The Busch Reisinger Museum is currently showing a loan exhibition of German watercolors, drawings and prints from 1905 to 1955, sponsored by the Federal Republic of Germany. This midcentury review provides an excellent background for two other important local showings, one of the work of Kathe Kollowitz that will open shortly at the Gropper Gallery, the other an exhibit of works by Lionel and Lux Feininger currently at the Cambridge Art Association Gallery. These artists, with whom we intend to deal in subsequent reviews, very conveniently represent two major aspects of Modern German Art. Kathe Kollowitz illustrates expressionism and its social awareness and Feininger combines a kind of constructivism with an intellectual rather than emotional response to life.
The period of 1905 to 1935 was one of great fluorescence in German art. It saw the formation of three extremely influential bands of artists: "Die Bruecke," creators of a monumental expressionistic style, "Die Blaue Reiter," who made bold experiments in color and form, one of whose members painted the first "abstract" picture, and finally, the "Bauhaus Painters," who found a creative center for their work in a design institute that attempted to "unite the arts under the leadership of architecture to create the building of the future."
In the work of "Die Bruecke" three dimensional illusionist painting was severely attacked. Simple contrasts of black and white replaced the attempt to model form by different degrees of color. Taking their inspiration from Medieval and African models, Heckel and Schmidt Rottluff created works of monumental style having an elemental power and an obvious decorative quality. These early pictures of "Die Bruecke" were infused with a catching vitality that was unfortunately soon lost in an insipid and fashionable Ars elegante. Other expressionists like Kollowitz and Kokoschka remained true to the original inspiration. "Woman with Dead Child" is Kollowitz at her best struggling with the broad rhythms of suffering. Unfortunately the "Portrait of Else Heims" in its cartoon-like simplicity doesn't do justice to the finer, more nervous insight of Kokoschka.
Pictures by Barlach and Lehmbruck carry on the feeling of loneliness and pain that characterize this period.
The work of Kandinsky, Feininger and Marc bring us to the realm of serious struggle with angles of vision. The myth-like atmosphere of Marc's painting, dominated by great blue horses, does not conceal the disintegration of simple planes.
A more blatant contrast could hardly be conceived than that between German art between 1905-1935 and the later period from 1935-1955. There are examples of the photographic realism that was the order of the day during the Nazi regime so that this era appears as a large blank. But its dryness in the way of artistic ideas is shown by what came after. Contemporary German art seems to be well behind literature in recovering from the war. There is almost no evidence of the originality that influenced the whole of western art in the early part of the century. What we see are derivative paintings. The influence of the American abstract expressionist school is clear in the work of Fritz Winter (this school itself of course has its roots in Kandinsky's early experiments). Willi Baumeister is a second-rate Miro. And others like Hans Uhlmann and Ernst Wilhelm Nay are bound in vision of Picasso. Were it not for the fact that many of the theorists of German art, like Albers who is at Yale, are now cut off from their traditional sources, Germany might now be once again making important contributions to the fine arts.