View of “Whose Expression? The Brücke Artists and Colonialism,” 2021–22. Photo: Roman März.

View of “Whose Expression? The Brücke Artists and Colonialism,” 2021–22. Photo: Roman März.

“Whose Expression? The Brücke Artists and Colonialism”

“Whose Expression? Die Künstler der Brücke im kolonialen Kontext” (Whose Expression? The Brücke Artists and Colonialism) is a didactic show. The exhibition aims to shed new light on key members of the German artist collective Die Brücke, which was formed in 1905 in Dresden. The group, which included Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and others, was eager to break away from the stultifying curricula of the art academies and the rigid bourgeois social norms of the era. Characterized by angular and rather coarse abstract shapes and employing a bright and glowing color palette, the artists’ works often depict nudes, circus and vaudeville culture, urban life, and the relationship between humans and nature. Testament to the German Empire’s significant involvement in colonial expansion, the collective’s output was “inspired” by—which is to say, mostly, appropriated from—the masks, bronzes, and other sculptures they encountered in Germany’s early ethnological museums’ growing collections of non-European looted art. Few members of Die Brücke ever visited German colonies, with the exception of Nolde and his wife, Ada, who were both officially invited as documentarians by the Imperial Colonial Office to accompany physicians on their medical-demographic German New Guinea expedition in 1913–14. Kirchner was known to attend the racist spectacles of “human zoos,” which took place in metropoles such as Berlin and Hamburg. Sketches he made there would later serve as the basis for some of his larger paintings.

This is the uneasy terrain on which “Whose Expression?” unfolds. The cross-institutional project, conceived by curators at SMK–National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; and Brücke Museum, employs several tried-and-tested curatorial methods in order to fathom the Brücke Expressionists’ entanglement in colonial iconography and expose their exoticizing and othering gaze. These educative elements—from meticulously researched historical time lines and video interviews with German as well as international experts on the country’s colonial legacies, to a glossary of problematic or racist terms, to the installation of a reading room in the exhibition space—contextualize the display of a selection of drawings, paintings, and embroideries, granting insight into the artists’ environments, processes, worldviews, and psychic territories.

The strength of “Whose Expression?” lies in the accompanying voices of the academics, writers, and activists who temporarily liberate selected paintings from decades of white-centered art-historical scholarship on the Brücke collective. In a recorded video interview, Afro-German writer and scholar Natasha A. Kelly can only speculate about Milly, one of Kirchner’s muses, known from his painting Schlafende Milly (Milly Asleep),1911 (not in the exhibition). We learn that she most likely worked as a dancer or circus artiste: The entertainment sector was among the few in which nonwhite individuals could find employment in Germany at the time. However, no official records regarding her identity are available. Indeed, the display of unidentifiable or nicknamed Black and nonwhite (female) bodies, typically in lascivious positions, runs like a leitmotif through the entire exhibition. Similarly, the photographs and paintings related to Emil and Ada Nolde’s subsidized journey to German New Guinea capture nameless individuals, often women, in beach settings against a backdrop of palm trees.

The exhibition’s pedagogical impetus and reproachful tenor off-load much of the inevitable intellectual and emotional labor for this context onto the invited scholars and activists and leave very little responsibility with the institutions themselves—except that of obligatory and rather performative apology. Germany’s endless struggle with systemic racism and its reverberations into the third decade of the twenty-first century remain unmentioned. The fact that numerous outside experts had to be asked to contribute says everything about staffing in the country’s cultural and art institutions: too white and too upper middle class, and therefore seemingly unable to respond to present calls for overdue structural change.