Poughkeepsie, NY — In the beginning of the twentieth century, Germany forged a vital, multifaceted movement in the arts that encompassed architecture, painting, printmaking, sculpture, poetry, prose, music, theater, and film. This pluralistic modern movement, Expressionism, was visionary and rebelled against the staid constraints of a German Empire society that retreated from the destitute populations crowding into industrialized cities. During these years, the arts became a tool to encourage a freer, fairer, and more spiritual world, and a world where the emotions were integral to life. As Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a key artist from this era, stated, Expressionists wanted to “express inner convictions…with sincerity and spontaneity.”
Prints became a favored medium among German Expressionists, who found that powerful utopian or critical messages could be relayed to numerous audiences through individual sheets, print portfolios, posters, manifestoes, or literary journals (the latter primarily based in Berlin). Religious, moral, social, and political issues were confronted in these prints with an energy and immediacy not seen in the art academies. Even the media they used – woodcut, drypoint, lithography, and etching – were handled in a startlingly more direct manner, often resulting in distorted and exaggerated forms not found in the technically more refined prints of the day. Aggressive and new use of the media became the hallmark of the German Expressionist artist.
The touring exhibition Impassioned Images: German Expressionist Prints, to be seen August 22-October 26, 2008 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, explores the visions of numerous artists who engaged their charged emotions with printmaking. Organized by the Syracuse University Art Collection, Impassioned Images presents fifty woodcuts, lithographs, and etchings by many of the seminal German artists of the early twentieth century, including Kirchner, Käthe Kollwitz, Erich Heckel, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and Wassily Kandinsky. The Expressionist groups Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke, and the post-war trend of Neue Sachlichkeit, are all represented by a range of vigorous works. Impassioned Images will be presented in the art center’s Prints and Drawings Galleries, and this showing is generously supported by the Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Exhibition Fund.
“Expressionist artists confronted their themes and issues head-on with the media they chose. By rendering brittle lines into copper, gouging bold shapes into wood, or drawing quick marks onto plate or stone, they responded in their styles and subjects to a new, fast-paced, and increasingly materialistic age,” said Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. “Through these bold advances, they truly revolutionized the printmaking processes. They were aware of the lauded traditions in German Renaissance printmaking, particularly the virtuosic woodcuts and engravings of Albrecht Dürer early in the sixteenth century. However, Expressionists modernized the print into an immediate, driven, and often harsh statement of the inner life.”
By entering the psychological world of the individual, these artists managed to uncover the tragedy and turmoil of the period, marked by insecurity, loss, as well as by hope. This period extended roughly from the beginning of the twentieth century to the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933.
Over time, Expressionist artists looked as well to non-European cultures, especially in Africa and the South Seas region (which were common travel destinations for many of these artists). Recent European prints were also of interest, especially to the Die Brücke group who looked to woodcuts by Edward Munch, Paul Gauguin, and Félix Vallotton. Many also sought out Japanese woodblock prints with their flat shapes, saturated colors, and jutting diagonals.
Actually, Expressionism was never a cohesive movement; rather, there were various centers of activity. The groups involved were all informed and inspired by the varied artistic, social, political, and natural environments in which they lived. Die Brücke (bridge) was the first of these groups, a community that emerged in 1905 in Dresden and collapsed in 1913 in Berlin. At the beginning, its founders were all fellow students of architecture and included Kirchner, Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Restrained by the historic nature of architecture, however, they ventured into the visual arts and made works based on their freely-recorded feelings and emotions.
They were joined later by Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, and Otto Mueller (whose works are also in Impassioned Images), and others. The Brücke artists were largely self-taught in woodcut, and their woodcuts introduced this modern printmaking renaissance in Germany. With their relatively quick process of carving into wood and printing the inked block by hand, they made prints with simplified lines or stained-glass colors that recorded their raw, bohemian lives unified with their surroundings, all the while defying academic standards of draftsmanship and traditional notions of illustration. Kirchner is represented in the show by Woman, Tying Shoe, for instance, a pulsing woodcut melding a figure to her surroundings, both inside and outside. Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff also contributed profoundly to the development of the woodcut in Die Brücke. Heckel is represented by five woodcuts in the exhibition, while Schmidt-Rottluff’s powerful living line can be observed in two. Pechstein brought his experience as a painter into the group. His woodcut, Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, boasts the kind of highly linear flowing line that boosted the emotional quality of his works.
Above all, Die Brücke consisted of intellectuals who saw academic and mainstream art as superficial and false, and sought its complete renovation. This included a rejection of academic, impressionistic, and realistic styles. These expressionist artists believed that self-expression equaled completeness of life, and therefore, they honored intuition, and spontaneity. Their philosophy was transformed into real life – the Brücke artists came to live together in a communal setting, and they were ruled by both momentary inspirations and the chaos of everyday life.
The group’s major successor, Der Blaue Reiter (blue rider), was formed in Munich in 1911 and lasted until the beginning of World War One in 1914. Its founders included Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and August Macke, and they were joined later by Heinrich Campendonk and others. The movement takes its name from Der Blaue Reiter, an almanac edited by Kandinsky and Marc of new art and music, fostered by the expressions of the “inner wishes” of artists rather than through conventional styles. Cézanne and Matisse were featured, for instance, as were works from Die Brücke and children’s art. In the almanac, Marc spoke of fighting like “wild ones against an old, organized power” and promoted, like Kandinsky, spiritual matters over materialism. The group held exhibitions and wrote manifestoes, and in 1912 Kandinsky’s theoretical work Uber das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art) was published in Munich. At the same time, Kandinsky was making paintings and, to a lesser extent prints, without recognizable subject matter but with visual symbols drawn from his search for a new world of the spiritual rather than the materialistic. Impassioned Images includes four prints by Kandinsky, which demonstrate his lively sense of rhythm between colors, lines, and abstract shapes.
It is interesting to contrast these works with those of Lyonel Feininger, an American artist living in Germany. This artist explored light and structure in unprecedented ways among the Expressionists. Many of his works call forth fragmented, shard-like surfaces with a characteristic fragility and precision. The common ground between Feininger and Kandinsky, then, lies in the search for an understanding of the spiritual essence of all things, which is the underlying goal of the artists from Der Blaue Reiter.
World War One shattered the lives of artists, many of whom volunteered or were drafted. After the war, numerous artists produced prints and print portfolios of their wartime experiences and of the ensuing political turmoil brought on by revolution. Many artists also formed into groups informed by political or utopian programs. The Arbeistrat für Kunst (working council for art) in Berlin, for example, promoted the idea of a democratic art under the aegis of architecture. Interestingly, former Brücke members Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, and Pechstein were on its board. The architect Walter Gropius was on its executive committee, and in 1919 he established the Bauhaus in Weimar, attracting Feininger as faculty, among others, and, later, Kandinsky and Paul Klee. The Arbeitsrat für Kunst would eventually merge with the Novembergruppe (November group), made up of artists who worked in the new contemporary styles. Pechstein was on its executive committee. Both of these organizations and others of the time, including the Bauhaus, were built upon the search for community and creation of a better world—clear Expressionist aims.
German Expressionists continued to make prints in the 1920s and early 1930s, although the movement itself declined due to the devastating economic climate, and the development of new artistic concerns such as photomontage and advertising techniques. However, the social outlook familiar from Expressionism continued in Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity), a new trend that developed with Germany’s WWI defeat and the beginnings of the German Republic. These artists displayed the cynicism that reflected the tragedy of the war, and established an active shift from individual reality and hopes for a new world to a more socially engaged criticism. Rather than searching for new worlds, they sought “fidelity to positive, tangible reality,” and made paintings and prints, often highly detailed, of industrial and street scenes and of portraits. The Neue Sachlichkeit is presented in Impassioned Images by works of Otto Dix and George Grosz, who sometimes adapted the stylistic exaggerations of Expressionism. Grosz captured the chaos of post-war Berlin, a landscape of decay and vices, worthy of his trenchant satire. Dix’s themes were similar, as he was also disillusioned by an existence in a world of disgust, horrors, decadence, and indifference.
Max Beckmann exhibited at the Kunsthalle, Mannheim, in 1925 at a well-known exhibition that featured artists of Neue Sachlichkeit. His art had undergone a major transformation of style due to his front line war experiences (where he met Heckel). His work thereafter became aggressive and severe, tragic in an existential way. Käthe Kollwitz, working in Berlin, was also personally hurt from the war as she lost her son, Peter. She kept fighting against war throughout her life, engaging in radical socialist politics and proletarian themes in her works, as did many postwar artists. Impassioned Images also includes works by Ernst Barlach, Sandor Gergely, and Paul Kleinschmidt.
By 1933, German Expressionist artists were denounced by the new regime of the Third Reich, which promoted a heroic nationalism and naturalistic representation. It was not until many years later, after the Second World War, that German Expressionists’ distinctive and enduring works became accepted again as part of a vital, innovative art movement. Prints were essential to this movement, and they document these artists’ impassioned searches and observations and hopes.
The Syracuse University Art Collection is comprised of over 45,000 objects acquired over the past 130 years. Its primary focus is American art, but exhibitions like Impassioned Images demonstrate the great diversity of the collection. Most of the prints in the exhibition were Syracuse purchases, although several were gifts to the university from the early twentieth-century American printmaker Samuel L. Margolies.
Opening reception and lecture (free and open to the public)
Friday, September 5
Lecture: 6:00pm, by Barbara C. Buenger ‘70, Professor of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie
(845) 437-5632, http://fllac.vassar.edu
About the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building’s primary donor, opened in 1993. The Lehman Loeb Art Center’s collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 17,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college’s inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American twentieth century painters. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar’s extensive collections.
Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free. The art center is open to the public Tuesday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., and Sunday. 1:00-5:00 p.m. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion. The Art Center is wheelchair accessible. For more information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit http://fllac.vassar.edu.