Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, The Brandenburg Gate, 1915
Lovis Corinth and Käthe Kollwitz
Lovis Corinth, Self Portrait with Straw Hat, 1923
Lovis Corinth, Self-Portrait, 1925
A painter who pointed a way forward for aspiring artists, who created an alternative to both the obedient civil service represented by Von Werner, and the imitation of French painting championed by Max Liebermann and the Berlin Secession was Lovis Corinth. Corinth was originally from East Prussia and studied painting in Munich. But he had his debut exhibition in Berlin in 1899 with the Berlin Secession. He later moved to Berlin and exhibited regularly at Paul Cassirer's gallery. Artists saw him as a liberating figure. Corinth took French Impressionism to an emotional fever pitch that artists like Monet and Pissarro never intended. Corinth painted very un-Impressionist subject matter from myth and religion that appealed to German sensibilities.
Lovis Corinth, The Walchensee Serpentine, 1920
Lovis Corinth, Flowers, 1920
Lovis Corinth, The Slaughterhouse, 1893
Lovis Corinth, Blinded Samson, 1912
Lovis Corinth, Red Christ, 1922
Corinth did not love them back. He kept his distance from the younger moderns frequently attacking their work.
Another artist who pointed a way forward for German artists was the great graphic artist and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz. She remade the great themes of Christian religious imagery that always dominated German art since the earliest middle ages and still resonated deeply with artists and public alike in the early 20th century. Kollwitz secularized and updated a lot of traditional religious imagery and gave it a new emotional force. While her secularized Madonnas and Pietas lost their traditional religious meanings, they gained a new powerful empathetic appeal.
Käthe Kollwitz had a long and dramatic life deeply touched by left wing Christianity. Her father was a mason and house builder whose political sympathies were radically social democratic. Her grandfather was a Lutheran pastor expelled from the official Evangelical State Church of Prussia for his socialist views. Her husband Karl was a medical doctor who tended the poor in Berlin. Their house was next to the clinic where he worked. The patients at the clinic inspired much of her work.
Käthe Kollwitz was the first woman admitted into the Prussian Academy of Arts, though her gender limited her opportunities for art education when she was young.
In the First World War, she lost her younger son Peter in combat. In World War II, she lost her grandson, also named Peter. Her husband died in 1940 from illness.
During the Nazi regime, she was forbidden to exhibit and all of her work was removed from museums and other public collections. The gestapo threatened her and her family with deportation to a concentration camp. She received numerous offers to move to the USA, but refused them all fearing reprisals on her family.
In 1945, the Allied bombing of Berlin destroyed her home and forced her to flee the city. She went first to Nordhausen, and then later to Moritzburg outside of Dresden where she died just 16 days before the War ended.
She was a great master of the print media, especially etching with its lights and darks. She used the tenebrism of etching to great dramatic effect.
A very powerful print showing a primal almost animal grief over the loss of a child.
From a series of prints inspired by the Peasants' War of 1524 -1525, probably her best and most powerful print cycle. Sharp contrasts of light and dark, simple concentrated imagery make these major masterpieces of print. Many of them have a dramatic concentration that anticipates cinema.
Kollwitz uses an episode from the distant German past to speak urgently to its present at the beginning of the 20th century.
Käthe Kollwitz remade Christian subject matter in her sculptures too, and perhaps with even more concentration. This memorial that she made for her friend and mentor, the sculptor Ernst Barlach shows a simple fragment of her own grieving face held by her hands.
Probably her most famous variation on the Pieta subject, this sculpture now forms the centerpiece of a remade war memorial in the Neue Wache in Berlin. Since 1931, this former guardhouse served as a war memorial, first to the military dead of World War I, then in 1970 as a memorial to the "Victims of Fascism and Militarism" during the DDR. In 1993, the German government remade the Neue Wache into a memorial for all the civilian dead of World War II and made this sculpture by Kollwitz as its centerpiece. It sits under the open sky though an oculus in the ceiling in all weather.
Käthe Kollwitz's prints and sculptures demonstrate very forcefully the continuing communicative power of imagery. Seeing a reconstruction of our own experiences of the world, both in terms of our senses, and our emotions, still has an unsurpassed empathetic appeal. This remains true even in our age saturated with vivid imagery created by technology. While her politics may have been far left, her art is a conservative triumph. Kollwitz understood that the distortions of form created by Expressionism, and the Cubist break up of form create emotional distance. A self-consciousness about form inserts itself between the vision and us. Of course, form was always there between us and the subject, but in Renaissance and Baroque art, form makes itself invisible as it plays its part in conjuring up a vividly real looking apparition before our eyes. That self-consciousness about form begins to insert itself beginning with Cezanne's work. It could be argued that Cezanne and his legacy were necessary correctives to an illusionistic art that lost its contact with experience and with what is real and true. Kollwitz would probably agree with such a criticism of figurative art. But, she believed that she had more urgent matters of human need and justice to be served. She lived most of her life amid human misery. She ended her days under threat and in the midst of warfare and on the run. The project to close the gap between form and subject was something that she could not afford, nor could her audience have such a luxury. She wanted her art to stir feeling above all else. And what better way to do that than through appealing to our experiences of the world as vividly and memorably as possible.
There is a certain reluctance in much of German modernism to break up form out of the fear of emotional distancing. Die Brücke painters really stretch form, but they never quite break it. We see that reluctance to break apart imagery in Max Beckmann's work, in the work of Otto Dix, Christian Schad, and eventually in Anselm Kiefer's work. If we want to see a radical departure form imagery entirely, we have to go to Munich and see the work of the Blue Rider artists. But even Kandinsky at his most abstract aspired to connect with people emotionally. And that great master of graphic invention Paul Klee still wants to tell stories as memorably as possible
Die Brücke Comes to Berlin
Twentieth Century modernism arrived in Berlin in 1911 with a small band of young painters from Dresden and their friends and lovers. They came to Berlin in search of fame and fortune in a much bigger and more sophisticated city.
In 1905, a group of very young architecture students in Dresden (the average age was 19) got together to form the first modern art movement of the 20th century, Die Brücke, The Bridge; and to publish the first (and shortest) of many artists' manifestos in the first half of the last century. They wanted to do much more than reform art. They wanted to build an entire way of life that was the exact opposite of the deeply repressed suffocating official culture of Wilhelmine Germany. All that the culture of Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to suppress, Die Brücke wanted to liberate.
The other major expressionist movement (and probably the greater one) was Die Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) that belonged to Munich. The Blue Rider had relatively little contact with Berlin, but a much more international network of contacts from New York to Paris to Moscow.
The leader and best artist of Die Brücke was a high strung young man named Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (seated on the right) came from a very respectable bourgeois family, as did most of the other Die Brücke artists. His father (seated to the left of the artist in this family photo) was a very successful and highly respected industrial chemist.
This is a photo taken in 1912 in Kirchner's studio in Berlin. The naked man dancing and smoking may be Kirchner himself, though he's hard to identify here.
Die Brücke was more than a group of like-minded artists. It was a way of life. Shortly after they organized, the artists took over an abandoned butcher shop in Dresden and lived and worked together along with their lovers, friends, and many hangers-on. In 1911, they moved together to Berlin and set up a similar commune. They shared food, living space, friends, and lovers in a collective dedicated to gratifying all the desires and instincts repressed by conventional society. They not only painted together, but they also made their own furniture and wall hangings. Most of the sculpture, furniture, and wall decorations that Die Brücke artists made survive now only in photographs taken by the artists themselves.
Their desire to completely remake their surroundings according to their wishes would have a great influence on later modern artists and designers. The idea of a total integration of fine and applied art would help shape the ambitions of the Bauhaus almost twenty years later.
The Die Brücke bohemia, like all bohemias, was a bourgeois creation. These sons of German bourgeois respectability pitted bourgeois virtues of independence and initiative against bourgeois vices of hypocrisy and conformism. They created the 20th century's first of many youth "counter-cultures." Their lives of unapologetic scandal first horrified the general public, but then quickly attracted a growing popular interest.
E.L. Kirchner, The Street, 1913
Berlin and its busy streets affected Kirchner very deeply. Their noise, traffic, and crowds thrilled him with a sense of life force, and also frightened him. That same passion to feel deeply and to connect that drove earlier Romantic artists like Caspar David Friedrich far into the countryside drove Ernst Ludwig Kirchner onto the sidewalks of Berlin.
Berlin's women on the streets fascinated Kirchner. Women dressed up for display and/or seduction in public on the streets. Some of the women in his paintings of Berlin streets are street walkers, prostitutes. Others appear to be women of fashion displaying themselves before an admiring public.
Before Expressionism, art -- even most experimental modern art such as Matisse -- aspired to a kind of calm resolution. All of the parts of a painting were supposed to work in harmony with one another. This sense of fulfillment, of completion and self possession became the goal of art as early as ancient Greece. Kirchner and the other Expressionists valued disruption over calm, noise over quiet, dissonance over harmony. In Kirchner's Berlin street paintings, the ground plane begins to tip up and fill the painting creating a kind of vertigo where figures stand before and not on the ground plane. Chiaroscuro vanishes from his paintings. Sharp slashing brushstrokes of unmixed color on raw canvas become as rough and unresolved as the very street scene that he paints.
The color combinations are jarring instead of harmonious; hot pinks with viridian, blue, black, and white; bright pale yellows with black and turquoise blue; colors that in combination set our teeth on edge.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Women in the Street, 1915
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street Scene, 1913, pastel
E.L. Kirchner, Street Walker in Red, 1914, pastel
E.L. Kirchner, Two Street Walkers, pastel, 1914
An example of Kirchner's electric and sharp drawing technique. The pencil and chalk strokes are rough and violent. The forms are sharp as broken glass. But these drawings -- Kirchner's work in general -- are never crude, never hesitant.
These street scenes show a kind of anxious joy and exhilaration in the noisy chaos of urban street life. For a young man from the comparatively staid and once beautiful Baroque city of Dresden, Berlin's busy noisy streets must have seemed overwhelmingly dramatic, terrifying, and thrilling. It is the thrill that comes through in Kirchner's Berlin paintings more than the anxiety. That kind of intoxicating communion with the life of urban crowds is closer in spirit to Walt Whitman than to the rapturous mysticism of Novalis. In fact, Kirchner loved Walt Whitman's poetry. He kept a German translation of Leaves of Grass on his nightstand by his bed, and read from it daily.
Die Brücke Exhibition at Fritz Gurlitt Gallery, Berlin, 1912
Die Brücke got a big break with a major exhibition at an important Berlin gallery in 1912. The very established and reputable Gurlitt Gallery showed paintings and sculptures by the group attracting a lot of public and press attention for the first time. A lot of the critical attention was hostile, but not all of it. Some of it was very supportive and sympathetic. Their public following increased dramatically and they found themselves playing the role of celebrities. All of the sculpture that appears in this photo is lost. Very few of the Die Brücke group's sculptures survive.
A couple of other members of Die Brücke and samples of their work that they did in Berlin:
Erich Heckel, Glass Day, 1913
Probably his best painting. A nude figure and some landscape details locate us as sky and lake become crystalline shards.
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Houses at Night, 1912
I've always been particularly fond of Schmidt-Rottluff's work for its combination of rich brilliant color with very dramatic distortions of form. These distorted houses glow in the ultramarine blue dark with arbitrary colors.
Probably the greatest champion and promoter of Expressionism in Berlin was Herwarth Walden. Born Georg Lewin to a wealthy Jewish family, he changed his name in honor of a favorite book of his, Henry David Thoreau's "Walden."
Walden was himself a gifted painter and poet with many cross-disciplinary interests in music and theater. He published a magazine Der Sturm that promoted the work of Expressionist artists, creating an enthusiastic audience and market for their work; and just as important, he put the disparate Expressionist movements in Berlin, Munich, and Vienna in contact with each other, and in contact with other modernist movements such as Cubism in France and Futurism in Italy.
A 1917 cover of Der Sturm
The Viennese Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka's portrait of Herwarth Walden
Herwarth Walden established a gallery in Berlin, also called Der Sturm that brought the Berlin public and artists in contact with original works by major modern artists of the day, and put original works by younger German artists before the public. Though Walden frequently featured Die Brücke artists in his magazine, he never exhibited their work in his gallery.
Walden was a very courageous and unfortunate man. He braved the harsh moralizing censorship of Kaiser Wilhelm II's government, and the blasphemy laws that continued in the Weimar Republic. The advent of the Nazis forced him to shut down his enterprises and flee the country in 1932. He went to Russia where Stalin's regime viewed him with great suspicion as a promoter of "bourgeois modernism." Walden died in 1941 in a Soviet prison near Saratov.