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Primitive in Dresden

1.

In June 1905, four very young architecture students living in the city of Dresden—Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff—founded the artists’ group Die Brücke (The Bridge). Ranging in age from twenty to twenty-five, none was an artist by training. This meant that for each, the path to becoming an artist was through imitation. There is something slightly crazy but also wonderful about the way they simply lifted the bold color and wild emotionalism of Van Gogh and Gauguin and ran with them until, all passion spent, they pretty much petered out in 1913. Disliked by the right (too French), the left (too German), and—no small tribute—the Nazis (too decadent), until fairly recently their influence on art in Germany was thought to be negligible. Still, theirs was the first art to be described by the word “expressionist,” and when the Royal Academy in London staged its magisterial survey of German art in the twentieth century, the date when modern art in Germany was deemed to have started was 1905.1

During the eight years of its existence, Die Brücke was international in scope and broad-based in its membership. But the first substantial show in the US of their work at the Neue Galerie in New York concentrates on the core group—with the addition of works by Emile Nolde and Hermann Max Pechstein, both of whom exhibited with them at different times.2 With less than one hundred paintings, sculptures, and works on paper shown on two floors of the gallery on Fifth Avenue, the exhibition is about the right size. By painting the gallery walls violet and yellow to accentuate the impact of paintings already throbbing with saturated scarlets, chartreuse, oranges, and blues, and by then packing the pictures into a relatively compact space, the curators have created a visual experience that starts and ends at full throttle, like a performance of Strauss’s Salome or Elektra.

The name the group chose suggests their intention to become a bridge between the past and the future, a wish to leave behind the art of the academies (and the by now well-established Impressionists) and to embrace the new art, Fauvism, coming out of Paris, but without discarding their German cultural heritage. The medium that connected the modernism of Munch and Gauguin to the late Gothic of Cranach and Dürer was the woodblock print.

As the nearly equal balance between paintings and prints in this show reflects, printmaking was every bit as important to the members of Die Brücke as painting in oil. Though each artist is different, recurring stylistic characteristics in both their prints and paintings include angular shapes, broken and hatched lines, flat pattern, brutal tonal contrasts, and simplified, rough-hewn images. The woodcut is not a medium especially suited to complex compositions, tonal nuance, or the exploration of pictorial space. Sure enough, none of these qualities are usually associated with the art of Die Brücke.

Initially, what is so striking about the landscapes of the first Dresden years is the dichotomy between painting technique and subject matter. Schmidt-Rottluff in particular uses strong color, expressive distortion, and heavily impastoed brush strokes to depict nothing more electrifying than idyllic pastoral scenery. In his Houses on the Gartenstrasse of 1906, the ravishing medley of pink, green, yellow, light blue, and purple paint brings to mind the late work of Van Gogh. But Van Gogh it isn’t. The longer you look at this view of an ordinary suburban street, the more you feel that something is missing. Primal blasts of pure color are no substitute for the atmosphere, urgency, tension, and psychological nuance of Van Gogh’s art. Lacking the Dutch artist’s knowledge and graphic range, the twenty-one-year-old Schmidt-Rottluff can imitate Van Gogh’s colors and painting technique but not his internal need to paint in the way he did.

And this, precisely, is what makes artists associated with Die Brücke different from other Postimpressionists. Their conscious decision to create surface excitement through the use of expressive color applied swiftly with a loaded brush in these early pictures doesn’t feel as though it arises out of lived experience. This is not to dismiss them, merely to place their achievement in perspective. Schmidt-Rottluff, for example, by skimming the dazzling surface of Van Gogh’s art, brought his own work to the brink of abstraction.

In his 1910 canvas Landscape with House and Trees (see illustration on page 29), nature has become a chaos of smeared greens, slashes of light and indigo blue, vertical strokes of orange, and sanguinary pools of red. Paint, applied edge to edge and energizing every centimeter of the canvas, is handled so freely that the image hovers on the edge of visual coherency. The question is: does that matter? As far as I can see, the nondescript motif Schmidt-Rottluff has chosen to paint is utterly unimportant, a mere armature for the pyrotechnic display of color laid in with brush and palette knife. Here, form and color have become the picture’s real subject. Since both are used almost without reference to the natural world, the painting is but a step away from severing its link with representation.

That Schmidt-Rottluff didn’t take that step is significant. The artists in Die Brücke, with the exception of Kirchner, had only a limited interest in purely formal concerns such as the exploration of pictorial space or the relationship between image and plane. Unlike their contemporaries Kandinsky or Mondrian, they never arrived at a point in their work where they could think of line and color as separate from their descriptive functions. This is irrelevant to our appreciation of individual pictures, but in the long run it makes a difference to our assessment of the group’s importance for the history of art.

2.

For all of the artists in this show, expressive freedom was not an end in itself, but is linked to Freud’s theories of how repression of desire and emotion creates neurosis. Nudity in these pictures has a meaning it does not have in French art of the same period. The pictures and prints of 1906–1910 show naked bodies the artists observed at the lakes outside Dresden, where in summer they lived without clothing with their friends, models, and children. In prints by Kirchner and Pechstein showing nudists in the open air, the casting off of clothes is not associated with the classical ideal, as it is with Matisse, but rather implies a flouting of bourgeois convention and, just as important, a more open attitude toward sexuality.

The naked men and women shown in Kirchner’s print of 1910 Bathers Throwing Reeds, for example, are drawn with angular black lines as deft and swift as a Japanese calligrapher’s. But for all their elegance the figures aren’t entirely innocent, since one of the men has an erection. Though hardly obscene, this detail looks forward to a new and profoundly important source of inspiration that became available to these artists in 1910 when the reopening of Dresden’s Ethnographic Museum exposed them to Oceanic, Melanesian, and African art.

Just as African masks and Gauguin’s sculptures led Picasso to a more authentic and powerful expression of human experience in the years 1906–1907, so artists associated with Die Brücke found in primitive art a means to incorporate into their imagery the brutal, the sexual, and the downright ugly. In doing so they believed that they were gaining access to emotional truth uncorrupted by European visual traditions. However, unlike Picasso, whose profound encounter with Cézanne in the memorial retrospective of 1907 turned him away from the savagery of the Demoiselles d’Avignon toward the disciplined analysis of visual experience that led to Cubism, for the German group primitivism would remain a primary visual reference, one inseparable from a frank approach to the depiction of sexuality.

In Heckel’s Girl with Doll of 1910, a naked prepubescent model half reclines on a red couch, holding a fully clothed doll whose blue skirt just covers the girl’s pubic area. The pose is that of the prostitute in Manet’s Olympia (but reversed) and the little girl’s earring, scarlet lips, and half-closed eyes belie any pretense of sexual innocence on the part either of the child or of the grown man who is painting her. Here, and in Kirchner’s Marzella (Franzi) of about the same date, the flat triangular faces inspired by African masks signal sexual precocity. Where Munch in his famous 1894 painting Puberty explores the fear and anxiety associated with the onset of adolescence, what leaps out at you in these pictures is the poise and self-possession of children who stare boldly out from the canvas, well aware of the power their sexuality exerts over the artist and by implication the viewer.

Yet something else is happening in the pictures of the later Dresden years. Whether in the coarse features and simian body language of Pechstein’s Orange Peel (Woman Peeling Oranges) or his grossly sensual Young Woman with Red Fan, by 1910 all these artists had arrived at a formula for showing the female model posed in the studio. For all the visual impact of individual pictures, when you look a whole gallery filled with such images, they feel repetitive. Works by Heckel, Pechstein, Kirchner, and Schmitt-Rottluff still pulsate with deep, rich color—but that means that all share a similar chromatic register, and all strike the same chord of barely suppressed hysteria. Having painted themselves into a corner, their need to develop their work by finding new sources of inspiration away from Dresden is almost palpable.

3.

In 1910 the group held its last exhibition in Dresden, and the following year Heckel, Kirchner, and Schmitt-Rottluff settled in Berlin, where Pechstein was already living. The year 1912 ushered in a new phase with the appearance of the first Berlin street scenes. Whereas in Dresden what their pictures were “expressing” was largely solipsistic—their own freedom from academic rules and social conventions—in Berlin the paintings are suffused with urgent feelings about “a strange city of pleasure and sin, undermined by railroads, teeming with harried worker-beasts,…gasping with lungs full of poisonous factory smoke….”3

Now too Kirchner emerges as by far the most important artist connected with the group. His pictures have a complexity, scale, and monumentality you don’t see elsewhere in this exhibition. The gallery devoted to his landscapes, portraits, and street and circus scenes is the highlight of the show. Actually, Kirchner led the way as a painter of the urban scene in his 1908–1919 Street, Dresden (see illustration on page 28), where out of a crowd of mostly female figures emerging from a tram, two Edwardian ladies glide straight toward us like zombies in a horror movie, their faces blotched, their blank eyes and grim mouths outlined in scarlet, and the contours of their bodies irradiated with orange light.

In Kirchner’s pictures, color, form, and pictorial space carry ideas. For example, in the famous Berlin Street Scene (1913–1914), the long narrow format creates the illusion of spatial compression, pushing the elongated figures so close together that most overlap and none is seen whole. The spatial confusion (is the mustachioed man in the background at the left getting into the horse-drawn vehicle or not?) ratchets up the sense of intolerable pressure and disorientation. At the center, two prostitutes in plumed hats patrol the streets like birds of prey, the one in blue turning to catch the eye of the man in the derby hat in the foreground at the right. But she’s barking up the wrong tree, for not only does he appear to be wearing lipstick and mascara, his whole body looks umgekehrt, inverted, turned back to front. Looking away from the women, he seems to signal to the faceless gent behind him with the open palm of one white-gloved hand.

We’re a long way here from the healthy Nacktkultur of the Dresden lakes. Kirchner is the heir to Manet and Degas as Baudelaire’s painter of modern life. He’s different from all the other artists in this show because in his circus and café scenes he finds inspiration in the work not of Van Gogh or Gauguin, but of Toulouse-Lautrec. And instead of the jarring, angular forms we’ve come to identify with Die Brücke, his rounded figures look straight back to Munch.

By the eve of the Great War, most Die Brücke artists were worn out, caught between representation and abstraction, wheels spinning, going nowhere. That’s not true of Kirchner. His work before and after the war has the sustained emotional intensity and search for psychological truth that would characterize German art of the 1920s. Like Max Beckmann or Otto Dix, Kirchner’s subject is a society in moral freefall. He uses expressionist exaggeration to suggest political chaos and spiritual emptiness.

Soon after seeing this show I went down to Philadelphia’s unforgettable exhibition about the twentieth-century artists who fell under Cézanne’s spell.4 On the way home I thought about artists at work in the decade before 1913 who had engaged with the painter from Aix-en-Provence (Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Braque, Mondrian) and those who had not (Derain, Utrillo, Dufy, Chagall, Rouault). Most of the artists in the orbit of Die Brücke belong in the second category. If I had to say in one sentence what Cézanne’s art teaches that was lost on the first Expressionists, it is that we see with our minds as well as with our eyes.

  1. 1

    German Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture, 1905–1985,” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, October 11–December 22, 1985, and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, February 8–April 27, 1986. The catalog of the exhibition was edited by Christos M. Joachimides, Norman Rosenthal, and Wieland Schmied (London: Royal Academy of Arts/Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985).

  2. 2

    Among the many foreign artists who exhibited with them were the Dutch Fauvist Kees van Dongen and the Finnish painter Axel Gallén-Kallela. Edvard Munch was invited to join, but refused.

  3. 3

    Alfred Döblin, quoted by Reinhold Heller on page 44 in the catalog of the present show.

  4. 4

    Cézanne and Beyond,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, February 26–May 31, 2009. The catalog of this exhibition is edited by Joseph J. Rishel and Katharine Sachs (Philadelphia Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2009).

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