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Expressive! The Artists of Die Brücke:
The Collection of Hermann Gerlinger
June 1-August 26, 2007
When in 1905 a group of four self-taught artists shocked the art world with intensive colors, taboo-breakingly realistic motifs and woodcut-type forms, the four architecture students — Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel and Fritz Bleyl — had no idea that one day their hurricanes of color would be counted among the most important German contributions to the avant-garde movement of expressionism.
At the beginning of their artistic careers, the artists based their work to a great extent on the current art trends of their time, in particular the “Secession” in Dresden, or neo-impressionism. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff produced works during the early days of “Die Brücke” that show influence of Dresden plein-air painting. In addition, the artists were interested in everything that was state-of-the-art at the turn of the century. Their confrontation with art nouveau is manifest in the traces left by their decorative interplay of lines, above all in the early woodcuts.
Particularly significant for the development of painting within the “Brücke” group was their response to neo-impressionism. Yet in contrast to the ambitions of French pointillism to render light in the modulation between bright and shaded parts of a painting, the “Brücke” artists sought to use the power of color — also its material quality, intensifying the unmixed juxtaposition of brilliant colors. Starting from this approach, the painters soon found a way to an expansively conceived personal touch imbued with gesture while maintaining intense coloration. However, the use of complementary colors served less the development of contrasts than the intensification of color radiance within these pairs of opposites.
Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel and Bleyl and the later members Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller wanted to use color and form to find pure and direct expression not only in the drawing, but also in the woodcut, the lithograph and the etching.
These artists were not interested in copying things, in imitation. In an impetuous process of abstraction, they transformed visible reality into images of pure sensation. What characterizes the artists’ development is their critical attitude to traditional, academic painting and the search for new and free artistic solutions in representing reality. Their most powerful vehicle of articulation is color, rapturously intensified to achieve a state of pure expression, with forms being expressively simplified and exaggerated to transport this expressive energy.
The new, uncorrupted will to express things was based on the principle of forgetting what had been learned; this included not only dispensing with all traditional and conventional aesthetics, but also created access to new motifs and subjects. Emil Nolde’s description of his work as an act performed “without fixed and contoured ideas” pinpoints this idiosyncrasy of the early anti-style of the “Brücke”, which, as George Grosz knew already, was formless and primitive when seen from the “high vantage point of technical tradition". Technical skills were neglected, inner expression was all, and everything was based on a garishly-colored and unorthodox way of painting which adopted the aesthetic principles of African primitive peoples, whose art, like that of Oceania, became an important source of inspiration.
This search for new simplicity was pivotal not only for the European avant-garde in the early twentieth century, but has always been a constantly appearing phenomenon in art history as a starting point for new artistic developments. The uninhibited life of the “Brücke” artists was founded on such things as the culture of naturism and nudism, and the life reform movements. Depiction of the sensual-erotic relationship between the sexes is one of their key subjects. At the same time this yielded the “primitivism” of the “Brücke”. They believed that uninhibited and free eroticism could only be found in extra-European cultures, which is why their own search for an authentic and natural lifestyle was inseparably associated with so-called “primitive” art. Their unhampered lives bathing at the Moritzburg Lakes or the Baltic Sea was the substitute for unattainable, exotic paradises; actually traveling there was reserved only to a happy few. The “Brücke”'s counter-plan to the developing industrial society around them had a romantic subtext, and was based equally on far-gone epochs of their own history and on African or Oceanic cultures.
News of the disbandment of the “Brücke” group of artists was officially circulated on 27 May 1913, on the outside the perceptible endpoint of a development signaled by the painters’ relocation from Dresden to Berlin. But this declaration in spring 1913 did not mean the end of things, for the artistic impetus of “Brücke” expressionism continues to take effect as an astonishingly fresh and uninterrupted phenomenon.
The exhibition is divided into three main sections. Section 1 shows works on the formation of the “Brücke” style — nudes in woodcut, drawing or gloriously colorful oil painting by Schmidt-Rottluff and Kirchner, while Section 2 illustrates the way into the war, and cubist influences. Objects are also on show, such as a mahogany pendant by Schmidt-Rottluff, or the painting with the everyday scene “At the Barber’s” by Erich Heckel.
Section 3 of the show — focusing on woodcuts and sculptures by Schmidt-Rottluff and Heckel — is devoted to the period after the war and the influences of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and Art Deco. Finally, there are two special rooms for works by Otto Mueller and Emil Nolde. Their independence demarcates them from the other “Brücke” artists.
The African sculptures in section 2 of the exhibition aim to underline how cult objects provided the artists with inspiration; they can be rediscovered in rudimentary form in various motifs. Furthermore, the confrontation of spontaneous and formally contrived graphic works demonstrates the artists’ various work processes.