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Around the galleries

German Expressionists ‘en masse’ in Paris

— January 2012

Associated media

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Group of artists ('The artists’ conversation'), c. 1913, sthaus Museum, Hagen

Expressionismus & Expressionismi

Albert Godycki reports on a powerful show at the Pinacothèque de Paris

German Expressionism is one of those perennial exhibition favourites and for good reason: the sheer visual and emotional impact delivered by the works of the movement’s forerunners, ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ (The Blue Rider) and ‘Die Brücke’ (The Bridge). At the opening of ‘Expressionismus & Expressionismi’ at the Pinacothèque de Paris, the usual understated elegance of the well-heeled crowd was all but obliterated by the vivid colours, heavy contours and jagged forms of the nearly 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints representing these two dominant branches.

The show, which is on until 11 March 2012, is a great opportunity to encounter exemplary works of art and provides a decent introduction to an important early 20th-century artistic tendency. As the title suggests, the exhibition invites an exploration of how Expressionism was a diversified reinvention of line and colour aimed at revealing the psychological depths of a picture’s subject. The viewer is asked to engage in ‘a game of convergences and divergences between two currents that opposed and confronted’ aesthetic conventions, comments Marc Restellini, the gallery’s director.

On the gallery walls, painted in vibrating greens, magentas,ochres and blues, the ‘game’ is played out in themes – the nude, the landscape, journeys, animals, etc. – each examining the approaches of both ‘Blaue Reiter’ and ‘Brücke’ artists to the same subject. This arrangement, rather than a chronological or artist-by-artist one, is alleged to display the differences between the two groups. But the resounding effect demonstrates how each artist, regardless of affiliation, strived to make the landscape a spiritual journey, the portrait a psychological revelation, the animal a moral symbol, and so on. Their aesthetic choices, often interpreted as utopian reactions to the carnage and mechanical mayhem of the First World War, here come to be seen as advanced developments of traditional artistic practices. Indeed, the need to build on the past to forge a better art was a common belief held by both groups.

‘Der Blaue Reiter’, formed in Munich in 1911 with WassilyKandinsky and Franz Marc at the fore, was the more philosophical of the two. In principle, ‘Brücke’ maintained a visceral, instinctual force driving creation together with a steadfast relationship to cultural heritage. The latter first concentrated in and around Dresden in 1905 and then in Berlin, heading-off to the idyllic countryside or the Baltic Sea during summertime to participate in naturist activities as visualized in paintings such as Erich Heckel’s Bathing by the Bay (1912). 

The artists and musicians of ‘Blaue Reiter’ understood art as a resonance of the spiritual and believed that through synaesthetic principles – through a calculated use of colour, form or sound – their compositions could evoke sensory experiences. This explains why the group stayed clear of pure abstraction for the most part; even Kandinsky, who verged upon non-representation through such theoretical underpinnings in works such as Painting with a Circle (1911), wished to emphasize how modern art could develop out of existing rational models. Alexej von Jawlensky, another member of the group, and a Russian émigré like Kandinsky, pronounced, ‘art is mathematics!’ Art making was about taking the familiar – a portrait, a seascape, a horse – and, according to Jacqueline Munck, ‘renewing its system of representation’.

With blank canvas at hand, the painters of both ‘Blaue Reiter’ and ‘Brucke’ found inspiration in the visual logic – the ‘intellectual realism’ – of the arts of Southeast Asia and Africa, and the work of children, but also in the more local heritage of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. For ‘Brucke’ artists, such as Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, articulating the inherent power in German cultural heritage provided groundwork for their visual development.

Over the course of their activity, the group breathed new life into the woodblock medium – considered a quintessentially German technique. Many of the prints on view reveal just how physical the practice was; the block’s recesses are as palpable as its impressed elevations, the image hesitating between its materiality and its representation. The group’s manifesto, drawn-up by Kirchner in 1906 and printed in woodblock, brings to mind 19th-century images of Luther nailing his ‘Theses’ to the door of the church, printed sheets quickly spreading throughout Germany. Perhaps then it is all the more ironic that many of these artists’ works were labelled ‘entartete’ (degenerate) by later nationalist history.

National and regional characteristics do not figure prominently in this exhibition, but do come across in hindsight. Early 20th-century Europe was still a place of marked geographical distinctions on the cultural level. While Germany was Expressionism, France was Picasso, Braque and Cubism; Italy was Balla, Boccioni and Futurism, and even then regional distinctions had to be taken into account. Today we may find ourselves asking if the concept of a national art – or of regional schools for that matter – still applies.  

Though the exhibition at the Pinacothèque does not pretend to be comprehensive, it is sorely lacking in the wealth of visual material that inspired both groups. A more detailed examination into the way artists handled the technical aspect of their work would have been welcome, as well as how that might have been informed by their aesthetic doctrines and vice versa. Music, be it soundtrack or score, is also sadly absent, especially given the number of composers who were associated with the Expressionist movements, such as Schoenberg and Webern. The well-illustrated catalogue (in French) does, however, make up for some of these deficits, following the thematic divisions set out by the exhibition with essays by Tayfun Belgin, Ralph Melcher, Jacqueline Munck, Andrei Nakov, Raimund Stecker, Denise Wendel, and Roman Zieglgänsberger. Yet by around the third room of the show, it becomes clear that the art on the wall is making all the noise – and that is certainly worth listening to.


Albert Godycki
Art Historian

Editor's notes

‘Expressionismus & Expressionismi. Berlin-Munich 1905 – 1920. Der Blaue Reiter vs Brücke’ is on until 11 March 2012
Pinacothèque de Paris
8, rue Vignon
75008 Paris

Catalogue (in French) edited by  Marc Restellini, eLes Editions Pinacothèque de Paris: 2011. €55

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