German Expressionism

German Expressionism
Thu, 05/27/2021 – 17:21



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NARRATOR: Hello and welcome to LACMA. You’re listening to one of several audio tours about modern art at the museum. This episode explores German Expressionism, a brief and dramatic movement that altered the course of modern art. It begins on the third floor of the BCAM building. From the lobby, look for the entrance that says Modern Art 1900-1920s. Pass through the doorway into the first gallery.


Ready to continue? Pause for a moment to take in the whole room. 


Most museums start the story of European modernism with France but here, we start with German Expressionism.  LACMA’s collection of German Expressionist art provides a unique perspective on the turbulent early 20th century in Europe.


When you encounter great works of art in a museum like this one, the tidiness and order of the presentation can mask the tumult and drama that led to their creation.  The story of modern art is one of rebellion and struggle—to find freedom, and to make something that matters, to inch one’s career forward, to navigate the misfortunes and complexities of life and the 20th century.


The work in this room spans a period from the early 1900s until the mid 1940s after the Nazis came to power. Surviving works ended up here in Los Angeles through the passion, will, and luck of a network of emigres, collectors and artists who fought for these works to survive and endure. You’ll learn more about that as we go.


Now, look for a painting of cows in a field, just next to the doorway through which you entered this gallery.  Take a close look.


Emil Nolde, Cows in the Lowland, 1909


This is a painting of cows in a field, but it is hardly a realistic landscape. Emil Nolde loved pure color, unhindered by realism. He believed color had magic power and that the faster he made a picture, the better it was. He wrote “When the pure sensual force of seeing weakens, rational coldness can take over,”. He chose subjects just for the joy of loading up his brush with pure pigment and letting himself be led by his feelings and impulses. 


Nolde grew up on a farm near the German-Danish border. One day, in 1906, he received a letter from a group of young German artists who called themselves Die Brücke. They wanted him to join their collective. They had seen a few of Nolde’s explosive paintings of flowers in an exhibition and admired what they called his tempests of color. Nolde had believed himself to be a solitary outlier in his quest for a new art, and he was thrilled to find fellowship with other artists and new opportunities to exhibit his work. He joined them, in a bohemian community that lived, worked and organized shows together, in Dresden.


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Now, look at the small sculpture in a case nearby. It’s called Dancer with Necklace, from 1910.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Dancer with Necklace, 1910


NARRATOR: Stand where you can see this sculpture and the large painting on the adjacent wall, of two women on a Berlin street wearing hats.  Both are by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, one of the founders of Die Brücke. In the painting, jagged lines and unusual color choices energize the picture. Kirchner hasn’t tried to make them realistic; he has made them interesting, with lurid colors, especially in the greens, blues and yellows of their skin. 


As the de facto spokesperson for the group, Kirchner wrote in a manifesto :  

We call upon all youth to unite. We who possess the future shall create for ourselves physical and spiritual freedom opposed to the values of the comfortably established older generation. Anyone who honestly and directly reproduces the creative force within him is one of us.” 

Die Brücke means “the bridge”–a reference to a quote from Nietzsche in which he said that man is “a bridge and not an end.” Die Brücke announced that they wanted to bridge past and future, with a new art that would speak to the realities of the 20th century, to rapid urbanization, mechanization, and angst. 


Take a closer look at the sculpture of the dancer. In the stance and style of the figure, you may see echoes of African art. In the late 19th century, European countries colonized the African continent, as well as the Pacific Islands; they plundered and exported African and Oceanic art and sacred objects, exhibiting them in ethnographic museums. Kirchner and other artists of Die Brücke were drawn to cultural objects coming from the colonies, as they went looking for sources of inspiration and alternatives to European tradition.  Stephanie Barron is curator of modern art at LACMA:


STEPHANIE: Kirchner, like others, saw African and Oceanic art in the Dresden Ethnographic Museum …In the way that art speaks to artists, it had an influence on German artists like Kirchner. And they paid a price. Most of Kirchner’s carved wood sculpture was destroyed by the Nazis. They labeled it degenerate. 


Very few examples survive, because the Nazis targeted this kind of work for destruction. It simply did not support their white Aryan supremacist point of view, being grounded as it is in so-called primitive African and Oceanic traditions. 


NARRATOR:  Stephanie found this sculpture by coincidence, when a colleague spotted it in the home of some friends who had little knowledge of  who carved it.  


STEPHANIE: This is Kirchner’s first freestanding nude figural sculpture. In the early 1980s, I was doing research for a show about German Expressionism. My assistant told me that some friends of her parents had a sculpture that looked like it belonged to the same period. I was skeptical, but as it turned out, they actually did possess this sculpture.

NARRATOR: How did she confirm that it was in fact a lost Kirchner? The answer is research. After extensive searching, she found a photograph of the sculpture in the artist’s studio. You can see a detail of  the photograph on the object label on  the wall .


NARRATOR: Now, nearby, near the corner of the room, find a painting with a jagged stormy sky. It’s titled Apocalyptic Landscape. 


Ludwig Meidner, Apocalyptic Landscape, 1913


NARRATOR: A collection like this one comes together through painstaking research, and with help from artists and collectors. But once in awhile, a curator makes a surprise discovery.


STEPHANIE BARRON: One of the paintings that I found when I came to LACMA in the mid 1970s was a painting by an artist that I was unfamiliar with: Ludwig Meidner. And in fact this is a double-sided painting. It’s known as an apocalyptic landscape on this side. And if you turn the painting over, there’s a portrait. And when I arrived at LACMA, only the portrait was shown. As we were installing one day, I looked on the back and lo-and-behold, I saw this and I said, well this is actually much more important than what’s on the reverse! 


It’s amazing to think that Ludwig Meidner created this group of works before the first shot was fired for the First World War. It’s a kind of apocalyptic, almost imagination of the trauma that would occur with the outbreak of the First World War. 


NARRATOR: On the wall you’ll see a photograph of the portrait on the other side of the Apocalyptic Landscape. 


 Just to the right of the Meidner is a painting by Kandinsky. It was  made in 1914. This is our next stop.


Wassily Kandinsky, Untitled Improvisation III, 1914


NARRATOR: Concertos on canvas. Pure visible music. That is how some have referred to Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract paintings. Kandinsky expected his vivid colors, swirling forms, and layered compositions to move you directly, like music does, without depicting something as it appears in nature. 


(music plays)


You are hearing Lohengrin, an opera by Richard Wagner. Kandinsky heard Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow as a young man. He wrote about the experience later in his life:


KANDINSKY, DIFFERENT VOICE: I saw all my colours in my mind, they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me… It became quite clear to me that art in general was far more powerful than I had thought, and that painting could develop just such powers as music possesses.


(music continues)


NARRATOR: Kandinsky moved to Munich, met fellow artist Franz Marc, and announced that they were starting a movement called, for deliberately mysterious reasons, Der Blaue Reiter, or The Blue Rider. They emphasized the spiritual and the abstract. Der Blaue Reiter pressed for near total abstraction. In a book he wrote in 1912 titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky defined his series “Improvisations”, of which this is an early example, as spontaneous expressions of mood or feeling.  Some people sense  foreboding in Kandinsky’s paintings from this time. But there is also joy, and pure sensory exuberance.


This is a painting that many American artists studied. The German artist and teacher Hans Hofmann owned it and brought the painting with him when he moved to New York in the 1930s. Hofmann taught some of the postwar American painters like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler that you’ll encounter in the galleries up ahead. So there is a direct line of influence, from this painting, through to American abstract expressionists of a later era.


Turn now toward the massive sculpture of a sleeping woman with a child on her chest in the center of the room.


Hermann A. Scherer, Sleeping Woman with Boy, 1926


The LA Times art critic, Christopher Knight, described this huge piece, carved from a log, this way:


A secular Madonna and Child inspired by African tribal art, European medieval sculpture, and German Expressionist painting, the soundly sleeping pair is poised between nightmarish contortion and the sweet dreams of peaceful rest.


The artist, Hermann Scherer, painted the figures with strange, lurid, lifeless colors. To some, the mother and child appear dead, or dying. He carved this sculpture in 1926. Around this time, artists were haunted by the losses of the First World War, which had killed somewhere between 15 and 20 million, and left a similar number gravely wounded. Images of a loving mother holding a dead child recur in German Expressionist art, a symbol for a shocked and grief-stricken society.


Because so much work was lost or destroyed, German Expressionist sculpture was pretty unknown in the United States in the late 20th century. In the 1980s, Stephanie Barron organized the first major exhibition of German Expressionist sculpture in the world, here at LACMA, and included this piece by Scherer. After experiencing the work, supporters of the museum recognized the importance of this lost chapter of art history. Trustee Anna Bing Arnold, one of the museum’s most generous donors,  purchased this piece for the museum and its growing collection of German Expressionism. 


Now, turn to the wall directly opposite the doorway through which you entered this gallery. In the center of a group of three paintings, you’ll see one that includes a wheel with spokes and other found objects. It’s by Kurt Schwitters. Take a closer look. This is another great example of art made after the tragedy of the First World War.


Kurt Schwitters, Construction for Noble Ladies, 1919


STEPHANIE BARRON: Probably the most important work in the collection is the Kurt Schwitters. It’s a remarkable work from 1919.


NARRATOR: Schwitters once wrote, “In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me and the useful new ideas were still unready…. Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments.”


BARRON: It’s hard to look at this and not think of much later work by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg—artists who were attracted to the notion of taking everyday found objects, detritus, and combining it in an assemblage. But this was done in 1919. We see a bicycle wheel, the spoke from a baby carriage, a license plate…newspaper cuttings, a beautiful portrait on its side of a woman, a train ticket. It’s an astoundingly modern work…This is one of the best one or two Schwitters constructions in the world….It was acquired in 1962, long before the museum settled in Hancock Park. And it was purchased by a group of important collectors in Los Angeles who put their funds together to buy it for the museum. You could never acquire something like this now. 


NARRATOR: Turn to the right. On the adjacent wall,  you’ll see a portrait of a man sitting with his legs crossed.


George Grosz, Portrait of Dr. Felix J. Weil, 1926


NARRATOR: This is a portrait of Dr. Felix J. Weil. He was the son of a wealthy businessman, and used his financial resources to support Marxist intellectuals and other leftists in Germany between the two world wars. George Grosz, who painted this portrait, was among the many beneficiaries of his generosity. 


The style of the painting is notably different than what we’ve seen so far: hyper realistic, detailed, and almost clinical. If the atmosphere strikes you as cold, Grosz intended it that way. Although Weil was a patron, Grosz cared little for flattery, even when he was painting a friend.  He once described his style as “knife-hard, enabling me to communicate my observations which were dictated by absolute hatred of man.”


Harsh words. But this was an artist who turned a critical eye on the problems in Germany around this time. Grosz saw the German military as brutal and corrupt; he criticized German society as sordid and characterized by greed and exploitation. 


When Hitler came to power, Grosz left for New York and didn’t return to Germany until shortly before his death. The same is true of the sitter, Dr. Weil, a member of a prominent Jewish family imperiled by the Holocaust. Weil moved to the United States, as did the school of Marxist intellectuals he founded. On arrival, they split up, some settling in New York and others in Los Angeles. Their continued work fueled what American academics call the Frankfurt School and influenced academics, filmmakers, and the social movements of the later 20th century. 


Now, on the other side of the doorway, near the corner, is the final painting we’ll look at in this room. Find it now. It shows a couple in a darkened room, lit from below. It’s by Max Beckmann and it was painted in 1944.


Max Beckmann, Bar, Brown, 1944


NARRATOR: We are taking a leap now, to the late years of the Second World War. By the time he made this painting, in 1944, the artist, Max Beckmann had been forced to flee Germany, seeking refuge in Amsterdam as he tried desperately to get a visa to the United States. Like the other artists in this gallery, Beckmann was reviled by the Nazis. They destroyed his career in Germany as one of its greatest modern painters, seizing his work and showing it as an example of so-called “degenerate art”.


In this painting, Beckmann’s wife, Quappi, huddles with their friend Dr. Helmuth Lüthjens in a bar, one of the few that remained open in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. If Dr. Lüthjens appears to be sheltering Quappi, that is because he did so, quite literally. The Beckmanns lived with him in Amsterdam, and Lüthjens also hid Beckmann’s paintings from the Nazis in his own home. 


Nazism stifled the intellectual and artistic creativity of the early 20th century in Germany in a climate of overwhelming oppression and censorship. Artists and other targets of Nazi hatred were left struggling, sometimes in vain, to survive. But in the coming galleries, you’ll see a resurgent expressiveness, and artistic innovation that has roots in German Expressionism. The continued influence of modern German art depended in large part on the community of emigres and their supporters who salvaged the work that the Nazis had sought to destroy.


In fact, this painting was given to LACMA by Robert and Mary Looker; Mr. Looker was a trustee of the museum for fourteen years. He ran an aerospace company in El Segundo, but he had a deep and lifelong interest in German artists and thinkers and became a thoughtful collector of German Expressionism. 


Now, turn around. Across the room, you’ll see the doorway to a low-lit room with dark walls. Go there now.




NARRATOR: The light here is kept low because works on paper are sensitive to light, as it can cause the colors to fade. As your eyes adjust, take a moment to look around the room. Robert Gore Rifkind, a Los Angeles attorney, gave the museum several thousand German Expressionist prints and rare  books and periodicals.  That gift completely changed the story of modern European art at LACMA. How are collectors like Rifkind made?


In Rifkind’s case, a spark ignited when he saw an exhibition that included modern German art in the 1970s at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. The drama, intensity, and inner turmoil expressed by the artists spoke to him. He spent two years researching the German Expressionists, and then purchased an Emil Nolde print. That was the beginning of a passion that lasted the rest of his life and eventually made Los Angeles a world-renowned center for the study of German Expressionism. 


Iggy Pop and David Bowie, Tim Burton and David Lynch, have all been inspired by the drama and emotional intensity of this collection. In fact, Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein once spent two days pouring over the Rifkind collection, then created an entire portfolio of his own, inspired by the prints he saw here.


Find the bronze bust of a woman on a pedestal in this room.


Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait in bronze, 1924 


NARRATOR: Kathe Kollwitz is the first woman artist we’ve encountered in the collection thus far, and she was the first or only woman artist in many a setting during her lifetime. By the time she made this sculpture, she was in her late fifties. She was very well known for her prints, less so for sculpture. Kollwitz worked on this self-portrait for ten years between the wars, from 1926 to 1936. Her expression is calm, weary, and somber. She lost her son Peter in the First World War when he was just 18. She wrote in the aftermath that the grief sometimes stripped her of the strength she needed in order to work. Kollwitz was unflinching in her ability to depict the most painful of human emotions. The prints on view here include some from her portfolio entitled War, depicting mothers protecting their children from threat, or grieving their losses, or rising up in protest. The Nazis judged her work harshly and banned her from exhibiting. They told her society had no need of images like hers, saying “In the Third Reich, mothers have no need to defend their children. The state does that for them.”


Spend time here. We rotate the work in this room regularly; what you see today is only a small selection of the incredible record of German modern art that we have in the Rifkind Center. 


This is the end of our sonic essay about German Expressionism. The work we’ve seen just hints at the richness of the German avant garde, and foreshadows some of the art in the galleries up ahead, as artists continue to grapple with war, displacement, social upheaval and the quest for personal expression.


There are innumerable ways to approach a collection like this one, and a lively world of ongoing research and debate about these works of art. We’re so happy to have you join some of those conversations.


Press play on the audio player at the bottom of your screen to start the audio tour. You may follow along with the transcript by scrolling down on your device.

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