German modernism glistens at the Frist

KirchnerGerman Expressionism was like a nova. It appeared in a flash in 1905 after artists in Dresden and Munich began emulating their Post-Impressionist and Fauvist counterparts in France, and it burned brightly for about a decade. The movement dimmed considerably after World War I, but like cosmic background radiation, its influences are still detectable.

Some of the greatest works of Germany’s first Modern art movement are now on display at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, in an exhibit called German Expressionism from the Detroit Institute of Arts. The show, which runs through Feb. 10, 2013 at the Frist’s upper-level galleries, features the paintings, sculptures and woodcuts of such noted artists as Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Max Pechstein, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Mueller and Paula Modersohn-Becker, among others. While in no way an exhaustive survey, the exhibit, thoughtfully curated by Trinita Kennedy, offers a thoroughly satisfying and representative sampling of this pivotal movement.

valentinerThe first work encountered in the show, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s woodcut of Wilhelm Valentiner, seems appropriate for at least two reasons: First, the stark, black-and-white woodcut print was an important medium to the Expressionists, who saw the revival of this Medieval German art form as an affirmation of their shared national heritage. Second, Schmidt-Rottluff’s woodcut pays fitting tribute to the man who was one of German Expressionism’s earliest and most influential evangelists.

Trained as an art historian, Valentiner had been a Rembrandt specialist when he enlisted as a private in the German army in 1914. In one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction coincidences, he was assigned in 1915 to a sergeant named Franz Marc, who in civilian life had been a path-breaking painter and one of the greatest of the German Expressionists. Marc kindled in Valentiner an interest in contemporary German art. The painter was killed in the meat grinder of the Verdun offensive of 1916. Valentiner survived the war, emigrated to America and, in 1924, became director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The impressive collection of German Expressionism that he amassed for Detroit is now hanging temporarily at the Frist.

In the great tradition of German woodcuts, Schmidt-Rottluff’s piece portrays Valentiner as a kind of patron saint. The portrait’s prominent chin and sharp, angular nose suggest a forceful personality. The large eyes imply intelligence and also tend to soften the image, giving the stark profile an appealing and even disarming expressivity.

German Expressionism owed its existence to two groups, both of which are well-represented at the Frist. The movement started in 1905 when four Dresden architecture students – Schmidt-Rottluff, Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl and Erich Heckel – formed an association called Die Brücke (The Bridge). Later members included Otto Mueller, Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein. Kennedy notes in her program book that the members of Die Brücke cultivated a “style characterized by distorted forms, vigorous brushstrokes and vivid colors.” In surveying the Detroit collection, it’s obvious that these self-taught artists were taking their cues from Gauguin and Matisse.

KirchnerIndeed, it would be easy to mistake Pechstein’s “Under the Tress” for one of Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings. The work shows four tanned nudes, sketched in a primitive style, strolling along a sandy beach. The warm colors belie the fact that this scene took place near a Baltic fishing village, not Tahiti. The colors in Kirchner’s magnificent “Winter Landscape in Moonlight” are even more vivid, vibrant and intentionally unrealistic. A work that clearly owes a debt to Matisse, “Winter Landscape” boasts brilliant blues to imply a frozen, mountainous landscape. The red sky, however, seems more like Mars than Switzerland.

marcThe artists belonging to German Expressionism’s second major group, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), seemingly owed a debt to no one. Founded in Munich in 1911, this group attracted professional artists, most notably Marc and the Russian émigré Wassily Kandinsky, who were interested in both color and abstraction. Marc had a penchant for painting animals. His fabulous “Animals in a Landscape” looks like a bull that is being viewed through a child’s kaleidoscope – it is a study in swirling, whirling primary colors. Kandinsky’s magnificent “Study for Painting in White Form” from 1913 seems to be slouching toward abstraction. The painting features a somewhat representative village in its upper right-hand corner. It’s a town awash in a sea of abstract shapes and colors.

BarlachGerman Expressionism from the Detroit Institute of Arts features an impressive collection of sculptures. One of the most striking is Ernst Barlach’s “The Avenger.” The piece shows a German soldier in the process of morphing into a projectile, and the kinetic energy of the forward-leaning figure is palpable. Many of the German Expressionists, including Barlach and Marc, were caught up in the euphoria of the war during its early stages. They saw war a ready way to rid the world of its old and corrupt social order. Naturally, these same artists were quickly disillusioned.

Some of the most interesting works in the exhibit are the portraits, especially the self-portraits (the German Expressionists were often their own favorite subjects). Otto Dix glares at the viewer in his 1912 self-portrait, though he sends a delightfully mixed message by holding a pink carnation, a Renaissance symbol of love. There’s no irony in Max Beckmann’s self-portrait, just cynicism.

peasantOne final note about the exhibit: It seems amazing that many of these works survived, given the antipathy of the Nazis to modern art. In 1937, the regime confiscated nearly 17,000 modern works from German museums and private collections, a foreshadowing of the wholesale ransacking of European art that would take place during the Second World War. That same year, more than 700 of these Expressionist works were put on display in an exhibit called Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) in Munich – a city that was, ironically enough, the birthplace of both Der Blaue Reiter and the Nazi party.

Many great artworks were destroyed, but in 1939 the Nazis auctioned off some of the pieces to help raise hard currency for their impending war. Works such as Dix’s Self-Portrait, Kirchner’s Winter Landscape, Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Old Peasant Woman, Mueller’s Gypsy Encampment and Nolde’s Sunflowers were sold, and they eventually made it into the Detroit collection. That they survived such a close call only serves to increase their emotional power, appeal and legend.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Winter Landscape in Moonlight, 1919. Oil on canvas, 47 1/2 x 47 1/2 in. Gift of Curt Valentin in memory of the artist on the occasion of Dr. William R. Valentiner’s 60th birthday, Detroit Institute of Arts, 40.58.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Dr. Wilhelm R. Valentiner II, 1923. Oil on canvas, Woodcut printed in black on japan paper, 30 1/16 x 24 1/16 x 1 in. Gift of Mrs. Ralph Harman Booth, Detroit Institute of Arts, 51.107. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Franz Marc. Animals in a Landscape, 1914. Oil on canvas, 43 3/8 x 39 1/4 in. Gift of Robert H. Tannahill.

Ernst Barlach. The Avenger, 1914 (cast in 1930). Bronze, 17 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 23 1/2 in. Gift of Mrs. George Kamperman in memory of her husband Dr. George Kamperman, Detroit Institute of Arts, 64.260.

Paula Modersohn-Becker. Old Peasant Woman, ca. 1905. Oil on canvas, 29 3/4 x 22 3/4 in. Gift of Robert H. Tannahill, Detroit Institute of Arts, 58.385.

If you go

German Expressionism from the Detroit Institute of Arts is on display through Feb. 10, 2013 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 919 Broadway. The center is open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday from 10 5:30 p.m.; Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (Martin ArtQuest closes at 5:30 p.m.); Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; and Sunday from 1:00 to5:30 p.m. (Café opens at noon on Sunday). Admission is $10 adults, $7 students and seniors and free for members and visitors 18 and younger. For more information click here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.