Utopias on Paper, German Expressionism: Prints and Drawings from the Tel Aviv Museum Collection

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Utopias on Paper, German Expressionism: Prints and Drawings from the Tel Aviv Museum Collection
Max Beckmann, The Disillusioned II, From: Trip to Berlin, 1922, lithograph, Collection Tel Aviv Museum of Ar Gift of Dr. Abraham Horodisch, Amsterdam.

TEL AVIV.- The term "Expressionism" spans diverse expressions of the modernist current in art and literature, which developed in Germany and in the sphere of German culture in the first two decades of the 20th century. Expressionist art spoke in multiple voices of individual artists and short-lived associations which moved in different directions to expose the experience of a society and a culture in crisis. The common feature of this multifaceted, multilingual totality was the belief in the therapeutic power of subjective-emotional expression.

The exhibition "Utopias on Paper / German Expressionism: Drawings and Prints from the Museum Collection" at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art endeavors to present the multifaceted aspect of this generalizing term. Its first chapter (November 2011 – January 2012) juxtaposes perceptions of nature and the natural with representations of the metropolis—the scene of action and the bi-polar symbol of modern existence. The second chapter of the exhibition (February – May 2010) will focus on the Expressionists' ambivalence toward the notion of culture, on the high and popular poles of their work, and the built-in tension between the "authentic" and the cultural.

The major cause of the crisis of Expressionism was an accelerated process of modernization, industrialization, and urbanization in the late 19th century, which brought about extensive changes in the social structure and the political order of a young state—the Second Reich, established in 1871 on the basis of a controversial union. Modernization enhanced the need for reorganization, but the demand for change was introduced into a charged, unstable social structure underlain by great tension between the conservative, old elites (which still dominated the majority of power centers) and the developing bourgeoisie (which had not yet conquered political positions). Germany's process of modernization was indeed identified with the liberal and rationalist values of the bourgeoisie, but this social class was not established enough at the time to ward off counter forces from the top (the Wilhelmines) as well as from the bottom (the proletariat) of the social ladder.

The new modern condition became the subject of public debate. Scholars, jurists, scientists, philosophers, artists, and other intellectuals identified the characteristics of modernity—technology, democracy, rationalism, materialism, positivism, demystification of the world—and tied them to the overall ideological crisis. Recognition of the evolving change and the realization that it is no longer possible to live and create as in the past, brought, to the fore and to the paper, a blend of responses-feelings which took the form of apocalyptic visions, a yearning for alternative lifestyles, a thrill with the Berlin metropolis, a critical examination of the urban person and the phenomenon of the crowd, and a spectrum of thoughts about the New Man and a better, more just society. Vis-à-vis the negation of the existing notion of culture, the belief in art's ability to express the real increased.

Culture on the whole was regarded, at the time, as a type of code—an essence which exposes the rules of human society, projecting on all aspects of life touched by the crisis of modernization. The constitution of the cultural sciences was tied, from the very outset in the mid-19th century, with the ideal of enlightenment and liberalism, and relied on the assumption of a rational law, which guides human conduct, making for a rational answer to every moral, pedagogical, and social quandary. The social and political storm in the beginning of the 20th century led to a radical revolt against the law of culture. The revolt was nourished by the connection between the bourgeoisie and modernization as objects of loathing, on the one hand, and the untamed, inner-emotional, and "genuine" as objects of passion, on the other. Direct expression was thus proposed as a path to an element of truth in existence.

The contradiction-ridden whole called "German Expressionism" thus spans the raw expressivity of the pioneering group Die Brücke (Dresden 1905 – Berlin 1913), which strove for "nature and the natural," and was inspired by the primitive, by medieval German art, and contemporary Fauvist art. At the same time, however, Expressionism is also characterized by a special type of naturalism—"a fanatical, fervent naturalism," as Ludwig Meidner described it. Meidner seems to have been right on target in terms of the critical-subjective images which the second generation of Expressionist artists extracted from observation of city life. In this context one ought to mention Meidner's apocalyptic pieces, the critical depictions of the affluent, exploitative bourgeoisie figures in George Grosz's work, the portraits of bourgeois women by Otto Dix and Paul Kleinschmidt, as well as representations of the little people and the surviving-exploited workers and those individuals banished to the social margins, such as prostitutes, who embody love's transformation into a negotiable commodity. The same "German Expressionism" also spans Vassily Kandinsky's move to the abstract, which is not included in the exhibition.

Work on paper, and especially print, was identified with the aesthetics and ethos of Expressionism from the very outset. For Brücke members, the degree of chance integral to the creative processes, and especially to experimental practice, was a gateway to the authentic. In turning to print, Brücke artists rejected the traditional preference for the one-off and precious, reviving an alternative based on an earlier German tradition—a work mode which marked the golden age of German Art in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but was pushed aside in the 19th century, when it became a means of reproduction.

The group would gather for drawing events in which the artists and their partners served as models. They avoided traditional poses and preferred to draw people in the studio during their life routine, allotting fifteen minutes for the drawing of each phase. The short time enforced-demanded direct, concise, and emotional expression, forcing avoidance of detail and refining work. These experimental characteristics are evident to an even greater extent in print practice. Woodcut was the first method they adopted: they used to carve the wood with a knife or a chisel to create images in raw, rough lines and obtain flatness, simplification, and distortion typical of Oceanic and African wood carving. Another source of reference was the woodcuts of Gauguin and Edvard Munch, which surrendered traces of their process and were not afraid of uneven inking and exposure of the wood grain.

In 1906, Emil Nolde presented them with his experimental approach to etching, and a year later they also began to experiment with lithography. In each of these techniques, they preferred spontaneous immediacy over urgency, handiwork and "non-professional" shortcuts, which left the presence of the unique process in the final print, as well as its typical "mistakes," thus charging it with expressivity. The emphasis on the uneven and unfinished distinguished the prints of Die Brücke from the prevalent use of these techniques for reproduction, reinstating them to the fields of artistic expression charged with the aesthetics of "bad work" and with values of protest and innovation. Following the activity of Brücke members, print came to be perceived as a vehicle in the service of the avant-garde and enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. As reaffirmed by art historian Hans Tietze: "The prints of our time will give evidence of [the Expressionists] to a later generation as the truest document of the fever that agitates us."

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