May 1 2011: Journey Out of Darkness: Expressionism in Leicester (NVA, 2010)

Franz Marc

Journey Out Of Darkness: Expressionism in Leicester

Given its Germanic connotations, perhaps it’s surprising to learn that the first artists to be designated as ‘Expressionist’ (in a catalogue accompanying an exhibition at the Berlin Secession in 1911) were the French painters more usually thought of as Cubists and Fauves, such as Braque, Matisse, Picasso, Derain and Dufy; the first German artist to be anointed with the term was Max Pechstein, when the dealer Paul Cassirer was asked whether the painter was still under the influence of Impressionism, and was rumoured to have replied, ‘No, it’s Expressionism’.

Yet as the work gathered earlier this year in Journey Out Of Darkness at Leicester’s New Walk Museum & Art Gallery strongly suggests, the merging of elements from Cubism and Fauvism is precisely what gave Expressionism its distinctive stylistic features, as seen in the emblematic paintings of Franz Marc and Emil Nolde. Marc’s Red Woman (1912) and Nolde’s Head With Red-Black Hair (1910) were among the key works grouped inside the entrance to this exhibition, and their blend of cubist angularity, bold brushwork and heightened colour suggest the kind of Germanic spin on Matisse that the word ‘Expressionism’ usually conjures.

The contrast with Impressionism implicit in Cassirer’s remark about Pechstein also plays its part, nailing the distinction between ‘impressions’ of external optical phenomena – the light and colour of Monet, Degas and Renoir – and the ‘expressions’ of projected emotional and psychic states that led to distortion of colour and the ‘primitive’ stylisation of figurative forms as the hallmarks of German Expressionism. So far, so familiar. Whether the distinction exists as clearly between Expressionism and the broader church of Post-Impressionism, as represented by Gauguin, Van Gogh and others, is less certain.

Other works in this opening section also confuse the issue: Erich Heckel’s Marseilles (1926) shares more with the watercolour lightness of Raoul Dufy than with Nolde’s characteristically lurid colouring, while two contrasting portraits of the collector Alfred Hess – a bold, graphic woodcut by Max Pechstein from 1919 and a more realistic gouache by Heckel, in which the subject seems to be praying or drowning, made in 1923 – demonstrate that it’s a shared interest in projecting emotional states rather than any particular stylistic unity that marks the work usually placed under the Expressionist umbrella.

In most respects, though, the distinction between Expressionism and a more broadly-defined Germanic response to wider developments in painting is hard to fix. The classic Expressionist painting is angular and boldly coloured, as in the works of Max Pechstein, or dark and swirling, as in the Apocalyptic Landscapes of Ludwig Meidner, but it can also be entirely realist, as with examples featured in this exhibition by Lotte Laserstein and Ernst Neuschul: is there anything distinctively Expressionist about Neuschul’s Negermutter (1931) or Laserstein’s Self Portrait With A Cat (1928), or is the term by this stage merely a cypher for a whole range of German responses to Modernism before the second world war? The presence here of painters as stylistically and philosophically diverse as Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoshka, Lyonel Feininger and Kathe Kollwitz show that Expressionism can be a very elastic term.

The decision by the curators of Journey Out Of Darkness to follow the evolution of the collection itself in Leicester over a period of around 70 years, rather than any more standard chronological or thematic ordering of its contents, puts the emphasis on the various bequests and acquisitions rather than their contents as evidence of a cohesive movement. Instead of grouping artists together in a standard  art historical narrative, Journey Out Of Darkness suggests that we view these 350 works – mainly prints, drawings and paintings – in terms of how they became a single collection, beginning with the works brought to Leicester during World War II by such émigrés as Alfred Hess’s widow, Tekla, and the art historian Dr. Rosa Schapire.

This was the material that formed the basis of the exhibition Mid-European Art, shown in Leicester during Februrary 1944, and the presence of this core collection led others to donate Expressionist and German modernist works to the museum in the years that followed. By the time that the acquisition of modern German art was permanently written into New Walk Museum’s collecting policy in 1975, New Walk was already in possession of one of the strongest collections of its kind in the UK, and it’s perhaps an under-used resource in the region: its full extent only became clear to many outsiders with this show of the museum’s full holdings in the main galleries, despite a rotating display being part of New Walk’s permanent collection.

Franz Marc Red Woman

Yet whether that resource will be widely used by practising artists, here or elsewhere, is an open question. Although plentifully supplied with iconic images, and in some cases – for example, Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky and Max Beckmann – genuinely popular artists, in terms of influence on artists now, Expressionism is at something of a low ebb. Perhaps that’s an inevitable response to the Neo-Expressionist tendency in much 1980s painting, which despite bringing to attention a handful of acknowledged major contemporary figures such as Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer and Mimmo Paladino, proved an ephemeral phenomenon, too closely linked to the wave of speculative money that flooded the art markets of the 1980s to survive far beyond the twin recessions that ushered in the following decade.

A book looking at tendencies in art at the end of the 1980s – Klaus Honnef’s Contemporary Art, published in the UK by Taschen, for instance – certainly foregrounds Expressionist influences in a way that has seemed inconceivable since, with painters like Julian Schnabel, Sandro Chia, Jorg Immendorf and Albert Oehlen dominating the pages. It’s notable that those whose influence still seems relatively current – whether Gerhard Richter’s analytical explorations of the hinterland between painting and photography, Anselm Kiefer’s use of weighty materials as tools for an engagement with European history, or Jean-Michel Basquiat’s deployment of sub-cultural signs – all approach painting with a conceptual rather than emotional slant, a ‘cool’ rather than ‘hot’ temperament that sets them slightly apart.

Even so, there are signs that expressive painting is returning to the foreground, as Peter Doig becomes a key influence on the next generation in the mainstream art world, and artists like Jeremy Deller and Bob & Roberta Smith enthusiastically promote the amateur, the unselfconscious, personal and socially rooted art still to be found everywhere in ordinary life. The growth of interest in ‘Outsider Art’, too, seems a sign that the appetite for a direct link to the kind of primal creativity often associated with Expressionism remains deep rooted, and in their different ways, both Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry have capitalised on this, each essentially adopting modes of self-presentation that implicitly stake a claim on outsider status.

In Journey Out Of Darkness itself, as in the various early 1980s shows based on the notion of a return to Expressionism, such as Zeitgeist and A New Spirit In Painting, there is a strong suggestion that times of increased political polarisation might generate returns to this mode of art, and the end of an era of increased public spending, the return of cuts in jobs, living standards and services in conditions of deepening inequality, caused in large part by the activities of speculators and banks, certainly implies that there’s room for a fresh wave of interest in art of this kind.

George Grosz’s lithographs of fat capitalists counting money while their workers stand idle and famished outside closed factory gates, and Kathë Kollwicz’s starkly graphic portrayals of the effects of poverty and unemployment before, during and after the first world war – both largely neglected since their last round of ubiquity during the early to mid-1980s – feel suddenly contemporary again.

Expressionist themes also touch on other freshly urgent issues: the concern with environmentalism that can be projected without too much effort into Lovis Corinth’s The Waters Rise (1923 – 5), with its apocalyptic wind-battered landscape, or the quasi-mystical returns to a pre-Industrialised Eden promised by Franz Marc’s Birth of the Horses and the neo-primitive human figure of Red Woman (1912) are only two examples. Portraits of figures glimpsed on the fringes of mainstream acceptability, such as Otto Muller’s Gypsy Woman and Child (1927) or the defiant, pipe-smoking woman in Gabriele Munter’s Portrait of Anna Rosland (1917) hint at assertions of presence and identity in the face of gathering forces of standardisation.

That such forces were perceived to be active by these artists is evident in the many images featured in Journey Out Of Darkness that imagine devastation, or offer ominous visions: the Medieval-style nightmares of demons unleashed across Ernst Barlach’s suite of woodcuts illustrating Walpurgisnacht (1923), Ludwig Meidner’s self-explanatory Apocalyptic Vision (1912) and even the lurid explosions implied by Christian Rohlfs’ flower-paintings, such as Red Tulips (1920) and Red Poppies In A Vase (1929), which manage to suggest some impending catastrophe even in the usually neutral realm of still life.

Yet for every hint of apocalypse and foreshadowing of devastation featured in Journey Out Of Darkness, there’s another work, like Lyonel Feininger’s Dream City (1911), Arthur Segal’s Heads Above Houses (1914) or Kandinsky’s Untitled Drypoint (1924) that pulls in the opposite direction, towards compositional harmony and contemplative balance, a kind of utopian vision of some healed future. All of which tells us that readings of artists’ works are coloured strongly by the sense we bring to them of their context.

Does Ernst Neuschul’s manic self-portrait, Messiah (1919), for example, uncover something significant in the psyche of the times, as artists’ Nietschzean urges to remake the world by will alone unconsciously prepared the ground for the arrival of Hitler, or merely a display of youthful painterly bravado, a joke at the expense of his own and his contemporaries’ grandiose pretensions? It’s impossible to know for sure.

By the same token, just as the potential for the managerial and technocratic concerns of much recent research-based art practice to be transformed into something more personal and expressive as the times change is present, there will be no way of knowing if such a development has really taken place until we look back on our own age from some point, years away, with our knowledge of how things turned out complete. And by then, of course, that same hindsight will have coloured our sense of what the artists themselves might have intended.

Ernst Neuschul Messiah

Journey Out Of Darkness (New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, 31 Oct 2009 – 03 May 2010). Originally reviewed at Nottingham Visual Arts, 2010.

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