Venetian Red in Berlin: To the Expressionists’ House We Go
By LIZ HAGER
Friz Bleyl, Winter, 1905
Woodcut, 17 x 9.9 cms
(Brücke Museum, Berlin)
At the end of a tranquil cul-de-sac on the woodsy fringe of Berlin’s suburban Dahlem district sits Das Brücke Museum, an unassuming, low-slung modernist structure, in which much of the work of the German Expressionists resides. The Museum boasts a collection of more than 400 paintings and sculptures, as well as thousands of prints. One of the benefits of having a body of work this large and varied under one roof is the clarity of perspective it affords relative to the influence of German Expressionists on later movements, particularly the American Abstract Expressionists. What a wonderful paradox that a museum that houses once-radical art is situated in this rather conventional location; in a world in which most museums of modern art are sited in downtown locations, this suburban location is actually anti-conventional.
The first part of the 20th century was characterized by the ascendency of German-speaking artists. After centuries of French domination of the art world, members of the Wiener Secession, Das Brücke, and later Der Blaue Reiter stepped into the spotlight, rebelling against Impressionism and pushing artistic vocabulary toward the abstract. Because the founders of Das Brücke—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Fritz Bleyl—were studying at the technical university in Dresden, the group originally took their aesthetic cues from the Dresden-based expression of the Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau), which staked its artistic legacy on highly-stylized curvilinear forms, mostly floral in origin.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Parterre, Akrobatin, und Clown (Parterre, Acrobat, and Clown), 1909
(Städel Museum, Frankfort)
The Brücke ultimately rejected the traditional notion that lines, objects, and color were tools in the service of the artist’s representation of “reality,” believing instead that these were elements in their own right. For them, objects symbolized ideas and conveyed moods. Not just color, but vigorous line work was critical to the expression of mood. The group’s use of then-unconventional themes—nature-worship, religious ecstasy, nudity as a symbol of the freedom of the soul, exotic and primitive art—enhanced their reputation as avant-garde artists. Nature was a subject the group often tackled, but primarily as a vehicle to express an inner emotion. In their hands, reality was transformed and reduced to its unembellished essential; color became an abstraction, detached from traditional objects and associations.
All of these elements are well-illustrated in Kirchner’s lithograph above: the acrobat and clown have been reduced to a few essential and complementary curvilinear lines; and the flattened red and yellow colors, as well as the poses and accoutrements, evoke an exotic, and exciting, locale.
While best known by the general public for their paintings, the Brücke artists used the woodcut and lithography media extensively. Perhaps their technical training pushed them naturally in this direction, for the print medium certainly allowed them to maintain a close relationship between art and craft in the tradition of the Jugendstil. Interestingly, a large portion of Brücke woodcuts is devoted to advertising the group—cards, posters, and catalogues—belying this connection to the technical, or graphic, arts. The e German Renaissance masters Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grünewald, and Albrecht Dürer were hugely influential on the Brücke and the group was deliberate in its attempt to revive this venerable German tradition.
Like the Impressionists, the Brücke members were smitten by Japanese woodcuts—the Japanese emphasis on line and flat color, as well as oblique compositional angles in their work fit in naturally with their aesthetic beliefs. Nowhere is the the Japanese influence more acutely demonstrated in the collection it seems than in Schmidt-Rottluff’s woodcut above. He has pared down the scene to such an extreme that all color and embellishment has been banished. What remains is the essence of winter, brilliantly evocative in its simplicity.