a mass delusion and of imperial propaganda. So most of them willingly enlisted for military or medical duties (while the Russians, Kandinsky and Alexei von Jawlensky, as enemy aliens were forced to leave the country). August Macke was killed during the first weeks of the conflict, Franz Marc died at Verdun in 1916, and others were wounded.

The ghastliness of the war was unflinchingly recorded in engravings by Max Beckmann and Dix. Much later, Dix said: 'The war was a horrible thing, but there was something tremendous about it, too. I didn't want to miss it at any price.' Beckmann and Kirchner suffered mental and physical breakdowns while serving in the army. Kirchner retired to Switzerland in 1917, where, despite chronic ill health, he painted some bold, strangely tranquil mountain landscapes (represented in the show) before his suicide in 1938.

By 1920, critics were cheerfully pronouncing Expressionism dead, not least because of the eager adoption of its striking use of line and color by graphic designers and advertisers. The would-be painter Adolf Hitler nurtured a strong aversion to Expressionism, along with everything else that did not conform to his taste for the literal and kitsch, and many works were confiscated and destroyed by the Nazis.

Fortunately, enough of the best has survived to stand alone - the products, to paraphrase the words of a German critic, Paul Westheim, writing in the '20s, of much more than a mere school, more than a mere tendency.

German Expressionism: Art and Society; Palazzo Grassi, Venice; September 1997 - January 1998

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023