The mood of restlessness that defined the turn of the twentieth century helps to explain the force behind an art movement that otherwise defies simple definition. Spanning the first years of the century through the Nazis’ 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition, the German Expressionist movement coincided with not only a seemingly apocalyptic world war, but also the rapid growth of the modern city, which brought with it both spectacle and unease, entertainment and alienation.
“German Expressionism 1900-1930: Masterpieces from the Neue Galerie Collection” (February 7–April 22, 2013), made up of works that form the core of the museum’s collection, seeks to clarify an artistic movement whose influences are as myriad as its legacy is far-reaching.
The exhibition, housed in the third-floor galleries of the small, residence-like museum, is sorted into two groups: the exuberantly chromatic work of Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) artists in one, and the exaggerated realist portraits of the Neue Sachlichket (New Objectivity) artists in the other. While this division is in some ways arbitrary and, in many ways, an over-simplification of this stylistically diverse movement, it allows for a more aesthetically cohesive exhibition. Further, the individual works themselves are truly masterpieces.
The show’s first gallery is also its best: dimly lit with darkly painted walls, the early expressionist works—characterized by a symbolic use of color, dynamic brushwork, and graphic compositions—are really allowed to pop. Die Brücke (The Bridge), founded in Dresden in 1905, is represented here by Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Emile Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The centerpiece of the gallery is a wall featuring three outstanding works by Kirchner: The Russian Dancer Mela (1911), Tightrope Walk (1908–10), and Berlin Street Scene (1913-14). The latter, in particular, with its callous pink street and forlorn figures demonstrates the Expressionists’ sordid vision of modern urbanity. Meanwhile, the mask-like faces in all three point to the Expressionist propensity for the ‘primitive’, a means of rejecting the materialistic modern industrial world. Hermann Max Pechstein’s “Young Woman With Red Fan” is another Die Brücke standout. The work’s jarring reds, yellows and greens, as well as its Japanese motif, highlight the influence of Henri Matisse and French Fauvism, which was developing simultaneously.
Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter and August Macke represent Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in this first gallery. Founded in 1911 in Munich, Der Blaue Reiter preferred nature themes, with a tendency towards abstraction, as opposed to the strictly representational and sexualized urban motifs of Die Brücke. For example, Kandinsky’s Murnau Street with Women (1908) depicts the German village where he his companion Münter bought a villa in the years before World War I. The painting’s yellow road, expressive color, and sweeping brushwork attest to how the vitality of the village inspired Kandinsky to return to the brush after a period working exclusively with the pallet knife.
The work of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter artists is continued in a small gallery down the hall featuring works on paper. Here, visitors will be taken with later, more abstracted works by Kandinsky, such as Red and Blue (1913) executed in watercolor and ink. The First Animal (1913), a gouache and pencil work by Franz Marc is also interesting. A study for a larger work (subsequently destroyed in a fire), this was the first in a series intended for an illustrated Bible, a project doomed by the onset of World War I. The subject matter is typical of Marc—the blue horse, in fact, his trademark—who viewed animals as pure and humans as evil. Watercolors by Paul Klee, such as On the Lawn (1923), and Hermann Max Pechstein, such as Seated Female Nude (1918) impress. An outstanding wall of Kirchner and Heckel woodblock prints of nudes, remind, once again, of the German Expressionist interest in ‘primitive’ art forms.
A large gallery of New Objectivity works—most painted in the 1920s—offers a very different vision of German Expressionism. Although these artists intended their depictions of objective reality to challenge the abstracted, romantic nature of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, their works are expressive, nonetheless. The caricature-like portraits by George Grosz and Otto Dix, such as Dix’s Portrait of the Lawyer Dr. Fritz Glasser (1921) serve to critique the industrialization and imperialism of contemporary Germany. This painting, in particular, with its depiction of a crumbling, vacant city, stereotypical Jewish physiognomy, and a man who sits as if on trial, eerily foretells the fate of Germany and its Jews. Indeed, these portraits’ exaggerated realism cut to the emotion and angst at the core of the German Expressionist movement.
“German Expressionism 1900-1930: Masterpieces from the Neue Galerie Collection” is perhaps best summarized by Max Beckmann’s moody Self-Portrait with Horn (1938). Painted soon after fleeing Berlin for Amsterdam, the artist depicts himself wearing the stripes of a prisoner. His wrinkled face and ambiguous gesture contribute to the melancholy of this work. Like the German Expressionist movement itself, this painting denies easy classification: it fails to fit comfortably within either of the exhibition’s two groups. Still, it conjures up the restlessness that embodied the years of German Expressionism. What’s more, its emotional and compositional directness renders it a true German Expressionist masterpiece that is definitely worth seeing.
“German Expressionism 1900-1930: Masterpieces from the Neue Galerie Collection” is on view at the Neue Galerie in New York February 7–April 22, 2013.
Neue Galerie New York, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY