Los Angeles

“German Expressionist Sculpture”

With over 120 sculptures by 33 artists, “German Expressionist Sculpture” is something of a blockbuster. Curator Stephanie Barron has resurrected works that many never knew existed or had thought destroyed: sculptures by artists who defined Expressionism in painting, like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Egon Schiele, and Max Beckmann; by the few recognized sculptors of the period, Ernst Barlach and Wilhelm Lehmbruck; and by many relatively unknown ones such as Paul Rudolf Henning, Bernhard Hoetger, and Christoph Voll. Together the works suggest that sculpture, with its resistant physicality and the metaphors embedded in its materials and iconic origins, was as important to German Expressionism as its painting. They also pose an alternative (solid, figurative, grounded in 19th-century Symbolism and the image of the natural) to that 20th-century sculpture founded on assemblage, abstraction, and the mechanical model.

“German Expressionist Sculpture” should have provided a significant opportunity to reexamine not only Expressionism but our comfortable assumptions about it. Unfortunately, while Barron has unearthed the sculptures, she has only dusted off the clichés. They press down through the installation, the captioned photographs, the quotes and documents and placard explanations, and a particularly guilty audiovisual presentation; they overwhelm the work and make it shopworn and familiar. The exhibition leans heavily on the metaphor of patricide—the revolt of the sons against the father—and on the “otherness” of the artist. It asserts the artist’s masculinity (only three of the inclusions are women) and his prowess, his rebelliousness and sexual transgression, and, above all, his freedom from history and culture.

To accuse the show of severing the Expressionists from history seems awkward when the installation appears to shackle them to it. Barron forges the link in her catalogue essay, and the installation is chronologically based. From the foyer, which marks the turn of the century and the subsequent decade with works by Barlach and the usually Symbolist George Minne, the exhibition is divided into three sections, with World War I at its center and Hitler and Entartete Kunst at its end. But while “the times” are fashioned as causal, the linkages between them and the sculptures are insufficiently explored. What was the relationship, for example, between the ideology of German colonialism and Kirchner’s primitivism, his use of the African as a token of “innate spirituality” and the “intuitively naive”? To cite, as Barron does, Ivan Goll’s 1922 statement that “Expressionism was not the name of an artistic form, but that of a belief, a conviction,” is to mystify, since it ignores the process of selection by which certain forms are considered appropriate to convey certain beliefs and convictions. In Kirchner’s work the African and the nude did indeed stand for the unmediated and the natural, but the unquestioning acceptance of such assumptions is callous.

It is in the realm of politics and political action that the show most protects its artists from history. To secure a melancholy, otherworldly quality for them, it insists on their political ineffectiveness. At the entrance to the final room are prints and text by the Novembergruppe; beneath their slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” Expressionism’s socialism is made to seem as quixotic and poignant as the initial support of some of its artists for World War I. The room that deals with that war focuses on the works of Barlach, Lehmbruck, and Käthe Kollwitz; as we enter, placards tell us that the Expressionists welcomed the war, offering only the example of Barlach, and as we leave we are given only Lehmbruck’s suicide as a model for Expressionism’s despair. Kollwitz is trapped and disfigured by her company in this room; the activism and socialism that pervaded her life and work remains unmentioned.

Despite the installation’s appearance and the catalogue’s claims, it is in the history of art rather than that of the broader world that Barron is finally concerned to place Expressionism. A summarizing sentence at the end of her essay describes the limits of the show: of their examination and finally mutilation of the human form, Barron writes that Expressionists “orchestrated a resonant cry against the Academic tradition in Sculpture.” This is surely an insignificant goal for what is finally impassioned work.

Howard Singerman