Die Brücke. The Origins of Expressionism

Grenoble, Musée, from 30 March to 17 June 2012
Quimper, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 11 July to 8 October 2012

Germany and France each had its separate Fauve movements but the boundaries between them remained open. The members of Die Brücke and Fauvism observed each other carefully [1], sharing the same desire to exalt color and liberate line, even if the concerns of Matisse’s friends were more formal than those of the Germans whose "goal was not refinement" as Heckel pointed out, but the immediacy of expression.

1. Emil Nolde (1867-1956)
Frisian Houses I, 1910
Oil on Canvas - 64 x 84 cm
Berlin, Brücke Museum
Photo : Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Eml Nolde

2. Cuno Amiet (1868-1961)
Still- life with Flowers, 1908
Oil on Canvas - 40 x 32 cm
Berlin, Brücke Museum
Photo : Brücke Museum

Despite this emulation at the time, French institutions have not often featured exhibitions on Die Brücke [2], making the one staged today by the Musée de Grenoble all the more interesting, with about 120 works lent by the Brücke Museum in Berlin ; the exhibition will then move on to Quimper next summer. The catalogue published for the occasion classifies the works by artist (thus explaining, but not excusing, the lack of an index). Readers will find a biographical presentation for each painter, then full page reproductions with entries and commentaries unfortunately relegated to the back of the publication.

3. Max Pechstein (1881-1955)
Fisherman VII, 1911
Engraving on Panel - 29.2 x 24.3 cm
Berlin, Brücke Museum
Photo : Max Pechstein Urheberrechtsgemeinschaft,
Hamburg/ Tökendorf
ADAGP, Paris, 2012

The chronological theme is clear, distinguishing three major stages : the early years in Dresden (1905-1907), then the assertion of a common style during "the freedom years" (1909-1911), and finally the more somber Berlin period until the dissolution of the group in 1913 before the outbreak of World War I.
It all started in Dresden in 1905, when four young artists - Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Ernst Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl and Erich Heckel - expressed their opposition to the academic art and social conventions of the Wilhelmine Period, without actually defining an artistic program or particular style. "[...]We want to conquer our freedom of action and life in face of the established forces of the past [...]" they proclaimed. Heckel, once again, emphasized : "what we needed to leave behind, was clear to us - where it would lead us, was, true, much less so" [3]. Die Brücke ("the bridge") was officially born in 1906 ; besides its symbolic value making the artist a "messenger", this name was no doubt influenced by Nietsche : "what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end : what can be loved in man, is that he is an overture and a going under " (Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
The group’s founders were quickly joined by Max Pechstein, then the Swiss Cuno Amiet, the Finnish Akseli Gallen-Kallela, as well as Otto Mueller... Emil Nolde joined the movement for only a short time, but some of his works painted after leaving it, such as Frisian Houses, its heavy touches set down with dynamic strokes, in vivid and vibrant colors, still reflect his passage through the Bridge movement (ill. 1). In the case of Munch and Matisse, they politely turned down the invitation. Finally, some "passive" members - collectors, dealers, museum directors... - paid an annual membership fee and received a portfolio of original engravings in exchange.

4. Max Pechstein (1881-1955)
The Yellow and Black Swimsuit, 1909
Oil on Canvas - 68 x 78 cm
Berlin, Brücke Museum
Photo : Max Pechstein Urheberrechtsgemeinschaft,
Hamburg/ Tökendorf
ADAGP, Paris, 2012

5. Erich Heckel (1883-1970)
Young Man and Woman, 1909
Oil on Canvas - 70.5 x 80.4 cm
Berlin, Brücke-Museum
Photo : Photo : Nachlaß Erich Heckel Hemmenhofen
ADAGP, Paris 2012

They each developed a distinct artistic language while forging a common style with the goal, not of interpreting reality, but rather the emotion it raises. Two essential influences marked the early paintings of these artists : Munch’s first of all, and his aura of scandal, and that of Van Gogh [4] which encouraged the use of pure and luminous colors ; Amiet’s Still- life with Flowers is in fact a direct reference to the master (ill. 2). Indeed, the exhibition highlights above all the works on paper, drawings, watercolors, such as the nudes sketched in a few minutes’ time, wood engravings also, an ideal means of expression for Die Brücke, responding to a desire for spontaneity and freedom ; evolving from Bleyl’s very refined animals to the chiseled face of Pechstein’s Fisherman (ill. 3).

6. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Nude Reclining in front of a Mirror, 1909-1910
Oil on Canvas - 83.3 x 95.5 cm
Berlin, Brücke Museum
Photo : Brücke Museum

The "summers of freedom" evoke this period where life and work styles were closed linked : the artists would meet up on the shores of the pond at Moritzburg, in order to create in harmony with nature, in a community spirit, to such an extent that it is at time difficult to attribute the works produced then with precise certainty. We can thus talk of a Die Brücke style, characterized by the vivid colors, broad and rapid strokes. The Yellow and Black Swimsuit by Max Pechstein reveals this "primitive" life (ill. 4) while Heckel’s Young Man and Woman shows us a tranquil sensuality through strident, happy and warm colors which somewhat recalls Gauguin’s nude women with golden skin (ill. 5). One of the most beautiful rooms in the exhibition is in fact the one which assembles several naked female figures : a masterpiece by Kirchner, Nude Reclining in front of a Mirror, alluding to Velázquez, troubles the viewer’s eye with a moving space while the color of the flesh evokes its decomposition (ill. 6). It hangs facing another green nude, Heckel’s Girl Sitting, and further on, still another wall displays the icon of German Expressionist art : Fränzi Reclining, a wood engraving which expresses the power of the female body, white, simplified, outlined in black on a red background (ill. 7). According to Guy Tosatto, we are witnessing the appearance of "the modern nude". Human figures are not always isolated, they blend in totally amid the red landscape by Schmidt-Rottluff, Break in the Dam, refusing naturalist colors to better express raw emotion before the spectacle provided by nature (ill. 8).

7. Erich Heckel (1883-1970)
Fränzi Reclining, 1910
Engraving on Panel in Black and Red - 23/20.7 x 40.5/41.6 cm
Berlin, Brücke Museum
Photo : Nachlaß Erich Heckel Hemmenhofen
ADAGP, Paris 2012

The arts of Africa and the South Sea obviously influenced the creations of Die Brücke. Sculpted with several figures, a Palaos beam, brought back from a German expedition in 1908-1909, struck the artists who designed more severe compositions, with sharper angles, and very distinct color blocks. Heckel’s drawings illustrate this perfectly, depicting faces similar to masks, simplified and deformed heads, human figures mixed in with primitive sculptures. The silhouette in the foreground of In the Studio, (1911) might even be a forerunner to the Antibes Picasso. A newcomer to the group, Otto Mueller painted A Woman in a Boat ; this reference to The Birth of Venus displays an unfinished goddess, also immodest since the concept of sin no longer exists. Another muse, Marcella appears in a famous painting by Kirchner, in a daring perspective which looks down on the central figure ; the absent look and the cheek resting on the hand of the bored young girl seem to refer back to Dürer’s Melancholia (ill. 9). In this large green monochrome canvas, we see the brown flesh of the model and the white note of the cat stand out in a Baudelaire-like note which a French observer perceives as sensuality.

8. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976)
Break in the Dam, 1910
Oil on Canvas - 75 x 84 cm
Berlin, Brücke Museum
Photo : VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011
ADAGP, Paris, 2012

Around 1912, the artists left for Berlin where their style changed, became more individualized and took on new motifs - architecture, cabaret, dance or circus scenes. The loud and anonymous crowds of the big city, the night life and the prostitution invaded the canvases, betraying the loss of innocence and illusion with darker colors, a sharper stroke. Kirchner became famous for his street scenes, animated by harlots in extravagant dress. At the Café Terrace is an anodine subject where the pointed forms denote however the underlying aggressivity (ill. 10). This is even more noticeable in two engravings on yellow backgrounds, Café Concert and Leipzig Strasse where there reigns a chaos of lines and forms. The influence of Cubism, discovered at the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne in 1912, is also tangible in some of these works.

These last rooms show us a world before the apocalypse ; Pechstein painted a premonitory work, Boat with Fishermen, a metaphor of a world capsizing under a dark sky, hanging alongside a wood engraving by Kirchner, not much more optimistic : Sailboats near Fehmarn. Otto Mueller closes the visit with Lovers in an unconstructed space, between menacing walls hemming in. Beyond it, we feel the beginning of Expressionism.

9. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
The Artist Marcella, 1910
Oil on Canvas - 101 x 76 cm
Berlin, Brücke Museum
Photo : Brücke Museum

10. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
At the Café Terrace, 1914
Oil on Canvas - 70.5 x 76 cm
Berlin, Brücke Museum
Photo : Brücke Museum

Although they were not easy on reality by refusing a naturalist representation in favor of spontaneity, the Die Brücke artists did not abandon the figurative, nor traditional techniques, not even frames for their paintings ; by taking the first step towards German Expressionism, they set down a bridge between tradition and modernity.

Curators : Guy Tosatto, Nathalie Gallissot

Collective work, Die Brücke (1905-1914). Aux origines de l’expressionisme, Somogy éditions d’art/Hirmer Verlag, 2012, 280 p., 35.50€. ISBN : 9782757205143.

Visitor information : Musée de Grenoble, 5 place de la Lavalette, 38010 Grenoble. Tel : +33 (0)4 76 63 44 44. Open every day except Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Admission : 8€.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, lundi 14 mai 2012


[1] The Fauves, notably Vlaminck, Van Dongen, Marquet, Mangin were presented at the same time as the Die Brücke exhibition organized at the Richter gallery in Dresden from 1st to 13 September ; then in 1911, the German magazine Der Sturm used the term "Expressionism" for Fauve works exhibited at the Berlin Sécession. Some were also on view at the Sonderbund in Düsseldorf.

[2] There was the exhibition Emil Nolde at the Grand Palais from 25 September 2008 to 19 January 2009, as well as Figures du moderne : l’expressionisme en Allemagne 1905-1914 : Dresde, Munich, Berlin at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, from 18 November 1992 to 14 March 1993.

[3] "Erich Heckel im Gespra¨ch mit Hans Kinkel", in Das Kunstwerk, XII, 1958-1959, Cahier 2, p. 2124. Quoted in the exhibition catalogue, p. 15.

[4] Exhibition held in 1905 at the Arnold gallery in Dresden.

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