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Expressive: Schmidt-Rottluff’s Head of a Woman.

Spirit of Rebellion

By Nadine Wasserman

Impassioned Images: German Expressionist Prints

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, through Oct. 26


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.

Impassioned 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 people.

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 20th century.

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