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OLD REBELS IN THE NEW WORLD : GERMAN EXPRESSIONIST PRINTS AND DRAWINGS The Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies Vol. 1, Essays (212 pp.; 3-7913-0974-9) Vol. 2, Catalogue of the Collection (845 pp.; 3-7913-0959-5) (Los Angeles County Museum of Art/ Prestel-Verlag: $150 slipcased set; $29.95 Vol. 1 only, paper; Vol. 2 not available separately)

July 15, 1990|Elisabeth Wehrmann | Having taught in Germany, England and the Netherlands, Wehrmann now writes from the West Coast for the German weekly Die Zeit. --Translated by Angela Thompson

"Others may become accustomed to these times ... but I ... a torn sea. I in the midst of the storm, I the mirror of the outside, as wild and chaotic as the world." -- GEORG HEYM They were the young rebels of 1910, "a troupe of prodigal sons on the run," howling in their flight from a world in which nothing seemed right any more. With their brushes and paint tubes and wild, pounding words, they set out against the paralyzing order of a German Empire which, on the surface, was functioning triumphantly well. Their country had not only won its war against France but, thanks to the opposition of the left, also could boast the most progressive social security of the era. And yet they felt they were suffocating. Germany was becoming a powerful industrial nation, but in her explosive cities her people were turning into the loneliest of crowds.

The painters and poets, composers, playwrights, gallery owners, publishers and editors who made up the Expressionist movement looked about them and saw the "madness of the big city where in the evening a crippled tree juts against a black wall." Convinced that "everything is hollow and a death mask, broken, and nothing is inside," they rebelled against empty conventions, aggressive materialism, against the entire capitalist world order of their fathers--while searching for a new world and a new human ideal in the brotherly revolution of the spirit.

In Dresden, in 1906, the founding manifesto of a group of artists known as "Die Bruecke" ("The Bridge") called upon the new generation, the carrier of the future, "to seize freedom and lift a strong arm against the entrenched older powers." As artists, the members of "Die Bruecke" were urged "to depict directly and without distortion what drives them to create." In 1908, there followed the "Blue Rider," a group of artists in Munich, of whom the gentle painter Franz Marc wrote: "We fight as savages against an old organized power." By 1909, new literary circles were emerging in Berlin. In short, throughout Germany a fruitful interaction was under way between painters and writers, an interaction that revived the old traditions of woodcut and printmaking and took inspiration from the art of children and primitives as well as the insane.

The high-water mark of Expressionism came after Germany's defeat in World War I when an entire generation of artists and writers, their youth sacrificed in the "slaughterhouse of Europe," believed, for a brief historical moment, that their cultural rebellion might mature into a political revolution. In the end, Expressionism was to remain a revolution of the spirit. But whether depicting the hell of war or "the face of the ruling class," these artists gave expression to truths whose political potential remains explosive to this day.

Although it was no longer active as an artistic movement, Expressionism became highly controversial in the 1930s and seemed doomed to be crushed between communism and Nazism. In 1937, a dogmatic group of German Communists in exile in Moscow blamed the Expressionists for having helped prepare the ground for fascism. Within the year, the failed painter Adolf Hitler, now Reichskanzler, staged his great retribution against the "degenerate art of the Jewish cultural Bolsheviks." A number of Expressionist artists were murdered in concentration camps; others went into exile, and still others withdrew from public life into what came to be called Germany's "inner emigration."

Many paintings were lost to the cellars of the Gestapo; others were destroyed during the war; a large number were sold abroad.

After World War II, in a country that had destroyed itself as well as others, a generation grew up which had no models and only contempt for heroes. As for the older generation, it kept silent, concentrating relentlessly on the pursuit of the "economic miracle." It was not until the 1960s--in fact not until the late 1960s--that we younger Germans rediscovered the Expressionists, artists who spoke to us with such amazing directness, artists in whom we were able to recognize our own ideas. Two world wars and half a century later, these were the people with whom we wanted to discuss once more all the great questions of society and politics, life and art. "Let Imagination Rule" was the slogan of the German students in 1968. It was an Expressionist slogan--and an Expressionist moment.

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