Anti-bourgeois, anti-industrial and anti-imperial, German Expressionism started at the dawn of the 20th century and ended, in an official, nationalist sense, with the Nazis’ “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937 (an event that still defines the movement as art that Hitler hated, to paraphrase the scholar Pamela Kort).
In between, it encompassed a cataclysmic war and various competing factions: the bad-boy Brücke gang, the spiritual Blaue Reiter tribe, the urbane cynics of the Neue Sachlichkeit. We call Max Beckmann an Expressionist, although he disdained the label; likewise George Grosz and Otto Dix, who painted with a chilly, exaggerated realism. The Brücke founder Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s requirements for membership could easily apply to German Expressionism as a whole: “Anyone who renders his creative drive directly and genuinely is one of us.”
Like other collection shows at the Neue this one, organized by the Neue director, Renée Price, and the associate curator, Janis Staggs, includes works in the museum’s “extended family” (some of them from the collections of Estée Lauder and Serge Sabarsky). Many of the offerings will be familiar from previous exhibitions, although it’s always nice to see prized pieces like Kirchner’s febrile “Berlin Street Scene” and Beckmann’s moody and defensive “Self-Portrait With Horn.”
The installation sorts everything into two groups, using the rubrics of “primitivism” and “modernity.” This is a gross simplification. (Primitivism, for instance, is just one of 13 themes on the Museum of Modern Art’s excellent Web site for German Expressionism.) And it’s applied in some fairly superficial ways, often with color as a litmus test.
It does not help that the Neue, here, eschews object labels or other contextual information; for that you’ll have to consult the collection catalog and other books downstairs in the gift shop.
“Primitivism,” for purposes of this show, seems to mean the gallery of jarringly bright, vigorously brushy paintings by members of the Brücke and the Blaue Reiter: Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Emile Nolde, on the one hand, and Kandinsky, Gabriele Munter and August Macke, on the other.
Fans of Kirchner will admire a row of three masterly canvases: “Tightrope Walk,” in which female acrobats stretch and crouch like predatory cats, flanked by the pinwheeling “Russian Dancer” and the more schematic, buttoned-up sexual tension of “Berlin Street Scene.”
Another Brücke standout, Hermann Max Pechstein’s “Young Woman With Red Fan,” reminds you that German Expressionism evolved in tandem with French Fauvism. It could almost pass for a Matisse, except for the disconcerting, jaundiced cast of the model’s skin.
The Blaue Reiter group is represented mainly by Kandinsky and his partner Gabriele Munter, whose streamlined landscape “White Wall” is among the show’s lesser-known gems. Painted in 1930, it’s a late entry here; with its forked clouds and clublike poplar trees, it reveals the influence of American modernists like Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Just when your eyes start to adjust to the chromatic intensity of these works, which appear almost backlit on midnight-blue walls, the show shifts abruptly into a neutral palette. Here, in the next gallery, are Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity portraits by Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Christian Schad, among others, made during the Weimar era with caustic humor and an eye for the grotesque.
Dix’s saggy-breasted, frightened-looking nudes and gray-skinned portrait of the lawyer Fritz Glaser always generate revulsion, no matter how often you’ve seen them at the museum. So, for that matter, does George Grosz’s glass-eyed man shown squinting at a book (“Portrait of John Förste, Man With Glass Eye”). These works are not for all tastes, but they’re a part of the social context of German Expressionism (even if they’re painted in a “post-Expressionist” style).
The exhibition repeats its strategy in two smaller groupings of works on paper, segregating colorful watercolors and woodcuts by the likes of Klee, Kirchner and Kandinsky from pencil and ink portrait sketches by Dix, Grosz, Lovis Corinth and others.
Otto Dix Memory of the Halls of Mirrors in Brussels
Some artists manage to escape the show’s rigid classifications. One of them is Grosz, who was arguably more of a Dadaist than an Expressionist (and even dallied with the “Metaphysical School” of Giorgio de Chirico in works like 1920s “Diabolo Player”). Another is Klee, whose Bauhaus affiliations pave the way for an installation of furniture and design objects. (Technically speaking it isn’t part of the German Expressionism exhibition, although in this residence-like museum it’s often hard to tell where one show ends and another begins.)
Small and collector driven as it is, the Neue is not in the ideal position to survey large, unwieldy movements. When it comes to the beast that is German Expressionism, solo-artist surveys and more focused shows (like the superb “Comic Grotesque”) are perhaps the way to go.
“German Expressionism 1900-1930: Masterpieces From the Neue Galerie Collection” runs through April 22 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street; (212) 628-6200, neuegalerie.org.
Anti-Everybody and Pro-Individual
‘German Expressionism 1900-1930’ at Neue Galerie’
New York Times