PRINT May 1970

Die Brücke at Cornell

IN 1896 A GERMAN CRITIC COMPLAINED that although “history has begun to disappear as the subject matter of art, the past has won new powers as a stylistic model . . . Our art life has become like a museum with the spaces for all periods of art history and for all past schools of art arranged one next to the other. We have now attained the ability to express ourselves in all art styles of the past. In all these Protean artistic accomplishments, our time seems to have as its artistic characteristic the lack of a characteristic.” (Carl Neumann, Der Kampf um die neue Kunst, Berlin, 1896; pp. 63–64.) In answer to this accusation, both Impressionism and Jugendstil asserted their independence from historicism, but their vociferous self-defense was not always convincing. In 1902, Max Liebermann used his ahistorical Impressionist technique to depict Delilah as she triumphantly sheared Samson of his curly locks; the subject matter of history was resurrected in dramatic nakedness. Jugendstil at this same time was attaining architectural success and recognition as Henry van de Velde remodeled the Folkwang Museum and founded his decorative arts seminar in Weimar. In Germany, however, this success could only be considered a partial one: Jugendstil’s major architect and designer was Belgian, and its major supporters—Harry Graf Kessler and Julius Meier-Graefe—were acknowledged Francophiles in a nationalistic German Empire neurotically absorbed in satisfied self-contemplation of its military and industrial might. What German critics and artists clamored for early in this century was a new art which had not been imported from their “inferior” neighbors. The Divine Darwinian laws of natural selection, having proved German superiority in the defeat of France in 1871, demanded an art racially pure, echt deutsch.

Although the various secession movements among artists of Berlin, Vienna, Munich and Düsseldorf might be viewed as initial answers to this call for a new German art, the first major breakthrough was the founding of the Brücke in Dresden in June, 1905. Germany has of course long recognized the significance of this artists’ group and in 1967 opened the Brücke Museum in Berlin expressly to serve the memory and study of the Brücke masters. Considering the numerous exhibitions devoted to Expressionism and to individual artists active in the movement, it is surprising that only now has an exhibition concentrating on the Brücke itself taken place in the United States. Organized by Thomas W. Leavitt, who also wrote the catalog introduction, the exhibition at Cornell University’s Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art displays 41 paintings and 89 prints and drawings by Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Mueller, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. As far as was feasible while having recourse solely to collections in the United States, only works from the time of the Brücke’s existence, 1905–1913, are included. An exception caused by the inaccessibility of works is Otto Mueller, who is represented only by later paintings and prints. Such lesser known Brücke artists as Axel Gallen-Kallela, Cuno Amiet or Franz Nölken are not included; paradoxically, Kees van Dongen, who became a Brücke member in 1908, is also not represented. Given these limitations, however, and the lack of any examples of sculpture, the exhibition is an excellent one which helps clarify the ideals which brought these artists together and the reasons for the slow breakdown of these common ideals as the artists left the protectively isolated art environment of Dresden.

One of the exhibited woodcuts is Kirchner’s Manifesto of the Brücke of 1906; in Nietzschean fervor it proclaimed: “With faith in evolution and in a new generation of creators as well as appreciators, we call together all youth, and as youth, carrying the future, we will obtain for ourselves freedom of life and movement in opposition to the well-established older powers. To us belongs everyone who renders directly and authentically that which drives him to create.” In the woodcut technique, as well as the typographic style of closely crowded, massive letters accompanied by an “illumination” depicting a bridge, this manifesto relates to German block books of the early Renaissance, but also to Jugendstil’s numerous typographical design innovations. In this dual relationship, the ideals of the Brücke become manifest: their art was to be an art which was modern in a specifically German vocabulary. The language of the manifesto, with its Nietzschean overtones, embodied in terms reminiscent of religious proclamations from the Protestant Reformation, likewise points to this duality. Consciously and deliberately the Brücke artists adopted The modes of the most contemporary art movements in Germany and sought to reconcile these with their national past, notably with the art of the “medieval” early German Renaissance; through them a German “characteristic” should be returned to art.

In 1913, in his “Chronik der Brücke,” Kirchner again emphasized the specifically German qualities of the group. As “art historical foundations” of the movement, he cited “Cranach, Beham and other German masters of the Middle Ages . . . Uninfluenced by today’s movements, Cubism, Futurism, etc., it [the Brücke] fights for a human culture, which will form the soil of a true art.“ The truth of this statement by Kirchner has, as is to be expected, often been doubted and the Brücke’s stylistic sources and associations with contemporary French art have been carefully documented, notably in Donald Gordon’s excellent and exemplary studies of Kirchner’s stylistic evolution. It is an easy exercise to walk through the current exhibition and find in the paintings of about 1906 to 1909 reflections of Van Gogh or Fauvism; and among the early prints, Vallotton’s influence clearly appears in Bleyl’s poster of 1906 as well as in the bridge which adorns kirchner’s 1906 Manifesto. An additional dominating stylistic source is the work of Edvard Munch who had a large graphics exhibition in Dresden in 1902 and in 1906 showed his paintings there. Given these obvious sources, the natural conclusion is to reject Kirchner’s claims, but in so doing we forget his aims. An ignored aspect of the artists influencing the early Brücke style is that almost without exception they are not French. Vallotton was Swiss, Van Gogh and Van Dongen were Dutch, and Munch was, of course, Norwegian. Recognizing, as had Nolde, that French art provided the most significant artistic developments of the 19th century, beside which German art was qualitatively inferior (a conclusion only affirmed by the 1906 Centenary Exhibition of German Art), the Brücke artists consciously sought stylistic exemplars in “Germanic” artists who provided a Nordic interpretation of French artistic events, who “purified” the newer French manifestations through the filter of a racially pure temperament.

Much the same motivation and evolution can be seen in the Brücke’s early prints. The very interest in graphics is traditionally ascribed as a characteristic of German art, and Jugendstil publications such as the periodical Pan presented not only innovations of graphic technique but also a renewed interest in German Renaissance graphics, particularly woodcuts, such as the works of “Cranach, Beham and other German masters.” The initial Jugendstil forms still evident in 1906 gave way to rougher, harsher effects, taking advantage of the grain and angular forms of carved wood; Munch’s 1906 Dresden exhibition is the most likely catalyst, but similar characteristics can be found as early as 1896 in the prints of the German artist Paul Hermann, who was then with Munch in Paris. When, in 1912, Kirchner pasted red and blue patches of paper together and then printed onto these patches the cover of the Galerie Commeter Brücke Exhibition catalog, it became possible to see the collages of Cubism as a source, but it was also a practice used since the 1880s by the Dane, Jens F. Willumsen, in prints probably known to Kirchner through Nolde. The Brücke artists’ fascination with woodcuts induced them to repeat their angular forms in all other print media. The mastery and total adoption of this “Germanic” vocabulary became so complete that a lithograph of about 1910 by Heckel is easily mistaken as a woodcut (and is so identified in the catalog of this exhibition). These primitive qualities of the Expressionist woodcut are also the most likely motivation for the stylistic changes apparent in the paintings of 1908–1909. But also, the heavy outlines, angular formal vocabulary and flattened shapes of the woodcut correspond to the anti-naturalist esthetic derived from Jugendstil, which therefore sets the basis for the translation of this vocabulary from prints to oil paint.

But it was not only a common style and the search for nationalistic expression through art that resulted in the close association of the Brücke artists. The subject matter found in paintings and prints before 1910 may be indicative of shared political or social ideals. Before Nolde joined the Brücke in 1906, all its artists had been raised in or near the manufacturing city of Chemnitz, a center of Marxist and other proletarian political movements, today appropriately re-named Karl-Marx-Stadt. Considering that the artists spent much of their youth surrounded by industry, it becomes significant that their paintings before about 1910 almost totally reject depictions of the modern urban scene. The content of their work consists essentially of country landscapes,’ portraits of each other and nudes, preferably set in nature. Their iconography indicates a romantic rejection of the effects of urbanization and industrialization characteristic of modern civilization. This rejection, embodying a desire for a more primitive, purer life certainly also contributed to the founding of the Brücke itself and the artists’ initial determination to live as a commune, as had the German Romantic Lukas-Bund, sharing property and women, recording their common experiences and thoughts in a communal diary. This manuscript, now lost, bore the title “Odi Profanum,” an expression of contempt for the bourgeoisie and its false morality. The depictions of men and women living and loving together naked in forests or along seashores likewise point to the adoption of a liberated sexual morality in opposition to bourgeois Victorian restrictions.

Sexual and social radicalism are often associated with a radical political position, and the Brücke is no exception. Kirchner’s manifesto has political overtones when it calls all youth together to collectively carry the future and create its own freedom, and when Schmidt-Rottluff invites Nolde to join the group in 1906 he cites as its primary aim “to attract all revolutionary and restless elements.” At no time is freedom or revolution limited to art. The domination and importance of red with its revolutionary symbolism may likewise not be without significance in the early Brücke paintings; after 1910 the importance of this color diminishes. When he created the poster for the Brücke Exhibition at Dresden’s Galerie Arnold in 1910, Kirchner can hardly have been ignorant of the political implications of his color scheme; while imperial Germany proudly displayed its black, white and red flag, Kirchner’s large poster with its blatant depiction of a naked adolescent girl proudly spoke in the black, red and gold colors of the flag around which democratic students had rallied in 1848.

Perhaps these revolutionary attitudes, accompanied by the “immoral” sexual life, more than the lack of individual artistic styles, caused the mild-mannered Nolde and his gentle, sickly Ada, to whom he was so devoted, to decide against remaining in Dresden with these younger artists. Although artistically sympathetic to them, he must have felt himself “au milieu des fauves.” But in his art, too, he appears different from his Brücke colleagues. Shared with them was the desire to paint not “what I wanted, but what I had to paint.” (Emil Nolde, Jahre der Kämpfe, 2nd ed. Flensburg, n.d. p. 96), but for Nolde color gains a significance surpassing the dictates of the forms which hold it. His experimentation with color for its own sake liberated him from the dictatorship of line and draftsmanship which the other Brücke painters retained from their Jugendstil and woodcut heritage. When Schmidt-Rottluff, for example, turned to watercolors, it was because the thinner medium facilitated drawing with the brush and he often added pencil or ink lines to aid in the sharp delineation of colored forms. Nolde, in contrast, let colors freely float together, dissolving forms and boundaries, creating soft and subtle harmonies and contrasts; when he injected lines, they often appeared as harsh intrusions in a coloristic symphony. Nolde is most successful in paintings such as Blue Sea, when he could freely play with colors only insignificantly bound by subject matter, totally absorbed in blues of the sea cut by a glowing stripe of green, impatient with the remnants of figurative illusion.

Nolde should be seen as a first intrusion of individualism leading to the ultimate dissolution of the communal Brücke. Between June, 1905, and 1908 the original Brücke painters were almost always together; the experiences of art were consistently shared experiences determined largely by what was occurring in Dresden. Pechstein, who joined the Brücke in 1906, broke with this practice when he went alone to Italy and France late in 1907 and exhibited with the Salon des Indépendants, opening himself up to the direct influence of French art; in 1908, he became the first Brücke painter to move to Berlin. Heckel toured Italy alone in 1909 and joined Pechstein in Berlin in 1911. Schmidt-Rottluff, perhaps as a token of his appreciation for Munch, spent July and August, 1911, in Norway and then likewise moved to Berlin, where Kirchner had already joined the other Brücke artists. It was a process through which each artist obtained visual and artistic stimulation not shared with other members of his communal society; the inevitable result was that each member evolved an individual stylistic vocabulary and esthetic interests not shared by the others.

This stylistic atomization process, and the growing recognition of the Brücke’s significance among Germany’s avant-garde, combined with the artists’ increasing maturity as they approached the magical age of thirty, also gave them a more liberal attitude toward non-Germanic art and influences. In 1910 Kirchner’s works began to show direct borrowings from Gauguin and Ajanta Cave Paintings. Heckel discovered models in Egyptian and Etruscan art while Schmidt-Rottluff studied the forms of African sculpture. Pechstein’s Evening in the Dunes (1911) incorporates not only the earlier angular stylizations of woodcuts but also the colors and plastic values of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings. The emphasis shifted from the artist as a nationalistic revolutionary to the artist seeking adherence to international professional ideals. Kirchner’s complex explorations of a canvas’s spatial and linear organization in his portrait of Otto and Maschka Mueller (1911) or the Lighthouse at Fehmarn (1912) adhere to the sate classic artistic values as do Picasso’s Analytic Cubism or Matisse’s series of open-window paintings.

The experience of Berlin, the capital of a colonial and industrial empire, also tempered the social attitudes of the Dresden artists. They submitted to urbanization and freely depicted the teeming, anonymous, fashionable throngs of city streets which previously had been so conspicuously absent from their work. Nudes became less obsessively erotic, often respectfully segregated or transplanted into exotic lands, times or Gypsy camps. One senses not only a fascination with primitive art but also a submission to the ideals of colonial expansion and Grossdeutschland as Pechstein depicts Somaliland dancers and when he and Nolde travel to the German colonies in the South Pacific.

The romantic nationalist idealism of the early Brücke, seeking to arrive at a purified humanity through an uncontaminated art and through a revolutionary communal life, gave way to jealous individualism and greater interest in the universal constants of art. Kirchner’s formulation of the “Chronik der Brücke” and Pechstein’s increasing critical and financial success resulted in the formal dissolution of the artists’ association in 1913. In 1925 Kirchner painted a group portrait of the Brücke artists, all properly clothed in the suits and vests of the successful bourgeois. It was a yearning, rigidly formalized memorial to the years of youthful optimistic fervor; it was also a tombstone marking the death of artistic nationalism before World War I. The Brücke and its concerns more truly fit into the last remnants of 19th-century life; faced with the powers of the 20th century, the movement died, living only in the stylistic memory of its influence.

Reinhold A. Heller