A small exhibition of German Expressionist prints at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art reveals more than its modest theme intended. "Expressionist Affinities: Nolde's Contemporaries," drawn from LACMA's Robert Gore Rifkind Center, is simply supposed to flesh out understanding of a major exhibition in nearby galleries, "Emil Nolde: The Painter's Prints."
"Expressionist Affinities" does that job nicely for interested viewers, suggesting the exchange of influence between Nolde and his fellow artists.
But, like someone who unburdens his soul when he thinks he's talking about the weather, the little exhibition tells us about the jarring early 20th-Century world in which this art was made.
The artist here who most closely depicted life as seen through everyday eyes was Kathe Kollwitz. Her naturalistic style echoes back to Michelangelo, Millet and social commentators like Daumier. But the existence she shows, awash in violence and despair, is only bearable to behold because she expresses it with such flinty compassion.
Kollwitz came from an idealistic socialist family and married a doctor who practiced in the slums of Berlin. Here the most telling of her prints is "Memorial Sheet for Karl Liebknecht," a work finished in 1920, just months after Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were assassinated as leaders of the radical Communist Spartacus revolt. Such a print was probably as dangerous to do as it is moving to see.
Nothing else in the exhibition is this immediately graphic or directly political. That suggests something about what World War I, the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism did to the German artistic psyche. In a significant way Kollwitz and Nolde form a fork in Germany's aesthetic road.
Both were born in 1867, making them markedly older than the core members of the movement. Kollwitz continued on a path of direct depiction of social life. Nolde, although he made powerful, elemental art, turned toward an expression at once more generalized and more internalized.
Everything else in the exhibition reflects this new kind of disturbed subjectivity. Max Beckmann's "Soldiers Gambling for Christ's Robe" can probably be read as a form of oblique social commentary, but now Kollwitz's heartfelt sympathy curdles into sophisticated cynicism. Oskar Kokoschka's illustration "Murder, Hope of Women" deflects social deterioration into a kind of sexual rage.
There's an understandable element of escapism in the way these artists were attracted to native African art and Gauguin's adventure in the South Seas. Carried to the point of mysticism by artists like Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, there may have been some solace in it.
Most artists, however, found that longing for the love of a simple maiden in a primeval hut revealed only that their psyches were as out of joint as the world around them.
The broad, sharded woodcuts of artists like Heckel, Kirchner and Schmidt-Rottluff are a most curious combination of longing and anger.
* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Through Aug. 13; closed Mondays; (213) 857-6000.