Bleak Visions From Early-20th-Century Rebels
If you sometimes feel that Germany has contributed more than its share of provocative, irreverent artists to 20th- and 21st-century art, you may be right. From Hannah Höch and John Heartfield to Martin Kippenberger and John Bock, the supply has been extraordinarily robust. During the postwar era, at least, we might credit an art-academy system that encourages independence, or maybe a society that remains somewhat more rigid than many of its Western counterparts.
For a heady sense of where it all began, consider “German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse” at the Museum of Modern Art, the largest exhibition that the museum has devoted exclusively to Germany’s first Modern movement. The style combusted spontaneously after 1905 among artists in Dresden and Munich who were inspired by the brilliant colors and distorted forms of the Post-Impressionists and then the Fauves, as well as by peasant art and primitive art; it sputtered out sometime in the 1920s.
The show has been organized by Starr Figura, the Modern’s associate curator of prints and illustrated books. Its great emphasis is on prints, a medium that the German Expressionists, aided and abetted by a few Austrian artists, elevated to one of the 20th century’s most brutally effective, socially responsive unions of medium and message. With only occasional lapses, the show is infused with an urgent, crackling energy, by turns joyful, satiric, grim and tragic.
Of its more than 250 works, some 210 are woodcuts, lithographs or etchings made from 1908 to 1923 by around two dozen Germans (and two Austrians), among them Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Käthe Kollwitz, Emil Nolde, Otto Dix and Oskar Kokoschka, and also Wassily Kandinsky, on an extended visit from Russia. In addition to prints, there are illustrated books and periodicals and political posters, as well as occasional paintings and sculptures that keep you from wearing yourself out looking at things small and framed, among them Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s wondrously sensitive figures, in cast stone, and Kirchner’s study in adolescent tension, “Standing Girl, Caryatid” from 1909-10, a carved-wood piece that the Modern acquired, with the Neue Galerie, just five years ago.
Ms. Figura’s installation features galleries painted something close to battleship gray and alleviated by occasional walls of saturated colors that echo the early woodcuts of Kandinsky, Kokoschka and Max Pechstein in the show. At the exhibition’s center, all 50 of Otto Dix’s ravenous etchings from 1924, collectively titled “The War,” glare down from a bright red wall. Their harrowing images sprint among Modern styles while wringing all they can from the combination of etching, aquatint and dry point, not least by regularly equating acid-bitten surfaces with wounded flesh or riven terrain. It is hard to imagine the same range of texture, light, form, feeling and unappetizing fact being achieved quite as viscerally in any other visual medium, including photography.
The show reveals a fairly level field of talent. German Modernism had no towering giants like Picasso or Matisse, and no art-shattering style like Cubism. Instead it had many outstanding artists who focused with unusual unanimity on printmaking, and were encouraged to do so by art dealers, publishers and, for a while, an active art market.
In her catalog essay Ms. Figura tracks the medium’s spread, asserting, for example, that German artists embraced printmaking (woodcut in particular) for its deep roots in the country’s cultural past. But she also points out that World War I, with its Allied blockade, created dire shortages of canvas and linen.
Another factor: in the years after the war, the German economy was so unstable that art presented itself as a reasonably secure investment; prints in particular allowed for relatively modest prices and more product. It is not lost on Ms. Figura that in the final flurry of output, before the economy collapsed in 1923, the German Expressionists were often being supported by the very class — the bourgeoisie — that had initially spurred many of them to disgusted action
Presented in roughly chronological order, this show proceeds rather like a regatta, with vessels moving full steam ahead into the ever-worsening weather of history. Some artists drop out and may or may not reappear, while others join midway. Nolde sails through the show’s big second gallery, working in nearly every print medium — his three lithographs of a fashionable couple presage Pop Art — with magnificent results. (He would later join the Nazi Party, although his work was subsequently declared degenerate.)
Dix’s “War” etchings are not the only instance of a wall of images bearing down on you. The blunt woodcuts of Kollwitz’s “War” of 1923, hung on a smoldering orange wall, record the anguish of widows and orphans with stark black forms, and also the funeral of Karl Liebknecht, a founder, with Rosa Luxemburg, of Germany’s Communist Party; both died in police custody in January 1919. Nearby the lithographs of Max Beckmann’s 1919 “Hell” portfolio capture, with a little help from Cubism, the chaos of war and its aftermath, including a scene depicting Luxemburg as a Christ figure set upon by a mob.
Elsewhere, isolated prints will bring you to a stop: Kokoschka’s lithographic rendering of his face as a large, sculptural chunk, seemingly half-flayed; Dix’s small and delicate but unrelenting etchings “War Cripples” and “Syphilitic”; and two Beckmann self-portraits. In one, an etching, he’s a tender, baby-faced, bowler-wearing aesthete; in the other, a woodcut, he’s a hardened, narrow-eyed criminal. A third small self-portrait, in oil on canvas, brings these two personas together.
There are extremes of violence and piety and wild swings between pastoral innocence and urban decadence. At the start of the exhibition, the prints of Die Brücke — the Dresden group of disaffected architectural students led by Kirchner — alternate between nudes in landscapes and acrobatic dance-hall girls. There is often a kind of nastiness just below the surface, whether in the peasant art idyll of Pechstein’s colorful woodcut “Killing of the Banquet Roast,” or in Kirchner’s black-on-black lithograph “Gerty With Mask and Wineglass,” which shows a soignée denizen of cafe life looking a bit like Zorro.
The show’s second gallery devotes one corner to that staple of German art, the lustmord, or sexual murder, with contributions by Beckmann, Kokoschka and Kirchner, who is represented by a large lithograph that is mostly the color of dried blood. A 1914 painting by Dix, the Halloweenish, rouge-cheeked “Nun,” looks on.
In the final gallery, meanwhile, a wall of deep purple is hung on one side with four lurid lithographs of social decadence by Dix, including “Nocturnal Apparition,” which suggests a streetwalker with a skull’s head. Given the era, misogyny comes as no surprise.
On the other side, though, the show’s recurring strain of religiosity culminates in a genuine curiosity: a dozen blunt but elegant woodcuts by Pechstein, one of the original members of Die Brücke, illustrating (and reciting) the Lord’s Prayer.
Nearly everything on view is drawn from the museum’s holdings, which shakes up the (understandable) conventional wisdom that the Modern’s view of early Modernism is almost terminally Francophile. More of this work should be displayed more often, which is to say that the show’s scope reminds us of the insufficiency of the museum’s 2004 expansion. The pieces here represent just a fraction of MoMA’s holdings: There are some 3,200 German Expressionist works on paper — the vast, vast majority of them prints — in its collection.
On the other hand, the museum has announced that on Sunday, when the exhibition opens to the public (it is in members’ previews on Friday and Saturday), all 3,200 will become available for online viewing at moma.org/germanexpressionism. In addition to its own considerable merits, “German Expressionism” should provide a good grounding for a digital immersion — and spur hope for seeing more of the real things.