A Grand & Tender Artist

Wilhelm Lehmbruck: Sculptures and Etchings

an exhibition at the Michael Werner Gallery, New York City, January 19–March 3, 2012; and at Michael Werner Kunsthandel, Cologne, March 30–May 4, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition by Annabelle Ténèze. Michael Werner, 64 pp., $40.00

Kneeling Woman 100 Years: Wilhelm Lehmbruck in Paris 1911

edited by Raimund Stecker and Marion Bornscheuer
Cologne: Dumont, 239 pp., $34.95 (paper)
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LehmbruckMuseum Duisburg
Wilhelm Lehmbruck: Inclined Woman’s Head (Bust of Kneeling Woman), 17 1/2 x 17 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, 1914

The work of Wilhelm Lehmbruck makes one realize how rare it is in the sculpture of any era to see, on the faces of figures, subtle and convincing states of feeling. The emotions expressed by the men and women done by this German artist, who died in 1919, at thirty-eight, are almost never extreme or showy, even though he is generally labeled, somewhat for convenience’s sake, an Expressionist. The mood conveyed by his female figures is, rather, serene and undemonstrably self-confident, while his far fewer male figures seem caught in moments that shift from brooding thought to stony anger. Looking at either—and the very faces of Lehmbruck’s people are beautiful and handsome in fresh and delicate ways—we feel invited to linger in what might be called a mental atmosphere, an attitude about life.

Lehmbruck is now the subject of his first New York show in almost twenty years. The last one was also held at the Michael Werner Gallery, and while the present exhibition is perhaps even better, it is more of a first-rate introduction to the artist than a distillation of his achievement. For viewers who have never heard of Lehmbruck, whose only American retrospective was held in 1972, at the National Gallery of Art, it has enough strong pieces to make one want to see more. In its dozen or so mostly bust-sized sculptures (and numerous etchings), it certainly conveys the elementally different way the artist thought about the sexes. The sculptures of women in terra-cotta, bronze, and cast stone (which is made from cement, stone dust, and pigment) often express a kind of gentle, and unsentimental, acceptance of existence. Most of these figures, with their high, small breasts, shyly tilt their heads away from us. Lehmbruck is such a virtuoso of shyness, however, and there is such a variety of textures and sand and salmon tones among these works that almost every woman appears caught up in a different thought.

Head of a Thinker (1918), on the other hand, the one sculpture of a male figure, is, in its dark gray cast stone, mysterious and ominous. It is a bust of a lean and physically powerful young man. His head is domed and he leans downward. His eyes, unnervingly, could be staring or could be mere slits, and his arms are cut off just below his shoulders—giving him altogether the appearance of some wounded and ashen bird of prey. Head of a Thinker is like the chopped-down remains of a monumental piece, and as such it hints at what the Werner Gallery, for lack of space, understandably cannot include: any of the sculptor’s large works. Without them the full scope of his art is missing.

Lehmbruck’s story is that of an artist who never lost his affinity for traditional modes, even as he kept transforming …

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