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German Expressionism: A Revolutionary Spirit

German Expressionist show at the BMA sheds light on our own times

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Wassily Kandinsky’s “The Archer”

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Ernst Kirchner’s “Fir Trees”

German Expressionism: A Revolutionary Spirit

Through Sept. 14 at the Baltimore Museum of Art

In the last 20 years, our understanding of space and time have been altered by new technologies; the political system and the economy are fractured and uncertain; increasing numbers of young people are alienated and unemployed. We are fucked, but it is exhilarating. We’re utopian but we’re also weary, cynical, and blasé. We long for nature, love the city, and hate both. Or hate ourselves in both.

All of this could describe the artists brought together in the BMA’s German Expressionism: A Revolutionary Spirit as well as it describes us. And the comparison seems especially apt at the moment, at a time when the internet has challenged the nature of art—or representation—in much the same way that photographs and motion pictures did a century ago, and artists are seeking the authentic, the gestural, the wild, and the human. So, this is an inspired time for the BMA to mount this show, just after a series of Expressionist-leaning shows of oil paintings in small, scruffy galleries like Metro Gallery, sophiajacob, and Rock512Devil. Also, addressing the printmaking tradition prevalent in this show, the exhibit debuts just before Open Space (and CP designer Jasmine Sarp) hosts the fifth annual Publications and Multiples Fair, which has continued to grow, showcasing an ever-widening variety of expressive graphic work.

In addition to the primary division of paintings and prints, German Expressionism, both the show and the movement, is divided by several other binaries, including pastoral and urban, utopian and cynical, and pre- or post-war.

The way the world changed is most evident in curator Oliver Shell’s brilliant pairing of a Klimt and a Kirchner. Gustav Klimt’s gorgeous picture “Pine Forest II” captures a forest, the trees dark, thick, and fast, with a bit of the gilt that the artist is known for, set deep within the darkness. But to the top of the canvas and again in a long vertical strip to the left, there are bits of light coming through the damp shadow of the trees, creating something like a mystical feeling, which was in the air at the turn of the century with the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, for which this painting could be an illustration. But this 1901 painting also comes across like an analog of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities or the works of Elias Canetti, which show Europe’s blindness to the future fire which would consume it.

This is especially apparent beside Ernst Kirchner’s “Fir Trees,” from 1919, which takes the bucolic mysticism out of Klimt and replaces it with the long, arching shadows and ominous uncanniness that foreshadows The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which was released the following year.

Kirchner is, perhaps, the dominant figure in the show, with seven works, each of which takes a different tone and style. He has a quick drawing of women at a café, a lithograph of dancing girls, a woodcut of a woman putting on her shoe. Then there is the wildly modern woodcut “Three Bathers by a Lake” with its Christ-like central figure, or the stunning, Fauve-influenced pink oil-painted sky of “Flower Beds in the Dresden Gardens.” And the “Head of Ludwig Schames” is simultaneously deeply classical and highly modern. Kirchner is a fascinating figure, one of the founders of the Die Brücke movement, a nudist, proponent of free love, and general all-around Bohemian who has a lot to say to our own time. If this show were to do nothing more than reintroduce him to Baltimore, it would be a great success.

Erich Heckel, a co-founder with Kirchner of Die Brücke movement, is also well-represented, and the watercolor portrait of his wife is one of the most moving pieces in the show. It was executed in 1914, and her forlorn, anxious expression seems to give birth to the overwhelming mood of the rest of the 20th century. There are numerous other beautiful works before the war comes, but they are impossible to see as anything but elegiac—because we know what they couldn’t see but were condemned to stumble through. There is, for instance, an exquisite small painting by Kandinsky, who co-founded Der Blaue Reiter group—which operated parallel to Die Brücke—and a small watercolor by Paul Klee from 1913. Both feel essential and alien, signposts from a previous world. And yet both would repay hours of study.

If the show is divided into pre-war and postwar sections, Lovis Corinth’s terrifying “The Black Hussar” stands at the fulcrum between them. The cold, sadistic look on the World War I cavalry officer is as imperious as his kinky black uniform, painted with angry strokes (the background is a mash of abstract colors that conveys an ominous emotional intensity). His expression is that of the leaders of Europe who felt this war would be like the ones which came before it—when instead, these haughty cavalrymen and their horses were sawed in half by machine guns.

The philosopher and critic Guy Davenport argues that this moment early in the 20th century promised to produce a renaissance greater than that of the 15th and 16th centuries had not so many young members of that generation been demolished—either literally or psychologically—in what still remains one of the most senseless wars in history. The works of Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and Käthe Kollwitz reflect this loss. Beckmann’s “In the Street Car” places the viewer in a streetcar across from three people: In the center a man, most likely a war veteran, glowers at you from above the bandage that covers a missing nose; to his left a woman looks down in tired sorrow; and to his right a William Burroughs-looking fellow sucks his thumb. The people are physically close but infinitely distant, alienated. The work shares the fascination with the urban life of Kirchner’s dancing women or Max Pechstein’s “The Circus” while primarily reflecting the loss that comes with modern life rather than the gains.

Otto Dix’s 1914 “The Cannoneer” captures the madness, fury, and fear that came with Dix’s enlistment in that same year and shares a spirit of doomed bravado with Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, as does “Sappers Have to Keep Firing at Night,” an etching of the trenches at night, done a decade later. It is both illustrative and abstract, its composition bursting with energy as the walls of trenches, the live soldiers, and the bones of their dead fellows catch an angled moonlight.

Käthe Kollwitz’s “Battlefield” comes from 1907, but it is the darkest work, both literally and metaphorically, in this dark show. Kollwitz used her agriculturally based image, modeled after Millet’s “The Gleaners,” to depict the German peasant revolt of the 16th century, but she would eventually lose her own son in the war. Her zinc sculpture “Pieta” from the late ’30s is among the most moving depictions of maternal loss and sorrow.

One of the other great things about this extraordinary show is the way it changes our view of the surrounding galleries. Through the door to the gallery next door, Giacometti’s perspective-defying sculpture seems to share the angst of Dix’s cannoneer and the sorrow of Kollwitz’s mother. And as you walk out into the city, you may tremble to contemplate the similarities between the world of these Expressionists and our own, and wonder just what horrors we are sleepwalking toward.

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