Artists in search of absolute painting


“We call together all young people and — as young people who bear the future — we want to acquire freedom for our hands and lives, against the well-established older forces. Everyone belongs to us who renders in an unfalsified way everything that compels him to be creative.”

— Die Brücke manifesto, 1906

The German Expressionists sought paradise — but found only hell. At the dawn of the 20th century, a generation of idealistic young artists, united by a passionate belief in freedom of expression, strove to capture in their works an arcadian harmony between man and his environment.

When, in 1914, World War I broke out, many went eagerly to the battlefields of northern Europe, thinking the conflict might create the utopian society they dreamed of. One regiment in the German Army was led by noted art historian Walter Konesbach, and was famous for the number of artists in its ranks, including pioneering Expressionist Erich Heckel.

But if the artists went hoping for “a miracle . . . fodder for my art,” as the Weimar-trained painter Max Beckmann wrote to his wife in April 1915, what they met with was disillusionment and death.

All told, the flowering of Expressionism spanned less than a decade — roughly 1906-15 — yet, like the lives of some of its exponents, the achievement of the movement is impressive out of all proportion to its brief duration. This can be appreciated at a comprehensive exhibition of Expressionist works showing at the Fuchu Art Museum until March 9.

What exactly Expressionism was, however, remains hard to define. Unlike the contemporaneous Cubists or Fauvists, Expressionist artists lacked a uniform style, although in their desire to capture a moment on canvas many mixed paint with petroleum to make it easier to spread, and also used spatulas to cover large areas with speed.

The Surrealist Max Ernst, in a 1913 review of an Expressionist exhibition, summarized the movement thus:

“A number of different forces are active in this great movement, Expressionism — forces that do not have any external similarities but the common ‘direction’ of their energy, that is, the endeavor to give expression to something psychological by means of form alone. The aim is absolute painting.”

The first of these “absolute” painters got together in Dresden in 1906. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl were all students at the Saxon Institute of Technology, and all carried a greater devotion to art than to their subject of study, architecture. With Kirchner at the helm they formed a circle which they dubbed Die Brücke (The Bridge); in 1906 came a short manifesto, less a statement of an artistic program than a call to arms.

The four formed a tightly-knit group, working and living together, and making prolonged trips into the countryside, accompanied by their models. Their close-quarters lifestyle produced similarities between their work — and perhaps proved too stifling for other artists, most notably Emil Nolde, who joined Die Brücke early in 1906 only to leave the following year.

Farther south, in Munich, a separate circle was being formed around Russian emigre artists Wassily Kandinsky and Alexei von Jawlensky. The Munich grouping included art historians, dancers and musicians, as well as the composer Arnold Schönberg, and in 1909 these acquaintances formed the Neue Künstler- vereinigung München (New Artists’ Association of Munich).

The NKVM held two successful exhibitions in 1909 and 1910, but as Kandinsky’s work grew increasingly abstract, he became estranged from the group. In 1911 he resigned from the NKVM and with fellow artist Franz Marc he founded the publication Der Blaue Reiter. (The title, The Blue Rider, “just sort of suggested itself” while Marc and Kandinsky were drinking coffee in a summer house, the Russian later recalled. “We both loved blue, Marc liked horses and I liked horsemen.”) The first issue appeared in May 1912.

The so-called Blaue Reiter painters formed a separate strand of German Expressionism, their dedication to programmatic art theory making them in many ways the diametrical opposite of the free-wheeling, artistically unschooled Brücke circle.

Adding further variation were contemporaneous artists unattached to either group — Beckmann and George Grosz, who painted vivid city scenes; the urban utopian August Macke; and the profoundly religious Wilhelm Morgner. All these artists are represented at Fuchu Art Museum.

Across their differing styles and theoretical stances, the Expressionists were bound together chiefly by their longing for Arcadia — a desire that was perhaps part optimism at the beginning of a new century, and part idealism in a society already sliding toward war.

Like Gaugin before them, a number of the Expressionists looked to the “primitive” cultures of the tropics. Showing in Fuchu are two works by Emil Nolde, one of a native family squatting on the ground (1914), and the other a still-life of Burmese idols (1915), and a canvas by Max Pechstein depicting life on the Pacific island of Palau (1917). “Here [in Palau] is true unity between man and nature,” wrote Pechstein, who, like Nolde, lived on the island for several months. “Everything is one, everything is life.”

Others looked for utopia closer to home. For Kirchner, nakedness was one way of asserting a primordial human innocence, and nudes and bathing scenes dominate his artistic output during the prewar years. Otto Müller returned time and again to studies of Gypsies, depicted unclothed and in idyllic arboreal settings.

The most striking embodiment of purity is in the oeuvre of Marc, who for years painted only animals in vibrant, unreal colors. “The ungodly people who surround me (especially the male variety) did not inspire me very much,” he wrote in a letter to his wife, “whereas an animal’s unadulterated awareness of life made me respond with everything that was good in me.” Marc’s glowing works — the large canvas “Cat Under a Tree” (1910), and jewel-like smaller pieces, including “Chameleon” (1913) and one of his celebrated blue horse studies (1913) — are among the highlights of this exhibition.

Then darkness fell. War broke out in 1914. Many of the Expressionists, however, welcomed it as an opportunity to bring about the better world they had so colorfully imagined. “Is there a single person who does not wish this war might happen?” Marc wrote to Kandinsky, adding that it was “the only way of cleaning out the Augean stable of Europe.” Beckmann had remarked as early as 1909 that war “would not be a bad thing.” As Russians, Kandinsky and Jawlensky had to leave Germany, but almost without exception their German peers — young men in the prime of life — departed for the front.

The conflict took its toll on both the artists and their art. Kirchner suffered a breakdown and was discharged. His best years were over, and in the 1920s he resorted to writing pseudo-academic essays in praise of his own works under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle. Pechstein, like Kirchner, suffered a breakdown at the front. Heckel spent his postwar years ineffectually revisiting themes of his prewar output — “The Bather II” (1919), showing here, is a pretty but lifeless reworking of his celebrated 1913 canvas “The Glass Day.”

Many never came back. Macke was killed just a few weeks after being drafted, on Sept. 26, 1914. “His death means that a hand has been cut off a nation’s culture, an eye has been put out,” wrote Marc. “With the loss of his harmony of colors German art will become paler by several shades.” The six works of Macke’s shown here indicate how richly deserved this tribute was. Eighteen months later, Marc himself was dead in the trenches of Verdun. Morgner, whose vivid “Crucifixion’ (1913) is another standout at this show, fell in Flanders in 1917, aged 26.

Expressionism itself was to fall to its enemies some decades later. “It is not the function of art to wallow in dirt for dirt’s sake” was the opinion expressed by one third-rate painter during the 1930s; “never its task to paint the state of decomposition, to draw cretins as the symbol of motherhood, to picture hunchbacked idiots as representative of any strength.”

That failed artist and purblind critic was Adolf Hitler; his regime branded Expressionist art as degenerate. In 1937 alone, 326 works by Pechstein and no less than 1,052 pieces by Nolde were removed from public museums across Germany. Nolde’s work formed the centerpiece of an exhibition of “degenerate art” held later that year for the instruction and amusement of the public. Kirchner was likewise labeled a degenerate. Coupled with his persistent poor health, it was a blow from which he never recovered; on June 15, 1938, the father of Expressionism committed suicide.