When the Lurcy collection of modern French paintings went on sale in New York recently, bringing astronomical prices, these improbable, skyrocketing figures attracted national attention. Actually, this astounding sale only highlights the climax of a trend of many years. The market value of such paintings seemed to have reached a peak five or ten years ago, yet it has doubled or quadrupled during the last few years. Such a state of affairs would seem to be a boon for art dealers; their problems, however, have increased, for the work of most modern French masters is today comfortably settled on the walls of American museums and private collections. Almost nothing, let alone important work, is available.
One answer to the problem is that comparatively untapped branch of modern art, German Expressionism. During the past few months, this school, which has for so long been a prime concern of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, has received a significant build-up through exhibitions, books, and publicity.
German Art at Harvard, 1890-1915, is the first of two chronologically arranged exhibitions to be presented at Busch-Reisinger this winter. Both consist of works from the permanent collections of that museum, Fogg and Houghton.
The exhibition opens with a selection of works done at the close of the last century, including an interesting and painterly canvas by Hans Von Marees. It is actually frustrating that a painter such as Lovis Corinth who produces as charming a watercolor as Girl on Bed Reading will do a canvas such as Salome, which despite much good painting, includes a temptress as slick and glossy as a fugitive from the pages of Playboy. Yet it is precisely this literary concern with emotional interpretation which characterizes the history of twentieth century expressionism.
It is ironic to note that Van Gogh, who is the spiritual founder of expressionism, appears strongest in retrospect, not for the emotion which once seemed so audacious but for the poetic discipline which controlled that emotion. Nothing highlights the situation more clearly than the early works of Paul Klee. The etchings Head of Menace and Virgin in a Tree are works of quality and excellent draughtsmanship, yet their overbearing concern for the histrionics of their subject matter works against them. Moreover, the later Klees in the exhibit avoid histrionics, as their subject matter is relegated to a whimsical leitmotif, subordinated to the wholly poetic studies in color and shape. This latter group incidentally has long represented Klee in exhibitions of the so-called French school. They are works whose universal qualities transcend the mannerisms of any one idiom. It is perhaps this individualism which makes it so difficult to categorize a "French School" despite the heavy concentration of modern painters from that country.
The directors, however, have done a particularly fine job of selecting works for this exhibition which attempt to speak for themselves rather than for a school or philosophy. Kirchner, for instance, looks far more effective here with his early canvases than he did at the recent European masters exhibit in Boston.
Perhaps most ironic is the extent to which this exhibition reveals the influence of French art to which German expressionism has lately been opposed, especially the poetically inclined canvases of Erich Heckel. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's Fauve period Harbor Scene is a product of the movement dominated by Matisse and is a canvas far superior to Schmidt-Rottluff's two later, extremely ungainly, still-lifes. And Jawlensky's Head of a Woman pays tacit tribute both to Matisse and Rouault.
Alfred Kubin's two drawings, Edge of the World and Organ Grinder, are openly illustrative without being obvious. Next to the portraits by the much-praised Kokoschka with their hesitant drawing which often falls far short of any satisfying conclusion, Kubin's unpretentious drawings are refreshing. Nevertheless, whatever qualifications one makes in Kokoschka's case, his merits become evident when compared with the unhappy commercialism of Paul Kleinschmidt's At the Bar or Oskar Schlemmer's Three Figures.
Nowhere does an expansiveness of spirit succeed better than in the realm of sculpture, to wit that of George Kolbe and especially of Wilhelm Lehmbruck. The latter transforms his message to drawing with the same permanence and surety he exhibits in stone, and in expressionism or any other art, permanence is what ultimately counts.