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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 the same time, however, they provide evidence of the author’s unique qualifications to write this book, since they are all from his own collection and he is in fact Cassirer’s grandson as well as a well-known historian. He thus knows very well the artistic characters and limitations of the people he is dealing with, yet is able to stand back from them and see the secession not just as an artists’ organization of rather specialized interest but as an often fascinating clue to that much wider subject, William II’s Germany.

For if on the surface the secession was essentially a quarrel with the bourgeois art establishment, led by one of that establishment’s pillars, it none the less developed into a focus for those underground forces which would in due course help to throw the establishment down. More than any of the analogous bodies in other countries, the Berlin Secession was from the outset a center of cultural-political conflict, antagonizing first the anti-Semites and the nationalists (who feared the corrupting influence of French art) and then the emperor himself, who felt that he was divinely appointed to be an arbiter as well as a patron of the arts.

If only William had had the indifference to the arts of Britain’s royal family—an indifference for which artists should learn to be thankful—or if Liebermann, Cassirer, and the critic Julius Meier-Graefe had been nice blond Aryans, or if Prussia after 1871 had been less narrowly chauvinistic, then the secession could have been accepted as the highly respectable exhibiting body it set out to be, for it was never aesthetically outrageous. But as things were, to quote Professor Paret’s words, “it was not so much the comprehensiveness of the opposition to modernism as the exceptional intensity and recklessness of what opposition there was that constitutes the truly significant historical force in the Wilhelmine era.” Even at that stage the Germans were showing their preference for those sharp, clear-cut antagonisms which would force all concerned to take a stand.

There have been one or two short studies of the Berlin Secession in German, as well as the big catalogue of the Max Liebermann exhibition that was held in Berlin and Munich just over a year ago. But Paret’s book is more authoritative, being based not only on the papers of Cassirer and others now held at Stanford but also on the state archives in East Germany, not to mention a wide range of the secession’s own publications, newspaper and magazine reports, and personal diaries or memoirs. It deals in some detail with the group’s origins, with the introduction to Germany of French impressionism by collectors like Carl Bernstein (a cousin of Charles Ephrussi of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts), dealers like Cassirer and, before him, Fritz Gurlitt, not to mention Hugo von Tschudi of the National Gallery, who went to Paris with Liebermann soon after his appointment in 1896. (Liebermann’s own collection contained at one time seventeen works by Manet and seven by Degas, among them the friezelike picture of stooping dancers now in the Cleveland Museum.)

Paret discusses the major controversies, both internal (as when Nolde was expelled from the secession and Liebermann resigned the chair) and external (a long chapter is devoted to the choice of German artists for the St. Louis International Exposition of 1904). He traces the emergence of the expressionists from 1903 on, when graphics by Nolde and Kandinsky were first accepted and shown, and ends with an account—almost a postscript—of Cassirer’s two World War I magazines: the pro-war Kriegszeit which from 1914 to 1916 published lithographs of the front, together with its more pacifist successor Der Bildermann.

Much of this sometimes draggingly detailed work will remain invaluable for reference. The real interest of the book, however, lies in its handling of the major tensions which these otherwise innocuous people unwittingly set off. Part of the trouble here was the narrow nationalism of a newly united and militarily successful country, aggravated and intensified by traditional anti-Semitism; part the undue respect paid by many ordinary Germans to even the most mediocre authority. The extent of the emperor’s interventions in art was, by modern standards, almost unbelievable. Paret shows him deciding who will sit on exhibition juries or be appointed to the Academy, what pictures the National Gallery can and cannot buy, and who shall and shall not (e.g., Käthe Kollwitz) get the official medal awards; even overriding his own commissioner’s decision to let the secessionists share in the St. Louis exhibit.

All this looks not only backward to Napoleon III but also forward to Hitler; for William emerges as more than a mere upholder of the “eternal laws” of art, being at the same time concerned to satisfy the commonsense aesthetic tastes of the ordinary man. Though this aroused opposition, there were reputable artists who were prepared to accept his leadership in such matters: thus Count Leopold von Kalckreuth, though by conviction a secessionist, actually apologized to him for sending a picture to the Paris International Exhibition of 1889. The artist was a reserve officer, so it was his duty to toe the imperial line.

Equally striking was the resentment of all contemporary French art felt by reasonably educated and creative members of the art world, even (it seems) by so exemplary a character as Käthe Kollwitz, who in 1911 was so outraged by Matisse’s work as to sign the “Protest of German Artists” drawn up by another secession member, Carl Vinnen. This collective cry of patriotic anguish was no doubt inspired in the first place by commercial resentment of the sums being spent on non-German art, but the language in which it was couched was much more sinister. “Alien influences” were threatening the national identity; a “large, well-financed international organization” was behind them (i.e., by inference, some kind of Jewish conspiracy), and “a great, powerfully upward-striving culture and people like ours cannot forever tolerate spiritual usurpation by an alien force.”

Already the nationalism ball had been set rolling by the art historian Henry Thode, a professor at Heidelberg, who attacked Meier-Graefe in a series of public lectures in 1905 for ranking Arnold Böcklin below French impressionism: (“How does [impressionism] relate to the German character? Does it suit us Germans? No! Never!”). Such experts were only giving the sanction of their authority to what the emperor and the ordinary person already felt: French art was subversive and debilitating, and the new German interest in it, far from being enlightened and amazingly farsighted (as we now see it to have been), was self-destructive. French art was virtually poison—what one Berlin local politician called “an alien drop in our blood.”

And yet Liebermann himself was an utterly Prussian character, reserved, “correct,” with a rather simple and none too kind wit, a cousin of Walther Rathenau, and like him very much a member of the haute bourgeoisie. Cassirer too was a race-horse owner (it is interesting to learn) and part-time gentleman farmer, while Harry Kessler (one of the secession’s chief outside supporters) was the leading aristocratic patron of the arts, and one supposedly close to the imperial family.

To begin with, moreover, the secession had been careful to exclude foreign influences, confining its first exhibition to German artists from all parts of the country and refusing to employ Henry van de Velde to design its building’s interior. But even when it did become more international it was no more daringly so than other similar bodies: the Vienna Secession for instance and the Brussels Les XX. Thus in 1901, at its third exhibition, there was a handful of impressionist works by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Van Gogh, but there were also items by obscure London painters like George Sauter, Grosvenor Thomas, and the (presumably German) August Neven Dumont, a distinguished-looking gentleman whose contribution was called Baby. If Degas was a corresponding member that year so were Lavery and Sargent, James Guthrie, and John M. Swan, RA. The Berlin Secession, in short, was ably organized by men of discrimination; it was elitist, eclectic, and socially and commercially successful. But with one or two minor exceptions (like the little-known Hans Baluschek with his socially critical paintings) the impression now made by its early years is surprisingly tame.

Leaving Munch aside (and it was a Munch exhibit which had caused the splitting of the official Berlin art organization in the first place), the expressionists made themselves felt only gradually, the significant year being perhaps 1907, when there were four works by Nolde, and Barlach showed the first results of his Russian visit. The following year the Brücke artists had some graphic works accepted, as did Klee, and the new movement seemed to be getting its foot in the door; but in 1910 they were rejected en bloc along with some twenty other artists, and broke away to form a short-lived Neue Secession, a form of Salon des Refusés under the leadership of Max Pechstein and the subsequent organizers of the republican Novembergruppe.

Professor Paret describes the internal conflicts leading up to this event, notably the slightly crazy vituperations of Nolde against Liebermann, though he never really explains why so generally tolerant an outfit should suddenly change its attitude, particularly in a year when three Matisses were shown and the artist himself was made a corresponding member. What he does show, rather surprisingly, is that the innovators themselves were not all that open-minded. For in addition to Kollwitz’s lapse the following year (and she was, of course, a full secession member from very early on) there was Nolde, who already had the makings of the Nazi he later became. Like Thode and Vinnen and other nationalists, Paret writes,

he demanded that art serve Germany, by which he meant that art should express his particular fantasy of the German spirit and genius. It could do so only, he believed, if it remained unsullied by alien influences. The line he drew between valuable and bad art did not coincide with Thode’s or Vinnen’s judgment, but the principle was the same; and in his thinking it acquired a special weight from his mystical identification of racial purity as the source of true potency and creativity.

Yet, much to Nolde’s aggrieved surprise, fifteen years after the fall of the empire when another second-rate autocrat picked up the principle once more, he turned it against all modern art movements, irrespective of their national, racial, or political associations. This, then, is one of the lessons of the Berlin Secession story: that the introduction of nonaesthetic factors into artistic controversy, by starting a seesaw progression of violent antagonisms, not only drives even the most moderate to extremes but eventually destroys whatever rational basis there was for the argument in the first place. Once you start to “think with your blood,” as both Nolde and Vinnen were prepared to do from their opposing aesthetic standpoints, you end up by strengthening those who dislike new art as such.

The other lesson is rather less obvious. It is that if you are prepared to accept a national or parochial view of art—as even the most enlightened are sometimes tempted to do—this can also falsify your judgment of the art which you think closest to you. For as soon as you narrow your horizon in this way you no longer judge by the highest standards, but will redeploy your criteria within the confines of a particular nation or school. Two things then happen: first of all you begin to exaggerate the merits of those who make a strong impression only within a parochial setting, artists like Hans von Marées and Heinrich Zille, Liebermann and Otto Mueller—or, to take English examples, Jacob Epstein and Augustus John. Secondly, you will tend to pick out the local representatives of the major international movements—e.g., the German or English impressionists or the Russian realists—without being disturbed by their inferiority to the real pioneers in other countries, and in so doing to overlook those genuine oddballs who have no foreign equivalent: Paula Modersohn-Becker, say, or L.S. Lowry, or Venezianov. Unfortunately, this kind of myopia has never been confined merely to reactionaries like Thode and Vinnen; it can also unbalance seemingly more progressive verdicts.

Nationalism and parochialism, in other words, are not only more infectious than we would like to think; paradoxically enough they can blind us to whatever is most characteristic and unique in the art of our chosen nation or region. Even today they have not been eliminated, as can be seen from one or two of the contributions to the Guggenheim Museum’s recent catalogue Expressionism: A German Intuition, 1905-1920. Now that the old spontaneous internationalism of the secession era is no longer really practicable, the new system of official cultural exchanges is tending to canalize such exhibitions within national bounds. The implications need watching if we are not to start swapping mediocrities instead of broadening one another’s knowledge of the best.

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