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: New Paintings and Watercolors for the Permanent Collection

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Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Two important works by painters of the first generation of modern artists, one a German and the other an American, both of whose careers began about the turn of the century and both of whom have won a permanent place in the history of the revolutionary styles marking the evolution of twentieth-century art, have recently been added to the Institute's permanent collection. The two paintings are Modern Bohemia, 1924, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, one of the chief figures of German Expressionism, and Hopfgarten, 1920, by Lyonel Feininger, and American who between 1887 and 1937 lived in Germany and first established his reputation as an artist there.These two quite different works, painted within four years of each other at a time when individual styles and new schools were replacing Expressionism as a group movement, will be discussed in the present article. Two other works recently added to the permanent collection, both watercolors and both by Expressionist painters, Emil Nolde's Heavy Seas at Sunset and Mountain Landscape: Bavaria by Max Beckmann, will be the subject of separate comments.Kirchner's Modern Bohemia, received by the Institute as one of several important bequests to American museums by the late Court Valentin, as a large canvas of a studio interior with four figures—a writer, artist, model, and perhaps, patron hostess—representing an artistic cercle intime of the period following World War I. Elaborate in detail and resplendent in color, it brings together many of the elements of the German Expressionist style which the artist helped introduce as a member of the Brücke group before the war in Germany and which he developed further as the basis of his personal style as an artist working alone after 1914.Expressionism is a term first used in 1911 by artists of Der Blaue Reiter, a Munich group which emphasized inner experience and imaginative vision for the subject matter of art in opposition to the impressionist approach of recording the outer world. As early as 1905 in Dresden, however, students of the Technische Hochschule organized themselves into Die Brücke, the first of the Expressionist avant-garde groups whose members, deeply interested in a new basis of pictorial form, sought their themes in the life around them and concentrated their efforts on bringing out observed character through boldly simplified and exaggerated forms and unnatural combinations of color rather than using their subjects as a starting point for independent fantasy.Within this circle of resolute young artists, rebelling against the conventional symbol and story painting of the time and the prevalent taste for refinement in art, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner played a key role. He enrolled as an architecture student at the Dresden Technical School in 1901 at the age of 21. There he painted on the side, continued a boyhood interest in printmaking, and meeting the students Fritz Bleyl, Otto Heckel, and Karl Schmitt-Rottluff, began with them to explore theories of color, the art of the Pacific Islands, the techniques of printmaking, and the work of the Post-Impressionists as a basis for a completely new approach to art. To their subsequent five years' work and association in Dresden and three in Berlin under the Banner of Die Brücke, Kirchner made the most important contribution: his successful search for freedom of form within a closed composition leading the liberation of pictorial representation from the tyranny of perspective, the grand scale simplicity of his seeing, which showed the way to a deeper perception of essential character and form, and a new vitality of expression—elements that became permanent features of the German Expressionist tradition.The picture Modern Bohemia was painted in 1924, eleven years after the Brücke was dissolved and a decade after a physical and mental breakdown caused the artist's discharge from the German army and forced him to spend the rest of his life as a convalescent in or near sanitaria in Switzerland. From the original French title, “Bohème Moderne,” exaggerated concentration of the writer at his books, the mock-serious pose of the model, and the lavish interior furnishings, one can believe that Kirchner was amused by his theme, so different from the lean bohemian existence of the Brücke group in the years before the war. Whether this is true or not, the painting presents, in their most mature form, essential aspects of the style which have established the artist's revolutionary importance in modern German art.The composition is conceived as a semi-montage with the main figures and surroundings arranged independently of their natural spatial relationships. Perspective is sacrificed to the broad ornamental design of the picture surface and the colors exaggerate or completely defy natural appearance. Within this scheme the artist concentrated upon the features, actions, and attitudes of his subjects in a way which emphasizes what he feels to be their intrinsic character both within themselves and the chosen setting. The resulting work of art has a formal grandeur as a whole and an incisiveness of character in its individual parts that carries to high articulation the Expressionist ideal of representing the world independent of its conventional appearance and through forms conceived and regulated through inner experience.In a letter written in 1905 when he was 35 years old, Lyonel Feininger recalled that as a very small child he used to sit in the dusk in the basement of his family house in New York listening to his father and mother, both expert musicians, play Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. In his following childhood years he was equally fascinated by the sight of schooners, sidewheeling steamboats and the teeming life of the great port as well as by the spectacle of trains and steam engines, the buildings, viaducts, and elevated iron structures being erected as the city moved into the mechanical age. These affinities, so opposite as to appear almost antithetical, were to remain with Feininger throughout his life and to provide the basis of an artistic work which grew with increasing strength and definition in a way that brought to his cubist formal method the value of a larger outlook upon the world. At 17 Feininger went to Europe to study music. Shortly after his arrival he resolved to devote his life to art and early won recognition as a caricaturist and illustrator. A period in Paris in 1907 brought him to contact with the Cubists, and through their radical analysis of pictorial form, their reduction of the observed forms of nature to geometrical essentials, found the approach to his own deepest inclination and the basis of his personal style For the greater part of fifty years he lived and worked in Germany, his art developing independently of the dominant Expressionist movement. In the course of this period, notwithstanding his identification as an American, his work found a place in a score of German museums, he was invited to present a large retrospective exhibition the National Gallery of Berlin, and he was the first painter to serve on the staff of the famous Bauhaus. When he returned to the United States in1937 he had won a position among the foremost artists of the Twentieth century in Germany.The importance of his work, splendidly represented in the picture Hopfgarten painted near Weimar in 1920, is to be found in the vital reality which he gave to forms in nature, the ever present sense of the larger forces which inhere and surround them, and the lyrical poetry which he found within an ordered universe. His pictures sing with the serene music of a higher sphere which he felt penetrates all aspects of the world in which man lives, and gives unity and coherence to the conflicting strivings of his mind and emotion.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Modern Bohemia (detail). Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1924. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Curt Valentin.Writers and poets were constant associates of artist in European avant-garde circles before and after World War I.
  2. Modern Bohemia Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German, 1880-1938), 1924. Oil on canvas 49” x 64”. Bequest of Curt Valentin.A resonantly articulated pictorial composition presenting through freely arranged and brilliantly colored forms the surroundings and dramatis personae of a European artist's studio shortly after World War I.
  3. Hopfgarten Lyonel Feininger (American, 1871-1956), 1920. Oil on canvas 25” x 32 1/2”. Given in memory of Catherine Roberts Seybold by her family and friends.The trees are simple houses of a provincial German village become monuments of immediate, stately presence through the translucent folding planes of Feininger's art.
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Source: Stanton L. Catlin, "New Paintings and Watercolors for the Permanent Collection," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 55, no. 2 (March-April, 1956): 15-21.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009