At the beginning of the twentieth century, two of Germany’s most distinctive and original artists were women: Paula Modersohn-Becker and Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz had a long, prolific career that lasted from the 1890s until her death – just days before the end of the Second World War – well after Expressionism’s demise. Like Munch, her work often deals with profound emotion, birth, suffering and death. But it is otherwise very different. His work emerged from a Symbolist, bohemian milieu, pungent with sex and decadence, on the one hand, and a highly personal, subjective sensitivity to the natural sublime on the other. Hers came from a Realist tradition of humane socio-political engagement and fundamental philanthropy. Kollwitz was primarily a graphic artist, making works on paper ranging from brief, gestural drawings to numerous versions of intricate etchings, finely tuned to the effects of subtle tonal variations.
Unlike Kollwitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker died young, before “Expressionism” even came into common parlance. Groups like the Brücke in their early phases knew little or nothing of her work. Emil Nolde met her in Paris in 1900, but this was before she had developed the style on which her posthumous reputation came to rest. Nonetheless, she is an interesting precursor of Expressionism. As a woman artist, Modersohn-Becker was not admitted to the traditional Academy. She trained instead at a single-sex school in Berlin and then at the Colarossi Academy in Paris. Her work was greatly stimulated by her first-hand experience of art in the French capital, above all by Cézanne, Gauguin, Rodin and collections of Japanese art.
However, her most powerful subject matter was drawn from the German provincial countryside. She joined the established artists’ colony at Worpswede, a small village in the marshy, moorland landscape near Bremen in the north of Germany in 1898. In so doing, she was taking part in a growing tradition of creative retreats into the countryside. Other established artists’ colonies included Pont-Aven in France and St Ives in Britain. “Going away” appealed to artists in search of uncorrupted nature, colourful indigenous traditions and close-knit community.
In short, what many were seeking was life untouched by the ruptures of capitalist modernity. In fact, such artists’ colonies were themselves products of the railway age, the tastes of urban art markets and modern, exoticising fantasies about the folk cultures of distant provinces. In the case of Modersohn-Becker, the landscape, local inhabitants and fellow artists at the Worpswede colony provided her with conditions in which she was able to develop a highly personal style. Her monumental portrait of an old woman from the local poorhouse is remarkable for the strong sense of design, semi-abstract forms, and the finely tuned evocation of the shadows and fading glow of the Northern twilight. Even more striking is the sense of powerful, dignified human presence with which she has endowed the old woman.
Modersohn-Becker was often ambivalent about the Worpswede life and felt a lack of stimulation there. She married another Worpswede artist, Otto Modersohn, but her antidote to the colony’s insularity was Paris (which she called the “world”). She was a sophisticated artist, but in her drive for directness and truthfulness, she avoided sentimentalizing or romanticizing her subjects. This is part of what distinguishes her work from that of artists who went into the countryside looking for subjects to match their own or their collectors’ received ideas of the countryside. She died in 1907, aged thirty-one, a few weeks after giving birth to a daughter.
Although Expressionist art itself was often quite strikingly apolitical, early conflicts in its history highlighted the cultural-political dimension of the issue of Expressionism in the German context. This became especially clear in the 1930s when theorists on the Left debated retrospectively the successes and failures of Expressionism, and the campaign against modernism, internationalism and Expressionism reignited with greater violence in the form of the National Socialists’ campaign against so-called Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art).
What became Expressionism, in the sense it has now, first began to emerge just a few years into the new century. In Dresden, a group of young architecture students at the city’s Technical University began meeting to read, discuss and work together in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s student lodgings. Dissatisfied with conventional academic art training, they organized informal life-drawing sessions using a young model, with short poses that they were only able to capture in quick, decisive, “courageous” lines, as one of them, Fritz Bleyl, put it. This way of working liberated them from the academic practices of drawing meticulously from a model in stiff, eternal poses, working from dirty old plaster casts, or copying slavishly from the Old Masters. By 1905, they decided to formalize their independent group, chiefly for exhibition purposes. They drew, painted and made prints, first in an improvised studio space organized by Erich Heckel – it was an attic in his parents’ house in the Friedrichstadt District – and later in a series of other studios in the neighbourhood…
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