Expressions of the Age

Der Potsdamer Platz: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner und der Untergang Preussens [Potsdamer Platz: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the Decline of Prussia]

catalog of the exhibition edited by Katharina Henkel and Roland März
an exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, April 27–August 12, 2001
Berlin: G + H Verlag/ Nationalgalerie, 317 pp., DM39 (paper)

What is it called—that legendary period of German art in the early part of the twentieth century? Some people think of it as Weimar, but the Weimar Republic only covers the second half of it. Others use the word Expressionism, but that term is best confined to certain artists of the time—such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde—or to certain periods of their work. One standard account of German Expressionism ends with the outbreak of World War I. And while the artists of the New Objectivity, the Neue Sachlichkeit of the 1920s—among them Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and Georg Grosz—are associated closely in our minds with the Expressionists, their work is produced in conscious distinction from them.

We can agree, perhaps, that the age (whatever it is called) comes to an end with the Nazi crackdown on political opposition and on Degenerate Art. Whoever survived that had to remain true to his talent in an exile of one kind or another. Emil Nolde, a Nazi Party member himself, working under a Malverbot (a personal ban on his painting activities) to produce his beautiful water- colors of flowers, was an internal exile. Max Beckmann was one of the few painters whose gift survived displacement abroad. The work of George Grosz, on the other hand, falls to pieces in America—it seems to lose its vital context and stimulus. And if a talent like that of Grosz could not survive, what are we to expect of the innumerable lesser artists who seem to have been carried along by the general impetus?

The age comes to an end in 1933, or thereabouts. It begins somewhere around 1905, when Kirchner was twenty-five, and it has its roots in Jugendstil, or what we call Art Nouveau. It does not overthrow this earlier style. It does not chuck all its values. It bears the same relationship to Jugendstil as the erotic drawings of Schiele bear to those of Klimt. The sensibility is different; the radical feeling for design is the same. There are woodcuts by Kirchner that you could mistake for those of Félix Vallotton, drawings which emulate Klimt, and there are moments when Nolde, forgetting to be savage, turns decorative.

Decoration was certainly a part of the program. When Kirchner sets up his first studios in Dresden he cheers them up with wall paintings, parasols, fabrics, and sculpture of his own devising—the idiom has changed, the impulse to create a total decorative scheme remains familiar. Fine magazines, like Jugend itself, had disseminated the earlier style. Magazines, portfolios of prints, and illustrated books were the beloved purveyors of the Expressionist art. Books especially: Buchschmuck is one of the terms for it, book decoration—although the spirit in which the decoration was executed might be one of anguish. Kirchner’s woodcuts of 1915–1916 for Adalbert von Chamisso’s short story “Peter Schlemihl,” but not at the time printed as a book, are the preeminent masterpieces in the genre, along …

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