Rough Art for Hard Times

August 15th, 2014  |  Published in Summer 2014

“Cries in the Night”  Cincinnati Art Museum
June 21 – August 17, 2014

In spite of sailing scenes, landscapes, and portraits, it’s not possible to miss the sharp tang of cynicism in German Expressionism.  Like all movements in art, it was initially founded on defeating the traditional bourgeois tastes of the majority.  Both insider and outsider artists believed that the society in which they lived (Weimar Germany—Germany between the wars—) was ignoring the truth of a society in crisis, fragmented by politics and economics.  They thus believed that it was the duty of art to create and exhibit reflections of Weimar’s demise through their own visions, harsh though they were: these styles have become known as German Expressionism, and were created in both paintings and in prints.   A large group of prints from this era is now on display at The Cincinnati Art Museum, curated by Kristen Spangenberg, and outstanding it is indeed.

The concept embraced art with all of its casual imperfections: prints with incongruous corners are placed askew on the paper, awkward figures, “primitive” renderings are seen throughout the exhibit.  Rules of art execution were deliberately ignored in an attempt to interpret the reality of Germany at that time.  Inflation and a new poverty were facts of life then, which created some of the anger so evident in prints by Otto Dix, in particular; many of these artists had been scarred by their own military experiences in World War I.   Woodcuts with their hard edges and limited color, were the perfect vehicle for all of this emotion.  Hardly the meticulous wood engravings of the late 19th century, their cuts seem violent, and threatening. In addition to wood cuts, the Expressionists employed lithograph and intaglio. Lithograph conveys an immediacy which allows the emotions to be transmitted to the page, but intaglio, by its very delicacy, often does not produce the sturm und drang of the two other print methods.  “Cries in the Night” is the perfect exhibit in which to note the subtle qualities of print forms in close comparison.  Smaller edition numbers on the prints are indicative of the era, too.  Editions were smaller back then. Holding the number of prints to less than 20 or so per edition was a practical consideration since the artists printed these themselves.   Women were shown jaggedly nude, or awkwardly posed.  Portraits of men, while following the genre in some aspects, were curiously more intensely personal, recognizable, and serious.  One had to wonder if these artists felt themselves victims of the times, while the women simply fell into the abyss.

“Tingle-Tangle II”, which is placed in a German nightclub of the lowest order, depicts four young women of the night in slovenly attitude and dress being considered by men in street clothes.   In Emil Nolde’s “Girl with Red Hair” a slim nude is rendered in edgy angles of woodcut.  She and “The Madam” illustrate the dissipated lives of the women who occupied the world of the Expressionists.  “Girl with Red Hair” and “Two Dancers” by Christian Rohlfs are filled with action,  rather new for woodcut images, utilizing the  careless, uncut ridges left as the blade moves on adding to the implied motion.  In contrast, the smooth, still evil of “The Madam”, by Otto Dix, whose unreal red hair and reptilian mien declare her personality and profession without doubt as she surveys her unsavory world.  And then there was Kathe Kollwitz.

Her etched self-portrait from 1912 shows a gentle youngish woman, neatly coiffed, and pleasantly posed.  Above it is a slashing statement some years later of not only her face, but her loss. Her only son was killed in combat in 1914.  Her art, from then on, became stronger with each print, speaking of her concern for the children who suffered most in the Germany of those years.  The powerful humanity of her work has become a lasting contribution to the history of art, and her work in woodcut, the definitive use of the medium.

In addition to individual prints, there are four portfolios displayed, grouped in blocked areas to emphasize their connection.  All of these speak more of German Expressionism than do the single prints.  Kandinsky’s 12 color abstractions entitled “Small Worlds”, produced when the movement had begun to yield to mainstream tastes, point the way to his future success, and Max Pechstein’s “Lord’s Prayer” collection of woodcuts seems more of an impassioned command than a prayer.

The world was growing smaller.  Germany was left isolated after WWI, but still, images which fit the tenor of the nation crept in from Oceanic cultures and African art, imbuing symbols which added strength and even supernatural phenomena in this collection.

In 1937 Hitler declared the art “degenerate”, confiscating a possible 20,000 pieces of work to be either destroyed or sold for foreign currency.  One of the great ironies of this confiscation, almost exclusively from Jewish collections, is Hitler’s seeming understanding of the power that art could have.  More on the history and images of this period of intense creativity can be seen currently at Expressionism. Art is difficult to destroy. Once it takes form, it may mutate, but it doesn’t die.  Stolen art from this era is still surfacing in Germany, its original owners (many murdered in The Holocaust) or their heirs still being located: the power of the work, however, continues to grow, and German Expressionism (which includes the Norwegian artist Munch’s “The Scream”) is now considered the strongest definition of expressionism ever made in art about strong emotion and attenuated modes of living.

By: Fran Watson

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