Breaking Away

The Berlin Secession: Modernism and Its Enemies in Imperial Germany

by Peter Paret
Harvard University Press, 269 pp., $17.50

The secessionist art movements that took place throughout Europe during the 1890s were less a breakthrough in painting than a regrouping of existing art organizations to meet practical needs. In many European cities of that time the old academies with their enormous annual mixed exhibitions were ceasing to work satisfactorily. It was not so much that these had become resistant to new developments—to realism in the 1850s, most notoriously, and to impressionism in 1867 and after—especially when controlled by an absolute ruler like Napoleon III. Nor was the move against the academies always led by the avant-garde. Rather, it seems to have been the sheer size and variety of the late nineteenth-century artistic community that finally burst the academic seams, leading first to the division and subdivision of the French Salon, then to the Wanderers’ breakaway from the St. Petersburg Academy, the formation of the New English Art Club, the establishment of Les XX in Belgium, and the wave of secessions in central Europe.

Most of these new groups sold their pictures well and were almost as eclectic as the old ones; they may have accommodated and furthered impressionism and its successors, but on the whole they cannot be identified with any particular trend. Their exhibitions embraced all that was going on in the post-impressionist period, ranging from Cézanne and Van Gogh at one end to Munch, Sargent, and Toorop at others.

The Berlin Secession, whose history Professor Paret has written, is often associated with the spread of impressionism to Germany and the subsequent beginnings of that country’s expressionist movement. This is partly because Max Liebermann, the group’s chairman from its foundation in 1898 up to the end of 1910—in other words for the whole period of its effectiveness—turned from a form of latter-day realism to a Manet-style impressionism just around the former date; partly also because of various associated moves to bring the new French works to Germany, whether for public galleries like the Berlin National Gallery and the Hagen Folkwang Museum, for individual collectors like Liebermann himself, or for showing in the gallery of his friend Paul Cassirer, the dealer who was also secretary of the secession.

This impressionist connection was due more to the organization and personalities of the new group than to any very original creative talents among its members. Liebermann himself was more impressive as a leader than as a modern painter—something that Paret recognizes when he says that he “never rose above regional significance” as an artist, though later Paret appears to rank Lovis Corinth and Max Slevogt (termed Germany’s “greatest illustrator”) rather higher. Certainly the secession never stimulated so productive a movement in the visual arts as did its opposite number in Vienna with art nouveau, and as a result the reader’s visual imagination is not much engaged.

The rather sparse illustrations in The Berlin Secession bear this out: apart from one drawing of 1906 by Ernst Barlach they are far from exciting. At …

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