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Graphic Discontent

The German Expressionists strove for spontaneity and unexpected results
Emily J. Peters, Curator of Prints and Drawings
December 26, 2017
Marsh Landscape, c. 1930–35. Emil Nolde (German, 1876–1956). 2011.125

The urgency, drama, and despair of world events are mirrored in the work of German and Austrian artists before, during, and after World War I (1914–18). The Expressionists—as they became known collectively—railed against traditional realism in art, associating it with an age of decadence and superficiality in society. Using condensed, abstracted visual forms and striking, sometimes dissonant colors, they wanted to startle, even to shock their audience into a state of heightened emotional awareness. Graphic Discontent: German Expressionism on Paper, composed of around 50 prints and drawings from the CMA’s outstanding collection, profiles the Expressionists’ quest for art that was emotionally and spiritually authentic just as Europe erupted into a devastating world war.

Portrait of a Man 1919. Erich Heckel (German, 1883–1970). Color woodcut; 69.9 x 55.7 cm. John L. Severance Fund, 1991.109. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Emil Nolde’s watercolors, including Marsh Landscape from about 1930–35, and two others on view, encapsulate the Expressionists’ focus on art that was direct, spontaneous, and immediate. Painting landscape around his home near the North Sea, Nolde used vibrant colors that transformed reality. He often “collaborated” with nature, sitting outside and letting snowflakes fall on the sheet to naturally moisten and manipulate his washes. Color, he stated, was his primary medium: the essential feature of his reaction to the world.

Nolde and other artists came together to form like-minded groups. In Dresden in 1905, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Erich Heckel founded Die Brücke (The Bridge), a name that reflects the members’ youthful drive to build a new future. Zealous and earnest, they shared studio spaces and sketched together, using friends and girlfriends as models, and taught themselves to concentrate on simplified forms and emotionally compelling colors. They considered woodcuts as particularly suited to their search for authenticity; the artists also published their prints together in portfolios. Heckel’s Portrait of a Man, from 1919 (facing page and cover detail), shows how the jagged angles and broad surfaces of a wood matrix simplify the features of a man’s face while still maintaining a likeness. Considered a self-portrait, this woodcut was made well after Die Brücke’s founding, when Heckel had returned from World War I an altered man: the sitter’s green face is an indicator of his state of spiritual and physical trauma. 

Genesis II 1914. Franz Marc (German, 1880–1916). Color woodcut. Gift of the Print Club of Cleveland, 1959.228

Another Expressionist group, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), was founded by Vassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in Munich in 1911. They believed that the natural world could provide a cure to a corrupt and ill society. Marc’s 1914 woodcut, Genesis II, demonstrates the group’s emphasis on harmony and color. Horses symbolize joyous rebirth as they emerge from a background of chaos and movement. This work was intended for an illustrated Bible; sadly, Marc’s plans, and his dreams of a new society, were cut short when he was killed at the German front in March 1916.

Couple in Room, Nude Man with Woman 1915–16. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German, 1880–1938). Lithograph; 71.1 x 57.4 cm. John L. Severance Fund, 1991.24

Techniques that invited improvisation and promoted accidents in printing also appealed to the Expressionists. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner made the lithograph Couple in Room, Nude Man with Woman in 1915–16 when he was in the midst of training for the German artillery. He created unexpected and spontaneous results by spreading water mixed with turpentine on the surface of the lithographic stone to loosen his crayon drawing, which resulted in a grainy, spotted background. The yellow paper suggests artificial light and intensifies the emotion of this scene of two of Kirchner’s close friends.

Hell: The Street 1919. Max Beckmann (German, 1884–1950). Lithograph; 83.2 x 65.2 cm. Norman O. Stone and Ella A. Stone Memorial Fund, 2009.355.© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

For some Expressionists, prints were a platform for making statements about Germany’s social and political ills, especially after the war ended in 1918. Max Beckmann created the lithograph Hell: The Street in response to civil unrest, including the heavy street fighting that followed Germany’s defeat. The caricatured faces and overpacked, stage-like composition portray the ideologues, the war-maimed, the famished, and the deranged in inescapable proximity. Another city scene on view that captures the anxiety of the age is Ludwig Meidner’s ink drawing Figure in the Street at Night. Made in 1913, a year before the outbreak of war, Meidner presciently foreshadowed the coming destruction in this brilliant scene of explosive light bursting above a deserted street.

Figure in the Street at Night 1913. Ludwig Meidner (German, 1884–1966). Black ink applied with pen and brush over graphite; 50.8 x 80.6 cm. Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund, 1982.14

The Expressionists reevaluated the role of the artist. While the youthful Brücke artists wanted to disrupt and promote a new society, others, including Beckmann, saw themselves as witnesses or interpreters. His 1921 Self-Portrait in Bowler Hat shows the artist as a melancholic observer. The rigidly confined space and piercing outward gaze—created with the velvety tones of the drypoint technique—suggest the artist’s burden of revealing what others cannot or will not see. In a diary entry from 1940, when yet another world war was under way, Beckmann wrote:

If one regards all this—the whole war, or even the whole life—as merely a scene in the theater of infinity, much becomes easier to bear.      

Self-Portrait in Bowler Hat 1921. Max Beckmann. Drypoint; 41.5 x 33.8 cm. Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund, 2008.4. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Cleveland Art, January/February 2018