Primitive in Dresden

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Museum of Modern Art, New York
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Street, Dresden, 1908–1919. According to Richard Dorment in this review, ‘Kirchner led the way as a painter of the urban scene’ and was ‘by far the most important artist’ connected with Die Brücke.

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.

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. 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 …

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