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Chronicles of a Crossing


By Eleni Constantine

The D. Thomas Bergen Collection of German Expressionist Drawings

at the Busch-Reisinger Museum thru July 1

THE ARTIST'S QUEST seems to be after either matter or mode; at any given time he searches for what to say or how to say it. Like a child just learning to walk, each artist progresses one step at a time; if he lives long enough, he may have time to shift weight, as it were, and take a second step, so that he ends up standing in a totally new place. Styles and subjects are sought and articulated in what appears continual progression, and successive small steps by artists suddenly are recognized as giant leaps for art.

German Expressionism, though a "movement" that lasted only fifteen years (1905-1920) consisted of two such steps. The founding of Die Brucke--"The Bridge"--by Ernst Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl (who was rather a sleeping partner), crystallized a common effort to develop a new artistic voice. These academy-trained ex-architecture students consciously rejected the socially imposed aesthetic of turn-of-the-century Germany, summed up in the refined nuances of the "Jugendstil" school of painting, and tried to work from an aesthetic of strong, elemental statements. Though anti-bourgeois in their rejection of the dominant bourgeois culture, and proletarian in their poverty, these early expressionists were not political but artistic evolutionaries.

Artistic rebels in a specific way. Rather than altering the pictorial elements of their work, they added expressive intensity to their vision. The plot, the actors, and the props of the drama in their pictures do not represent the most significant aspects of their artistic progress. Many of the themes and subjects they used were Romantic holdovers. Their achievement was rather that they changed the dramatic narrative of art from a third-person to a first-person account; that they made the plastic means convey not only the emotions of the characters within the picture, but the emotions of the artist.

Die Brucke broke up in 1913, the result, ironically, of conflicts over the first description of their aims, Kirchner's "Chronicle," which was published in that year. With the dissolution of the primary group, and the marked changes in its members' work as a result of their experiences during the First World War, a new generation of Expressionists came to the fore. The post-war generation was concerned not so much with the syntax of painting as with defining artistic vocabulary. Confident of what was now an established language, these later artists were concerned with making statements that were often not merely artistic, but social and political as well.

The earlier and later artistic endeavors follow one another as naturally as the right foot the left, and together constitute a movement we label German Expressionism. But this label has generated a parasitic stereotype of artistic self-indulgence that sucks the blood of particular meaning from each artist's work. Part of the problem is that the history of Expressionism has all been written in hindsight. Even these few statements left by the artists about their art were, for the most part, made after the cataclysm of World War I. Those of the first generation who wrote of their previous work saw it as though it were an image shattered--carefully restored, but not in its original state. The reproduction of this restoration offered in art history textbooks tends to simplify the lines and tones of the originals, making them appear trite. Expressionism is a cliche-prone term then, and a clear understanding of the movement requires careful examination of the undisputable chronicles of its progress: the art.

The D. Thomas Bergen Collection of German Expressionist Drawings provides an opportunity to view Expressionism in the terms in which it progressively defined itself. Sixty-five drawings from Mr. Bergen's collection, selected by the Art Galleries of Notre Dame University, are presently on exhibit at Harvard University's Busch-Reisinger Museum and will subsequently travel to SUNY at Binghamton, Cornell University, and the University of Houston. Hanging around in academic circles seems appropriate to a collection which is scholarly in the best sense of the word; which culls from the stereotype the accurate insights hidden beneath connotations and vagueness. In focusing on the drawings executed in the first two decades of this century by those artists who defined themselves primarily as Expressionists, the exhibit can reveal the complexity and variety of Expressionist art.

The strengths of the collection are the ten magnificent works of Ludwig Meidner, and the large and comprehensive group of drawings of Die Brucke: choice Kirchners, Heckels, and Pechsteins. The collection is also distinguished by its Grosz drawings, examples of his most incisive social criticism, and by a few single gems: Franz Marc's Two Studies for Horses (a preliminary sketch for his painting, Blue Horses), Max Beckmann's horrific The Last Ones (1919), Otto Dix's almost surreal Klara (1920), Schmidt-Rottluff's Seated Nude Facing Left(1913).

IF ONE DARED single out a medium that not only conveys, but embodies the message of the Expressionists, it would be drawing. Kirchner's third-person statements about his own drawings indicate the aesthetic of Die Brucke and others of the first generation:

Kirchner's drawings are perhaps his purest and most beautiful work. They mirror the feelings of a man of our times, instinctively and without premeditation. Besides, they comprise the formal language of his prints and paintings, that other part of his work in which a conscious will operates. The vital power of this will, however, derives from drawing.

By incessant drawing, the Germans hoped to recapture the immediacy they believed European art had lost. Their search for a simpler, more direct are led them to study primitive cultures. The drawings in the show, however, make clear that primitivism was merely one means to an end. Though primitive objects and people appear in many of Die Brucke's works in the collection, these things are only elements of an artistic vocabulary; they are only symptoms, not causes of the artists' perception. Comparing Pechstein's Native Dances (1916) with Heckel's Bathers by the Alter River (1913), one sees that the stylistic traits are the same, though Heckel created his own notion of primitive society out of a jumble of African and South Pacific objects he found at hand in Germany, while Pechstein had the chance to travel to the South Seas and observe a native culture personally.

The best of the drawings are observations of the artists' own culture, observations which grow more subtle as the Expressionists develop a facility in using their new techniques. Kirchner's Street Scene (1912), the most widely known drawing in the Bergen collection, captures the process by which the artist evolved what he called "hieroglyphs" out of a chaos of line. The dark hats that emerge become, like printed words, a representation of "men in the street." Among the hatted males, a woman, defined by her dark hair, heavily shadowed eyes, and full-lipped mouth, stands alone. The outlines suggesting the passing men swirl around her, movement impressed on the air. Kirchner has drawn the people out of their motion--the image is a time exposure of both the scene depicted and the process of depiction.

The vast numbers of drawings done by Die Brucke (many of which are no longer extant) attest to the desire of these artists to make the pencil a sixth sense, an uncerebrated recording of their response to what they saw. Heckel's Reclining Woman (1913) exemplifies the spontaneous quality sought after; the carpenter's pencil defines the woman's body in uncompromising, strong lines, and shades the form into three-dimensionality with vibrating squiggles that are intended to be read as trails of the artist's pencil.

To capture the stripped essence of reality, the elemental alone, is the goal of these works. Kirchner's Reclining Nude by the Rocks (1912) shapes in six sweeping strokes a woman lying before stones. The style reduces the forms to their common denominators and merges them into one totality. This unity of the human body with nature was one of the major themes that Kirchner sought a style to express. "Developing a calligraphic style is just as difficult as learning to walk," Kirchner wrote. A drawing such as his large Nude on a Bed (1908), one of the highlights of the Bergen collection, shows that the search for style was a conscious endeavor, involving constant formal training. The work, in charcoal over pencil outline, seems a careful and fairly conventional life-study until one looks more closely at the way in which Kirchner is defining form. The legs and feet are oddly arresting, because one can see a purer, simpler from emerging in this portion of the sketch.

THE FORMAL interests of the Expressionists have often been obscured by their subject matter. This is especially true of artists such as Meidner, whose violently agitated scenes of streets, explosions and factories, executed between 1910 and 1915, earned him a reputation as a prophet of the Apocalypse. The drawings show, rather, a draftsman concerned with the language of marks on paper. The series of Street Scenes have an abstract life created by their patterns of broken lines and jagged chips of ink. Meidner seems to have translated the textures of wood block into pen-and-ink. The result is powerful in its simplicity; Figure in the Street at Night (1913) is an outstanding example of the potential force of Meidner's technique. The buildings, suggested in heavy strokes, compress the central explosion of light, rendered in sharp radiating lines. The lone, fleeing stick-figure can find no escape.

Meidner's work may well have seemed prophetic in hindsight. After the war, his images captured the German experience all too effectively. His work seemed to presage the new preoccupation with social criticism. Grosz, for example, never could have believed, as Kirchner did, that "an artist's drawings will never be superfluous since they have that which is the essence of art--beauty beyond purpose or morality." Drawings such as Grosz's Christ with a Gas Mask (1928), or The Gratitude of the Fatherland (1920) are both purposeful and moralistic. Grosz even used the codified morality of Christian iconography and symbolism to dramatize his message, as in Christ with a Gas Mask. More often the religious connotations of his art are more subtle--The Gratitude of the Fatherland, with its large central figure, seated above smaller beings, follows the pattern and rationale of an early altarpiece.

The gestures of Expressionism are superfluous here; they encumber Grosz's stylistic ironies. The Expressionist style is no longer a progressive impulse, but a hindrance. Expressionism had transformed itself from a "movement" into a "school" whose rules had become obsolete. The selectivity of the Bergen collection makes it easy to carefully observe the development of Expressionism. These drawings are chronicles of individual and collective progress: a take-off, a jump, a landing at a new starting point.

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