Schmidt-Rottluff’s Head of a Woman.
Images: German Expressionist Prints
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, through Oct.
Oh, to be young in Berlin. Today’s Berlin is a hot destination,
particularly for artists. With its affordable studio space,
trendy galleries and plenty of energy, it’s no wonder artists
are flocking there. But wherever artists move, gentrification
inevitably follows. When an artist like Jonathan Meese poses
in a Giorgio Armani trench coat and shirt in the pages of
The New York Times Style Magazine, doesn’t it signify
the beginning of the end?
As dynamic and exciting as it might be to live in Berlin at
this moment, I would prefer to have experienced the Berlin
that compelled Christopher Isherwood to remain there in 1929.
Amid the uncertainty and economic instability of the times,
artists in Weimar Germany captured a mood that was progressive,
modernist, and debauched. German expressionism reflected a
rebellious and innovative spirit. It was edgy yet populist.
Many artists worked in the print medium because it was conducive
to easy distribution and publication, and it was compatible
with the rebelliousness and experimentation of the artists
involved. The earliest proponents were the artists involved
in Die Brücke art group, who were motivated to challenge academic
standards and other traditions.
Images was organized by the Syracuse University Art Collection
and is installed at Vassar in a somewhat chronological manner.
The earliest piece is from 1908. It is a color woodcut by
Wassily Kandinsky called The Archer, and is a good
example of work he did in Munich where he soon became a founding
member of Der Blaue Reiter, a successor to Die Brücke. Other
works nearby include Max Beckmann’s Bordello from 1912.
This piece reflects Beckmann’s interest in depicting the radical
changes in Europe and the decadent glamour of Germany’s cabaret
culture. Also in this grouping are two works by Erich Heckel,
which de-monstrate his signature “primitive” style. Among
these earlier works are a lithograph by Emil Nolde and an
etching by Käthe Kollwitz titled After the Battle.
The Kollwitz piece captures the horrors of war by showing
a mother searching a battlefield at night for her son’s corpse.
Perhaps my favorite of the German expressionists is Ernst
Ludwig Kirchner. He is represented here by only one small
woodcut from 1912, titled Woman, Tying Shoe. This piece
is typical of his radical and provocative style and imagery.
The next group of work is mostly from the late 1910s to the
1920s. There are several works by Max Pechstein. Some are
influenced by his travels in Palau, others are from his Das
Vater Unser portfolio, and one titled Village Lanscape
reflects his interest in depicting villages and people in
relation to nature. Like Heckel, Pechstein’s work has a “primitive”
quality marked by thick, angular lines and planes. While Pechstein
was inspired by his experiences in the Pacific, Otto Mueller
was similarly influenced by his travels to Bohemia. Girl
on a Couch is an example of his many depictions of Roma
Another of the great German expressionist artists included
is George Grosz. His incredible caricatures capture the violence
and despair of the era. His lithograph Mondnacht exudes
a sense of paranoia and trauma. Despite the mundane nature
of the street scene depicted, its layered skeletal figures
appear ominous. Other works of his in the show are more overtly
political. His Right Is With the Winner shows a wounded
man in a graveyard with raised fist. Friedrichstrasse
is an example of Grosz at his best; here he captures the crassness
of Berlin with its poverty and vices all jumbled together.
Kollwitz’s Mothers, from her War series, is
similarly didactic. In it a huddled group of mothers peer
about anxiously. Their expressions are echoed in Heckel’s
angst-ridden portrait titled Jüngling, which depicts
a traumatized and vacant-eyed young man. Like Heckel, Karl
Schmidt-Rotluff also explored the expressive potential of
the print medium. Examples here are Head of a Man and
Head of a Woman. A self-portrait by Otto Dix is an
interesting counterpoint. Rather than anxious and defeated,
Dix’s Self Portrait in Profile shows him scowling,
defiant, and disdainful.
While it is nearly impossible to present a bad exhibition
of German expressionist art, this show could have made more
dynamic use of the work included. Perhaps the content was
limited by the fact that it all came from one collection,
but a stronger installation could have smoothed over the imperfections.
The gallery guide explains that the exhibition was part of
a mentoring project, and if this is the case, it could have
benefited from a bit more guidance. An experienced curator
would have most likely made more of an effort to create stronger
visual and thematic connections rather than attempt a chronological
organization. However, despite the weaknesses in the organizational
structure, these prints offer incredible insight into one
of the most compelling avant-garde movements of the early