One of the best things about the Rifkind collection of German Expressionist material at the County Museum of Art is that we will probably never see it all. Each time a new exhibition sallies forth from the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies we are reminded just how remarkable and extensive this cache of books, prints and drawings is.
The latest installment, the first of 15 planned annual events, is a two-part show. "Expressionist Transitions: Jugendstil, Impressionism, Realism," on the lower level of the Leo S. Bing Center (to May 1), sets the stage for a more extensive, concurrent exhibition by surveying the major styles that fed into Expressionism and took a dramatic turn as impassioned artists united around a compelling cause.
This presentation has a tone of youthful experimentation as some of the artists feel their way into an arena of socially conscious art that they couldn't have foreseen. Kathe Kollwitz's sketchy realism and Oskar Kokoschka's folk-ish fantasies, for example, stand on their own well enough but appear astonishingly naive in comparison with their more mature works in "Expressionist Visions," upstairs in the Hammer building (to March 13).
Here, in the museum's largest Rifkind show to date, we find room after room of moody, strange or startling images in 150 drawings, prints, books and periodicals, plus a few sculptures from Rifkind's personal collection. Though its reach is vast, the exhibition settles into small pockets of related material that reinforce the fact that German Expressionism was not a style but an attitude.
The artists, in general, were visionaries who inclined toward religion, mystical experiences and the raw power of primitive art and life. But they had to face the hideous reality of an embattled country and their work evolved from utopian visions to abject disillusionment. We see both sides of wartime emotion in Kollwitz's powerful suite, "Seven Woodcuts on the War" (1922-23). A wave of people answer a call to battle with mystically charged fervor in "The Volunteers," while figures in "The Parents" sink into mourning, and "The Mothers" close ranks around their children, forming a human fortress.
Otto Dix rolls frenetic activity into a mechanized whirl of legs, wheels and bricks in a woodcut called "Noise in the Street," but his etchings, "Wounded Man" and "Crater Field," portray life sinking into a muddy abyss. An impressive wall of prints by Emil Nolde includes dour self-portraits and grim faces of prophets along with an erotic color lithograph of a rubber-boned native "Dancer" who looks as though she will churn until she drops.
Meanwhile, examples from a portfolio of prints by George Grosz concentrate on the macho brutality or absurdity of authority figures--a physician listening to a skeleton's heart, a whip-toting prison boss "making the world safe for democracy."
In artworks and text, the exhibition takes special note of two German Expressionist groups, Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) in Munich and Brucke (Bridge) in Dresden, as well as Berlin-based Der Sturm (The Storm), which was founded 1910 as a periodical but eventually encompassed a gallery, publishing house, theater and school. Other niches of interest include a full set of Max Pechstein's "Lord's Prayer" woodcuts with watercolor applied by hand, and works by Max Beckmann and Ernst Barlach that demonstrate how they developed a theme in different mediums.
As if to demonstrate that German Expressionism extended beyond the grip of war, "Visions" also presents such innocent delights as a child's ABC book of woodcuts designed by Conrad Felixmuller.