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German Art in the Age of Expressionism Exhibited at Princeton University Art Museum
Exhibition Dates: January 29 through June 9, 2002
PRINCETON -- "Klinger to Kollwitz: German Art in the Age of Expressionism," an overview of late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century German art, will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from January 29 through June 9, 2002.
Organized by Laura M. Giles, associate curator of prints and drawings, the exhibition comprises thirty-seven works, including loans from several private collections in Princeton and the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. It is the first exhibition of its kind to be held at the art museum, whose German holdings were enhanced in 1990 with a major bequest from Sophie Goldberg Bargmann and Valentine Bargmann. The exhibition's large number of graphic works highlights one of the museum's less well-known strengths, while illustrating the tremendous accomplishments in original printmaking carried out in Germany at the dawn of modernism.
The title of the exhibition implies a broad historical context, addressing the variety of innovative and avant-garde styles that transformed the artistic landscape of Germany between the establishment of the Wilhelmine Empire in 1871, and Hitler's takeover of the short-lived Weimar Republic in 1933. This period of cataclysmic political and social change also witnessed the dramatic rise of the artistic movement called Expressionism.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition opens with a surreal image from the 1880-81 print cycle Ein Handschuh (A Glove) by Max Klinger, who was the first German artist in decades to etch and proof his own plates, challenging the prevailing trend toward photomechanical reproduction. Klinger's conviction that the graphic arts provided the true vehicle for fantasy and creative expression was a fundamental source of inspiration to numerous German artists, who were encouraged to develop a personal vocabulary through prints and drawings rather than through the time-honored media of painting and sculpture. Foremost among these artists was Käthe Kollwitz. As exemplified by five works on view, her etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts illustrate her commitment to experimental printmaking in the service of socio-political commentary throughout the period covered by the exhibition.
In addition to early etchings by Kollwitz, the first section of the exhibition contains prints by two important precursors of German Expressionism: Max Liebermann, a leading figure in the anti-academic Naturalist movement, and the Norwegian Symbolist painter and printmaker Edvard Munch, who worked in Berlin in the 1890s. To varying degrees, these artists questioned the French Impressionist emphasis on direct observation from nature, seeking instead to depict the feelings and ideas it inspired.
The new insistence on the emotional and intellectual primacy of the creative process at the expense of verisimilitude was taken further by the next generation, as demonstrated in the central section of the exhibition. Highlighted are works by members of the two most significant avant-garde groups in pre-war Germany: Die Brücke (the Bridge), founded in Dresden in 1905, and Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), founded in Munich in 1911. Both groups embody the principal stylistic features that by the beginning of World War I had been termed "expressionist" by critics and applied to a wide range of European artists, including Van Gogh and Matisse, whose works featured distorted forms, flattened perspectives, dissonant colors, and an interest in tribal cultures. The Brücke is represented in the exhibition by prints, drawings, and watercolors by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. The mission of this collective was to interweave themes of nature and modern life with a direct and authentic style that rebelled against the restricting rules of academic art and bourgeois life, thereby bringing about a new social order. It was especially in the field of graphic arts that the Brücke artists made their greatest contribution, creating rough, hand-made woodcuts that dispensed with the laboriously crafted effects of conventional printmaking.
Although the Blaue Reiter group-here represented by prints and paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter-shared the Brücke's utopian belief in the power of art to transform society, its approach was more theoretical, and led to a purely abstract style, as developed further by Kandinsky at the Bauhaus.
Also featured in this section are four independent artists-Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Ludwig Meidner-whose work contains many Expressionist elements. Their starkly rendered war imagery, street scenes, and portraits powerfully convey the physical destruction, urban chaos, and psychological uncertainty caused by contemporary events leading up to, and during World War I.
The concern with modern life and its discontents continued to preoccupy Beckmann and Grosz after the war. Their mordant and satirical depictions of the German bourgeoisie are illustrated in the final section of the exhibition, which covers the years of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). Also included is a searing image of gassed soldiers from Otto Dix's antiwar print portfolio Der Krieg (1924), which was later published in an inexpensive book edition to great popular acclaim. The more realistic style adopted by these artists, called Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), sharply contrasts with the poetic landscapes and female bathers by Schmidt-Rottluff and Kirchner and the lyrical abstractions of Kandinsky and Klee, which complete the exhibition. Klee's watercolor, Licht über Ehedem (Light over Yesteryear) is dated 1933, the year he returned to Bern after being dismissed from his teaching post in Düsseldorf by the Nazis. With Hitler's seizure of power, the years of artistic revolution in Germany were repressed. Most of the artists represented in this section were branded "degenerate," and their works displayed as such in the "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art) exhibition that opened in Munich on July 19, 1937.
LECTURE: "Klinger to Kollwitz: Ambiguities in Modern German Art from the 1880s to the Third Reich" by Peter Paret, professor emeritus, the Institute for Advanced Study. Tuesday, February 12, at 4:30 p.m., 101 McCormick Hall
GALLERY TALK: "Klinger to Kollwitz: German Art in the Age of Expressionism" by Laura M. Giles, associate curator of prints and drawings. Friday, March 1, at 12:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 3, at 3 p.m. in the museum