The largest collection of German Expressionist art in the UK is found at the New Walk Museum in Leicester, so on Tuesday I went to go and see. Not only is there a very large collection of paintings, woodcuts, lithographs, etchings and drawings (only a small fraction is on display at any one time), but gallery has done us a great service in providing some proper context to expressionism by including the whole collection as an easily searchable, fully indexed resource on its website and accompanying that with some excellent reports on the collection, the first of which, by Dorothy Price, is as good an introduction to German Expressionist art as I have read. In addition, there are links to books: the chance to browse the Blaue Reiter Almanac from 1912-14, a copy of which is uncelebrated in a corner of the exhibit, is a real treat, as are copies of the Degenerate Art catalogue put on by the Nazis in 1933 to mock the work of modern German art. And lastly there is the chance to look at the small collection of sculptures from the period in a 360 degree viewer. All in all, a highly accessible and interesting site that really complements the museum exhibit.
My interest in German Expressionism began 20 years ago when I saw one of Kandinsky’s landscapes (Murnau Staffelsee 1) at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – before that I had never really “seen” what you could do to a landscape if you thought purely in terms of colour, as Kandinsky did. Since then I have visited the Ludwig Museum in Koln and more recently have begun to explore their woodcut prints, a key aspect of their artistic vision. Printmaking (chiefly woodcut, but also lithography and etching) was used by both of the two “wings” of German Expressionism, the Erfurt/Dresden/Berlin group, known as Die Brücke, and the group of artists working with Kandinsky and Franz Marc in Munich, known as Der Blaue Reiter. Both groups began their search for a more emotional response within their art, both were influenced by and then reacted to impressionism, and both have a history that began before the Great War, were deeply affected by it and what it did to Germany, and in various forms also survived it. It is a remarkable movement, one of the very first truly modern movements in European art, and in retrospect, almost a necessary one. However, it is very disparate, and in the nature of movements, it is easier to see it as one retrospectively than it was at the time. At the time, it was a necessary reaction. Courtesy of the museum website, here is a small selection of the woodcuts that I really enjoyed looking at, studying and learning from:
I have not included anything here from Lyonel Feininger – a German-American artist who came from the US to study in Germany, becoming for a time the artistic director of the Bauhaus, before leaving again for the US in 1937 after his work was declared degenerate by the Nazis. His woodcut Hansa Fleet (on display) and its pair, Hanseatic Ships (on the website only) demonstrate the most extraordinary technical prowess, with the woodcutting done, as often with Feininger, almost exclusively with a knife, followed by extensive and careful gouging.
The exhibition, housed in a single room, is beautifully laid out in a more-or-less historical pattern, beginning with the work of Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth who began the move away from impressionism to a more emotionally-engaged art form, through a discussion, with an excellent and representative sample of their work, of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, to a section on how the Great War impacted the experience of painters and the content of their work.
Thence, to the Neue Sachlichkeit movement that formed in (partial) reaction to expressionism; and then to the work that dominated the German expressionist art scene during the Weimar republic (though this was at the same time as the Bauhaus, in which Kandinsky, Klee and Feininger inter alia were involved, the Bauhaus movement does not get much of a mention here, and its relationship to expressionism is unexplored). Kollwitz, Meidner and Slevogt all are well-represented, and there are three newly exhibited portraits by the artist Lotte Laserstein.
The exhibition concludes with a personal touch, linking the artists who knew the Hess family, whose huge collection of art was destroyed after they had fled Germany, but of which enough remained to form the start of the Leicester collection first exhibited in 1944, with the collection and its importance.
I have, for whatever reason, never set foot in Leicester before. But I have now a compelling reason to return. It was absorbing to see the lives of these (mostly) courageous and far-sighted artists and cultural leaders reflected in both their artwork but also in the relationships and artistic concerns and debates that raged in and around them at a time of enormous political upheaval for Germany.