|Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, The Wanderer, 1922. Courtesy of Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau and Institut für Kulturaustausch Tübingen. Photo: Jörg Müller.|
In Expressionism there is an undeniable tendency away from the natural, the plausible and the normal towards the primitive, the passionate and the shrill … In its restlessness and its tendency towards the extreme the Expressionist movement seems quintessentially German, rather than simply modernist.
– R S Furness, Expressionism
“Never look away,” says the pleasant young woman in a pistachio green dress to Kurt, a boy of six, as they move hand in hand through the rooms of Dresden’s Schandausstellung during the first year of the Third Reich, 1933 – though in this significant film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck the year is set to 1937 – and when the brilliancy of an abstract little painting by Kandinsky makes them stop in their tracks, away from the smear and the snigger of the guide, aunt Elisabeth becomes a careless whisper: “Don’t tell anyone but I like it.” This was the start of Nazi Germany’s “shaming exhibitions” which would swell into the horrendous Entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) exhibitions a few years later, with its core of genuine German artists who spoke like Zarathustra: “You must have chaos in yourselves to give birth to a dancing star.”
Paul Ferdinand Schmidt was dismissed from his post as the Director of Stadtmuseum Dresden ten years before the National Socialists’ seize of power, for filling the place with a considerable collection of works from the Brücke (Bridge) group and other luminous, knotty artists of the Expressionist movement. Never Look Away (2018) begins with that idiot guide slandering a slightly prismatic painting of a blue horse by Franz Marc who was a founding member of the other major group of Expressionists, the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider). Six hundred and fifty works of art of this kind by one hundred and twelve artists, most of them Expressionists, were selected for the first of several Entartete Kunst exhibitions that would tour the Reich from the summer of 1937.
On July 19, 1937, the new neoclassical propaganda temple Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art) at 1 Prinzregentenstrasse in Munich was inaugurated with another load of animosities from the Aryan soapbox orator Adolf Hitler: “The mass of the people moved through our art exhibitions in a completely uninterested fashion or stayed away altogether. The people’s healthy perceptions recognised that all that canvas smearing was really the outcome of an impudent and unashamed arrogance or of a simply shocking lack of skill. Millions of people felt instinctively that these art stammers of the last few decades were more like the achievements that might have been produced by untalented children from eight to ten years of age and could under no circumstances be regarded as the expression of our own time or of the German future.” This was the end of Expressionism, the avant-garde, spirit, life.
Joseph Goebbels, the clubfooted Minister of Propaganda who had the looks to match a puissant Expressionist portrait, contented himself with Wolfgang Willrich’s book of January 1937 – Cleansing of the German Art Temples: An Art-Political Polemic for the Recovery of German Art in the Spirit of Nordic Style (co-written by the malignant art educator Walter Hansen) – which became the template for the purge surrounding the whole Entartete Kunst circus. By June 30, 1937, the Führer commanded his favourite painter Adolf Ziegler, President of the Reichskammer der bildenden Künste (the Reich Chamber of Culture), to “select and impound works of German art of decline since 1910 currently in the possession of the Reich, the states, and the communes, from the fields of painting and sculpture, for the purposes of an exhibition”.
The Munich exhibition was thus followed through in two rapid weeks. The Great German Art Exhibition, with the official daubers and sculptors of Nazi banality and propaganda (Willrich included), took up the whole ground floor of the German art temple on Prinzregentenstrasse. The show was a public fiasco. As an overture to enter the exhibition of the “degenerates”, the visitors had to climb some deliberately giddy, shaky steps to the Entartete Kunst exhibition which was exactly what twenty thousand visitors did every day for the almost four and a half months that the show(s) lasted. Up here were works of art that at once expressed their time and the funereal course of the German future. During the second part of 1937, Ziegler’s five-man commission confiscated twenty thousand works by fourteen hundred artists; a quarter of these pieces were thrown into a bonfire on March 20, 1939 outside a Berlin fire station.
In Berlin on December 18, 1901, the last of the thirty-two kitsch-baroque statues representing the idols of the German past was uncovered at the beginning of the all new boulevard Siegesallee (at the Platz der Republik). The public found them ridiculous and pompous and on par with their “art expert” sovereign, who made his much famous speech next to a marbled Kaiser Wilhelm I: “The thought fills me with pride and happiness today that Berlin stands before all the world with artists who are able to produce something of such magnificence. It shows that the Berlin School of Sculpture is at a level which even the Renaissance could not possibly have surpassed,” asserted Wilhelm II, Kaiser of the German empire and King of Prussia from 1888 to the end of World War I when he fled the country.
“Only the Germans remain and are above others called upon to guard these great ideals to enable the working and toiling classes, too, to become inspired by the beautiful and to help them liberate themselves from the constraints of their ordinary thoughts and attitudes,” the Kaiser went on. “But when art, as often happens today, shows us only misery, and shows it to us even uglier than misery is anyway, then art commits a sin against the German people. The supreme task of our cultural effort is to foster our ideals. If we are and want to remain a model for other nations, our entire people must share in this effort, and if culture is to fulfil its task completely it must reach down to the lowest levels of the population. That can be done only if art hold out its hand to raise the people up, instead of descending into the gutter.”
The Expressionists went down the slippery slopes of human living. “Art as suffering and redemption, as a metaphysical outcry – this seemed to be the secret of the distortions and alienations of form which were supposedly typical of German art since the Middle Ages,” argues Norbert Wolf in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880–1938: On the Edge of the Abyss of Time. The Expressionists were a motley crew of aberrant painters and printmakers (Expressionism was by and by applied to plays, literature, dance and atonal music). They were extravagant and headstrong – most of them were in their early twenties at the beginning of the movement. Their art came with a plan for unrestraint and aesthetic rebellion against the hidebound institutional society of Wilhelmine Germany and a longing for an idealist counterworld through unlearning and revamping the old creeds.
According to Kirchner, one of the original Brücke members (and one of the greatest names in Expressionism), “A painter paints the appearances of things, not their objective correctness; in fact, he creates new appearances of things.” The Expressionists explored the sound and vision of the inner worlds of their unsnarled souls. They used stark, unmixed colours to paint the forms of internality, the subjective self and the whole human cosmos – they were well aware of other dimensions of reality – as Ludwig Meidner put it, “Paint your grief, your entire insanity and sanity out of the whole of your being.”
The Expressionists were for the colourful, the pitchy, the gleeful and the dolorous, instincts, sexual desires, distortions and hyperbole, the writings of Nietzsche, a nostalgia for a Golden Age, a paradise fraught with discrepancies, utopianism, exoticizing fancies about cultures and people of distant (fantasy) lands, the primitivist, the tribal, the late Middle Ages, metropolitan life, the unsullied authentic, internality and bodily merriments, dance, coitus, skinny dipping, new forms, Jugendstil, collaborations, over-excitedness, Arts and Crafts and principles before the industrial revolution, the body and the psyche, Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, the Isenheim Altarpiece, essences, Romanticism, variety shows, vaudeville, the grotesque, circus freaks and the lowly.
This purely domestic modernist movement came to fruition between Scylla and Charybdis, between Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler: “The era of German Expressionism was finally extinguished by the Nazi dictatorship in 1933. But its most incandescent phase of 1910–1920 left a legacy that has caused reverberations ever since. It was a period of intellectual adventure, passionate idealism, and deep yearnings for spiritual renewal. Increasingly, as some artists recognised the political danger of Expressionism’s characteristic inwardness, they became more committed to exploring its potential for political engagement or wider social reform. But utopian aspirations and the high stakes involved in ascribing a redemptive function to art, meant that Expressionism also bore an immense potential for despair, disillusionment and atrophy,” clarifies Ashley Bassey in Expressionism.
“As far as French art is concerned, the light definitely comes to us today from Germany. Not a day passes without an exhibition of a new French artist opening in Berlin, Munich, Düsseldorf or Cologne,” wrote the great Parisian critic and poet Apollinaire in Paris-Journal on July 3, 1914, and he did not overstate it. “Unadmitted envy of the world capital of art, Paris, certainly played a role here, since all of the revolutionary decisions that shaped modern art had been taken in France,” argues Norbert Wolf in his book on Kirchner. “Nowhere were these currents registered more enthusiastically than in the officially so philistine Wilhelmine Germany. Prior to the First World War, liberal museum directors, progressive art historians, open-minded collectors and dealers had ensued that imperial salon painting would not have a monopoly on setting the tone, and encouraged that very ‘gutter art’ the powers-that-be despised.”
The remarkable Sonderbund exhibition of 1912 presented more of the French modernists than anywhere in France: twenty-six works by Cézanne, twenty-five by Gauguin and sixteen by Picasso – and a whopping one hundred and twenty-five works by the finally-appreciated van Gogh, and thirty-six by the exhibition’s honouree Edvard Munch (who had received much of his art training in Paris). In a letter to a friend, Munch rejoiced that “There is a collection here of all the wildest paintings in Europe. Cologne Cathedral is shaking to its very foundations.” When the works of these foreign Post-Impressionists were gathered together under the umbrella term “Expressionism” in the early 1910s, true Expressionism was already being created by a group of Germans “of a particularly sensitive, even slightly neurotic, perception of the world, which went beyond mere appearances” (Bassey).
There were no church bells for Munch in 1892, however, when Galerie Verein Berliner Künstler (Union of Berlin Artists) presented the Norwegian artist’s new painting Kiss by the Window and many other of his works – the “scandalous” show was annulled within a week. The wealthy artist Max Liebermann (who later operated on the fringes of Expressionism) founded the Berlin Secession as an immediate response to the Munch debacle and the Verein’s obsolete tastes in art. The Secession exhibited everything else than Wilhelmine art but did worse in presenting something original. After a great row in 1910 when Liebermann’s jury symbolically rejected the Brücke group, Max Pechstein set up their own New Secession.
“My aim is to always get hold of the magic of reality and to transfer this reality into painting – to make the invisible visible through reality. It may sound paradoxical, but it is, in fact, reality which forms the mystery of our existence,” explained Max Beckmann in On My Painting (written in exile in Amsterdam in 1938). “Imagination is perhaps the most decisive characteristic of mankind. My dream is the imagination of space – to change the optical impression of the world of objects by a transcendental arithmetic progression of the inner being. That is the precept.” van Gogh had already achieved this. The first time the Dutch outsider was shown in Germany was at Galerie Ernst Arnold in Dresden in 1905. Here, this very year, four involuntary architecture students who wanted to be bohemian artists decided to form the Brücke – swept off as they were by van Gogh, youthful ideas and Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “I love the great despisers for they are the great venerators and arrows of longing for the other shore.”
Nietzsche’s in the air at the beautiful Millesgården (it is specially a ravishing place in the summertime), an art museum and a sculpture garden on the Lindingö island in Stockholm, and what is shown in the gallery from our millennium is one hundred and thirty-four works (mostly paintings and prints) from 1905 to 1938 by nineteen of the most celebrated Expressionists, sampled from the Häuptli Collection at the Aargauer Kunsthaus in Switzerland and the Collection of the Osthaus Museum Hagen in Germany.
Millesgården is the former home and workplace of Carl Milles, the Swedish sculptor famous for his monumental outdoor pieces, who – and how ironical isn’t this? – detested modern art and particularly the “freakshow” that he experienced upstairs at the historical Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich in 1937. On September 12, Milles wrote to his wife: “We have seen two large exhibitions today. Modern art in a wonderful new art palace, things that the regime allows and then what they do not allow […] I find that they do a great work here when they show this horrible collection.”
One only has to lay one’s eyes on a delight such as Walther Bötticher’s Red Cabbage (1907) in Millesgården’s Back to Paradise show to note that a lot of people are totally wrong. This marvellous oil painting, created by small strokes of greens, blues, yellow, ochre and purple, has an early 20th-century vibrancy of a pretty unruffled commotion – the painter’s nervous system laid bare on a plot of soil. Bötticher painted his jittered vegetables before he joined the Brücke in Berlin, the group from Dresden that agreed on a name lifted from a Nietzschean one-liner: “What is great in man is that he is a bridge with no end.”
The motto for the Technische Universität Dresden still is Wissen schafft Brücken, Knowledge Builds Bridges. In his “Chronik der Brücke” (written in 1913), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner acknowledged that the Saxony capital “yielded much inspiration through its scenic charm and old culture”. He and his friends Fritz Bleyl (not included in the Back to Paradise show), Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff founded the Brücke on June 7, 1905 with a shared idea of creating an art free from academe and restraints, and a desire to accomplish and refine a bohemian modus vivendi full of song, dance, sex (following the words of Zarathustra: “The day is lost on which you have not danced at least once”). A cluster of works in the show are with naked people romping and playing in the water with the very present nature all around them, like in Kirchner’s Bathers (Fehmarn), painted on the island in the summer of 1912 in a roughhewn style not unlike a woodcut, and Otto Mueller’s (who joined the Brücke in 1910) intimate, almost masklike Bathers (1920). In the summers of 1909, 1910 and 1911, the gang travelled to the lakes around the Moritzburg Castle to paint their female entourage in an aquatic Garden of Eden.
The shared artistic life between the members of the Brücke began in the garret of Heckel’s parental home where they learned to control the “courageous” lines of life-drawing – in sessions that would never last more than fifteen minutes at a time – using models unaccustomed to posing, who were asked to assume all sorts of bungling positions to enable these novel artists to capture the quintessence of daily life through human bodies. In September 1906, Heckel advanced as the Brücke’s supervisor in their own house at 65 Berliner Strasse near the Dresden Hauptbahnhof. They filled the place with their own designs, their wall and furnishing paintings were bursting with motifs of exotica and carnal knowledge.
Max Pechstein joined the Brücke in the spring of 1906. In his memoirs (which came out five years after his death), Pechstein described how delighted they were “to discover a complete consonance in our urge for liberation, for an art that stormed forwards unconstrained by convention”. When the Brücke published their woodcut manifesto in 1906, it was addressed to a “new generation of born creators and lovers of art”. The manifesto belonged to the first of seven portfolios published each year for their members and patrons, each with three prints and an artist-made front design.
“The technical procedures doubtless release energies in the artist that remain unused in the much more lightweight processes of drawing or painting,” Kirchner enthused. “There is no better place to get to know an artist than in his graphic work.” The raw effrontery of the woodcut, with lively aberrant colours added to the compositions, made it the perfect medium for the Expressionists. Emil Nolde was the ardent Nazi fool who – and how ironical isn’t this again? – became the most castigated artist in the Third Reich. During Nolde’s temporary stay with the Brücke in 1906–07 he taught them how to make etchings. The members produced these pieces with a deliberately obnoxious lack of traditional sophistication and bravura.
Starr Figura curated the important German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse show at MoMA in 2011. In the catalogue she argues that, “This effort to bring forth the distinct expressive potential of each printmaking technique was arguably the most revolutionary of the Brücke artists’ innovations, and it reflects a patently modern point of view. Printmaking was historically tied to craft traditions, and by the 19th century was associated with technical exactitude, faithful reproduction, and uniformity from one impression to the next in any given edition. Brücke overthrew all of this, approaching printmaking as a creative rather than a reproductive technique. Their search for what is most distinctive or immediate about a particular technique goes hand in hand with the larger Expressionist goal of conveying the immediacy or urgency of a particular subject.”
“Before the late 19th century, the graphic arts – one of the most glorious artistic traditions in Germany, going back to the prints and drawings of Albrecht Dürer and other Renaissance masters in the 15th century – had become a marginal genre there,” writes Starr Figura. “Printmaking, too, engendered a sense of experimental freedom. For the impecunious young artists, it was a less expensive way of producing work and developing their craft than painting, and, like drawing, offered an immediacy and intimacy that painting could not. Working collectively, the artists shared technical information associated with the various printmaking mediums. Their embrace of printmaking as an avant-garde practice ushered in a new era in the history of the medium and would have a significant influence on the next two decades of German art.”
Galerie Ernst Arnold in Dresden supported the Brücke with some favourable outcome. For the first exhibition at Arnold with Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff and Pechstein in 1910, a woodcut rendering was produced of each of the paintings by one of the fellow artists for a thirty-eight-page catalogue, this was a very new thing. Max Pechstein presented his Lying Girl in 1910, a painting of a young woman in a Breton sweater, a blue skirt and black stockings – so far so rather normal – but her jaundiced face is a scream in yellow and red signal colours and she is reclining on a bed of hot lava. What an excellent day for an exorcism of the mellifluous naturalism of Mary Cassatt’s Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878).
Pechstein was one of several Expressionists who travelled to a small South Sea island before World War I, in his case Palau east of the Philippines in 1914. In Manila on March 28, 1915, he wrote: “I have been expelled from paradise and am now sitting in the hell of idle waiting, a scattered grain of sand in the universe.” The tropical painting In the Canoe (Outrigger) (1917) is a recollection of this paradise with three dark-skinned natives in a catamaran speeding towards the hot lava-coloured horizon. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner claimed to be the original artist to unite the fanciful elements of Oceanian and African cultures with his own art (he even maintained that Edvard Munch had imitated his style). “Although Kirchner’s work is nowadays undisputedly regarded as the most significant and influential contribution to the Brücke, he developed an almost obsessive urge in later years to emphasise the uniqueness of his own work and his own dominant position,” writes Dietmar Elger in his book Expressionism:
“In retrospect, the early Brücke years were seen quite differently by Kirchner. He believed that during that time, when the artists had developed their own style mainly by working together and influencing each other, they merely benefitted from his own ideas, which they then managed to market in a profitable way. In his Davos diaries and letters, he attempted to play down the significance of the Brücke years for his own artistic development and even deny it. In 1924, after reading and correcting the manuscript of Will Groham’s book [Das Werk Ernst Ludwig Kirchners (1926)], he added a note: ‘That Brücke episode must be taken out again. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. After all, it’s not even related to my work.’”
Kirchner was Kirchner and the painting of himself as the lonely, crummy The Wanderer (1922) on a bridge with no end in the Alps could very well be the work that defines the darker existentialism of Back to Paradise – he is not exactly the Wanderer of Caspar David Friedrich’s, rather a “bundle of distorted limbs,” as Victor Hugo described his hunchback Quasimodo – however, for those who want to go directly to paradise without much of the angsty ruffle there is a host of prewar paintings such as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s Arcadian bonbon Boats in the Water (Boats in the Harbour) from 1913. Kirchner never recovered from the nervous breakdown he suffered in 1915, after a short time as an artillery driver in World War I, and lived the rest of his life addicted to drugs. He shot himself in 1938.
Numerous from the avant-garde commended the war, and many of the Expressionists enlisted as long as the exhilaration lasted. Max Beckmann, for instance, wrote this to his wife in 1914 when he served as a nurse in East Prussia: “Outside there was that wonderful, magnificent noise of battle. I went outside, through large groups of injured and worn-out soldiers coming back from the battlefield, and I could hear this strange, weirdly magnificent music.” Like so many others who outlived the war, Beckmann had a mental collapse and was discharged. After three years on the Eastern Theatre, Schmidt-Rottluff came back so shell-shocked that he had to kiss his painting goodbye. The War that was said to End All Wars was a catharsis on what was left of the Expressionists’ young selves.
“The spiritual element in Expressionism, its speculative nature, had been there from the start, but it was only now that a public dissatisfied with the war seemed to suddenly discover it,” explains Joan Weinstein in The End of Expressionism: Art and the November Revolution in Germany, 1918–19. “High profits in the armament industry and few available consumer goods led to a boom in the art market. As prices for older art became prohibitive, it opened a market for modern art, which also benefitted from tax laws favouring living artists. Many of Expressionism’s patrons now came from the newer industrial and financial sectors and often held reformist political and social views.”
There was so much Expressionism visible after the war that one reviewer grumbled, “Now it’s Heckeling and Kirchnering from every wall.” The Weimar Republic provided the “Kandinskying” of the Blaue Reiter as well. Wassily Kandinsky was thirty years old when he just left a future career as an academic lawyer in Moscow (and rejected a profession at the University of Dorpat in Estonia) and moved to Munich in 1896 to become an artist. He settled in the Schwabing area where “Everyone painted […] or wrote poetry or made music, or began to dance. You could find at least two ateliers under the roof in every house, where sometimes not exactly very much was painted, but a lot was always debated, disputed, philosophised and conscientiously drunk (which depended more on the state of one’s purse than on the state of one’s morals).”
Kandinsky appeared as the great strategian among the bohemians of Schwabing – these people knew about the art of Paris better than everyone else in Germany but their aim was something else – and collaborated and exhibited with many of the artists in the city until he and his woman, the artist Gabriele Münter, embarked on a five-year journey across Europe (and Tunisia) in 1903. There is a great little painting in Back to Paradise by Münter – Landscape with White Wall (1910) – in which the colours are separated in blocks to build the motif. Unfortunately, there are only two etchings by the genius Kandinsky – Small Worlds X and XII (both 1912) – spatial microworlds of shapes and figures swirling into geometrical forms, which in 1913 would turn wholly abstract.
His art was a forceful argument to reinstall the “what” in art. “This ‘what’ is the eternal truth embraced by art and which only art can express by means essentially its own,” Kandinsky argued in his famous Concerning the Spiritual in Art (published in 1911), his call for cosmological and spiritual concerns: “The solitary seekers, the hungry of soul, the visionaries are derided or dubbed as spiritually abnormal. Those are souls, however, who refuse to be lulled into lethargy and forever yearn, however vaguely, for spiritual life, advancement, and knowledge, sound disconsolate and lamentful amidst the coarse materialistic chorus of spiritual darkness.”
The Blaue Reiter was more of a coterie of friends than a group like the Brücke. It was founded in 1911 by Kandinsky and his younger companion Franz Marc who loved horses since his days in the military and who had only recently found a style as an artist that wasn’t retrospective. Small Composition III (1913–14), his painting in the Millesgården show, is surely influenced by his meeting with Robert Delaunay in Paris in the autumn of 1912. Delaunay’s new direction in painting was called Orphism and involved geometry, vibrant colours and sheer abstraction. Marc travelled to Delaunay’s studio in the company of August Macke, who seems to have collected Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin, Street (1913) (not included in the show) of two fancy prostitutes on a pink sidewalk full of furtive Herren and painted it through a cut diamond for his own Bright Women in Front of the Hat Shop (1913). (The translation of the title in the catalogue is faulty.)
“The laws of perspective, faithfulness to anatomy, natural appearances and colours counted for little or nothing; distortion and exaggeration became an equivalent for rendering the material world transparent to the psyche,” writes Norbert Wolf in Expressionism. “Their search for metaphysical foundations or cosmological orders, utopian designs and elementary realms beyond history from which they hoped for a rebirth of unadulterated creativity, the Expressionists developed many an idea that originated in German Romanticism.” When Macke declared that a composition “must transpire out of a source still hidden from us today, full of joy, full of sorrow, powerful, thoughtful, full of farts”, his stance was part Blaue Reiter, part Brücke. Macke was only twenty-six when he painted his last work during the second month of World War I. It is called Farewell.
A planned illustrated folio version of the Holy Writ was postponed due to the war and definitely cancelled with Franz Marc’s death at Verdun in 1916 (he was thirty-six). Four years earlier, he and Kandinsky published the Blaue Reiter Almanac. “The volume is like a cabinet of curiosities, a trove of images combined in ways that are suggestive of unexpected relationships,” writes Ashley Bassey who calls it “the most important single document of prewar Expressionism”: “On one level it is a kind of sourcebook for artists of texts and images. However, taken as a whole, it can be read as an entire argument for a radical revision of art and how we look at it.”
Germany officially lost the Great War after a settlement that was reached in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles on June 28, 1919 in less than an hour. At daybreak on November 9 the year before, zealous workers and soldiers joined forces and breezed Berlin’s jurisdictions and public buildings. They and their red flags did not encounter any resistance. The same day the Weimar Republic was declared by the leader of the social Democratic Party, Philipp Scheidemann. Pechstein, who now was part of the November Group which had been formed by Expressionists during the short-lived political eagerness following the outset of the revolution, made a handbill statement with the heading “What We Wish”: “We are as rich in inspiration, readiness to sacrifice, belief in our people, as we are poor in possessions. Let the socialist republic give us trust, we have freedom, and out of the dry earth flowers will bloom in its honour.”
The Expressionists’ sudden interest in politics stemmed from this gullible conception that the Socialist State would finally be the Eden that would provide them with complete artistic freedom and that art would be everywhere in society. (This is an example of a letter between these artists in the early days of 1919: “News from Russia has finally arrived. Moscow is said to be flooded with Expressionism. They say Kandinsky and the moderns are splashing whole quarters with colour, using blank walls and the sides of houses as the surfaces on which to paint modern pictures.”) In Munich, the Bavarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed. However, when the independent Social Democratic Party called for a general strike in the spring of 1919, the dream of a republic within the republic was squashed with such a level of barbarity that one thousand people lost their lives. Springtime for Hitler.
“Under such conditions, Expressionism withered: as an art and a lifestyle,” notes Starr Figura in the MoMA catalogue. “It was too dependent on an optimistic vitality that could not withstand the combined shocks of wartime and post-revolutionary trauma. Its demise was caused in part by being outflanked by other artistic movements that proclaimed very different styles of aesthetic and political radicalism, most notably Dada.” A hundred flowers bloomed while hundreds of millions of human lives were extinguished in the Socialist utopias. What happened to Herwarth Walden – one of Expressionism’s greatest supporters as the publisher of the avant-garde magazine Der Sturm (The Storm) and, from 1912, also proprietor of Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin – was emblematic of what happened to the avant-garde when it was swept away by its Stalinist ravings. Walden went to Moscow in 1933 to teach but perished in a gulag during World War II for talking about the art that he lived for.
It is true that the Expressionists lent themselves to the primitive, the passionate and the shrill – August Macke once confessed to colleagues that maybe what they did was “too big for what they wanted to say” – and that their “gutter” art gave birth to dancing stars, years after Nietzsche and Zarathustra: “Life must overcome itself again and again. Life wants to build itself up into the heights with pillars and steps; it wants to look into vast distances and out toward stirring beauties: therefore, it requires height. And because it requires height, it requires steps and contradiction among the steps and the climbers. Life wants to climb and to overcome itself climbing.”
Bassey: “Among the ideas that proved most alluring for artists were his diagnoses of the decadence of contemporary culture and his exaltation of creativity as a force pregnant with the potential for vital salvation. He championed instinct over morality. His writings proffered the idea that they were superior men who could rise above the crowd. His vitalism and ecstatic ‘Dionysian’ affirmation of life, which embraced extremes of both joy and pain, fuelled Expressionism’s passion, while his damning indictment of conventional morality urged on its rebellion.”
It is rather appropriate that you have to cross a bridge to reach this tiptop show at Millesgården, but the title’s promise of a return to Paradise is a bit of a hit or miss due to these poles of joy and pain that nurtured and inflamed the Expressionists’ art. Two more paintings and a linocut: Erich Heckel’s Woods by the Sea (1913) is a paradise tainted by conflict skies and a water void of yesteryear’s merry bathers. Three years later he painted Spring in Flanders as if this new reality with a lonesome wanderer moving through a landscape laid waste by war could only be processed in the style of a theatre backdrop. Christian Rohlfs’s wide-format print The Fallen One (1913) is an eternal picture of man expelled from Paradise or just the glory of life. He could be a man in Pompeii 79 AD or the artist himself or a Swedish gentleman of today entangled in the hole of the tarantula.
Don’t look away. Never look away. All that is true is beautiful.
|Christian Rohlfs, Fallen Man, 1913–14.|
Back to Paradise: Masterpieces of Expressionism from the Aargauer Kunsthaus and the Osthaus Museum Hagen at Millesgården in Stockholm through June 9, 2019.
This essay/review is for Kevin Wright, Stephen Ferber, Ronny Svensson and brothers everywhere.