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Germany is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the "Die Brücke", but previous regimes saw little to be proud of in this group of Expressionist artists. While defenders of Expressionism claimed it represented the essence of an ethno-national German art, the National Socialists outlawed it as "degenerate". The East German regime condemmed it as a "late-bourgeois symptom of decay", while in the Federal Republic, Brücke works adorned the German chancellery. Historian Christian Saehrendt explains the tubulent history of the Brücke's reception in Germany.


"Hottentots in tails"

The turbulent history of "Die Brücke" in Germany. By Christian Saehrendt

blaErnst Ludwig Kirchner, Die Strasse © Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer
Critics' attacks can be harsh. "Hottentots in tails" is what they called the young artists of the Brücke Expressionist group, seeing lunacy, deceit, and primativism in their paintings. The beginning of the 20th century saw a swift succession of avant-gardes denouncing the bourgeois understanding of art that expected painters to produce solid, academic and technically brilliant works. On the one hand, the avant-gardists were looking to provoke in a spectacular way, on the other hand they were seeking recognition. To this end, the young Expressionistic painters allied themselves with the art historians, declaring Expressionism the "German national style" whose roots could be traced back to the Gothic period.

The concept of "national style" entered art history around 1900. Renowned art historians such as Heinrich Wölfflin and Wilhelm Worringer attempted to explain formal phenomena by means of "racially" conditioned basic psychic constants. The artist was no longer judged against the unattainable benchmark of antique or Renaissance art, but rather seen to be expressing the "artistic will" of an ethnic group. Worringer, for example, traced a direct line of tradition from the ornamental art of the Ostragoths through late Gothic art to the Expressionists, seeing common ground in the angular, chaotic, organic forms - a sort of labyrinth linearity. Worringer saw the "excited, feverish, twitching of the Nordic lineament," as the expression of the "charged inner life of the Nordic man". This psychic disposition is marked by darkness, strife, escapism and demoniacal possession.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Artistin - Marzella © Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-KettererErnst Ludwig Kirchner, Artistin - Marzella © Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer
The early works of the Brücke group were interpreted as the return of Germanic Gothic art: the strong linearity, the nervous style, the proportional overlap. An entire school of art historians adopted the idea of a Germanic national style. Many artists also took up the idea, seeing their work as a continuation of late Medieval tradition: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner emphatically invoked the lineage of aknowledged national greats like Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer.

Expressionist art was bought in vast quantities by German museums in the Weimar Republic. The Brücke artists, led by Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde, became the best-known artistic personalities. Pechstein played the role of model social democratic artist, and Nolde of grumpy adversary to the prince of painters Max Liebermann. Edwin Redslob, when he was appointed artistic secretary of the Weimar Republic, chose modern artists to design the national emblems and coats of arms that were meant to give the new republic a fresh face. He commissioned Karl Schmidt-Rottluff to design a new eagle for the republic, and in 1926 he took the moody Kirschner to meet the new Chancellor Hans Luther.

But at the same time, agitation from the extreme Right was mounting against modern art. As in the Kaiserreich, the majority of the population favoured pleasant-looking naturalism. The National Socialists latched on to populist resentment and accused museums of wasting taxpayers' money on modern art. While for the intellectual elite, the new avant-garde Expressionism was already outmoded, it still hadn't found acceptance among the masses. Museum directors like Max Sauerlandt of the Kunstgewerbe Museum in Hamburg and Ludwig Justi, director of the National Gallery in Berlin, tried to break down this twofold isolation by celebrating Expressionism as a thoroughly German national style. In his desperation, for example, Chemnitz museum director Friedrich Schreiber-Weigand contemplated presenting the National Socialists with a memoir on Expressionism as "true German" art. Writing at times under pseudonyms, others tried to gain acceptance for modern art in right-wing nationalist papers and magazines. Justi, for example, wrote an article on "Germanness in art" in the Hugenberg illustrated magazine Die Woche in 1932.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Eine Künstlergruppe © Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-KettererErnst Ludwig Kirchner, Eine Künstlergruppe © Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer
In the summer of 1933, the supporters of German Expressionism, by this time a heterogeneous coalition of museum employees, gallery owners, Nazi Party members and artists, saw the salvation for the Brücke group under the Nazis in calling it "Nordic Expressionism". Sauerlandt now interpreted the Brücke movement in a folkish way, defending it against attacks by Alfred Rosenberg as being "by no means negro art". When Justi was dismissed, Alois Schardt, a theoretician of "Nordic Expressionism", was appointed head of the National Gallery. But Hitler soon decided otherwise, identifying Expressionist art with the hated Weimar Republic. The stigmatisation of Expressionism as "degenerate" ensued.

The Brücke group was quickly rehabilitated in the postwar years, although the attempt to stylise the anti-Semitic Emile Nolde as a resistance figure continues to astonish. Werner Haftmann, a well-known West German art historian, celebrated Nolde, the artist of inner emigration, as an "existential antifascist. Even more than those who were racially persecuted, he refused political strictures and intensified his own work." From this West German perspective, individual refusal is worth more than the organised resistance of the politically persecuted. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Max Pechstein became professors at West Berlin's Hochschule der Künste, although they did not exert a great influence on the next generation of artists. The Zeitgeist had turned towards abstract art. Although the Brücke artists became the stars of West German art, hardly anyone talked about Expressionism as a German national style. Above all Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner were now celebrated as creative individualists.

In the divided Germany, there was a paradoxical response to Expressionism. While in the West, the Brücke artists were being celebrated as historic greats, worthy of state recognition but having no influence on the younger generation of artists, in the East, although officially condemned, artists and students of art considered them to be important models in figurative art. For many artists in East Germany, Expressionism has remained an important point of reference. Some, like Rene Graetz, referred to the national style thesis, which generated sharp contradictions between party functionaries, who had been stigmatising Expressionism as a "late-bourgeois sign of decay" since 1948. Major party figures, such as Culture Minister Klaus Gysi daydreamed in the decades to follow of an "independent, socialist culture-nation" which would have no common roots with the Federal Republic - German Expressionism as a shared cultural legacy was out of the question.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Potsdamer Platz © Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-KettererErnst Ludwig Kirchner, Potsdamer Platz © Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer
In the Federal Republic between 1960 and 1980, a Nolde cult developed. Siegfried Lenz celebrated him as a stoic resistance-fighter in his novel "Deutschstunde" (The German Lesson). Nolde exhibitions drew huge crowds, his works were heavy-weights on the art market. The positions of leading West German politicians are to be understood in this context. In 1975, when the chancellor's office in Bonn was to be decorated, Helmut Schmidt opted for the Expressionists as a counterbalance to the "savings bank architecture of this functional building" as he put it. Schmidt's office was decorated with Noldes; works by Schmidt-Rottluff and Heckel were hung in other rooms. In speeches and interviews, Schmidt stood squarely behind the national tradition of Expressionism which had been illegitimately interrupted during the Third Reich by the Nazis. "For me, Nolde is the absolute crown. Nolde and then Kirchner." His successor Helmut Kohl followed this line and had Brücke works hanging in the chancellery. With the capital's move to Berlin, the artistic decoration of the building changed.

Helmut Schmidt was a guest of the Brücke Museum in Berlin, German President Karl Carstens visited the major Kirchner Exhibition in the National Gallery in 1979. Even the Bild newspaper rejoiced: "The whole world's envious of us for this exhibition!" - a rare alliance between high culture and the tabloids. German President Richard von Weizsäcker, also an avid fan of the Brücke, visited Kirchner's grave in Davos during a trip to Switzerland, and laid a wreath there in an official state ceremony. Although it's hard to imagine speaking of official art policy in a pluralistic democracy, leading representatives of the federal republic expressed something akin to a "state affinity" to Brücke art; or perhaps better put, the taste of those in high office tended towards the Brücke.

In the past few decades, there has been a new trend in this "iconology of power": chairmen, managers and politicians are having themselves photographed in front of large, mainly abstract paintings to demonstrate their modernity, openness, and courage to support artistic dissidence. In this sense, art works have taken the place of corporate logos and national coats of arms. With the choice of Brücke art as a means of cultural self-representation, Schmidt and Weizsäcker opted for moderate modernity, which has drawn a large consensus since 1945. Thus the concept of a state art, which failed in the Weimar Republic in 1933, was implemented in the Federal Republic. This is most obvious in a visit to the new chancellery: Kirchner's painting "Sonntag der Bergbauern" (The mountain farmer's Sunday) dominates the cabinet room.

"'Brücke' und Berlin. 100 Jahre Expressionismus" is in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin until Aug 28.


This article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on June 15, 2005.

Christian Saehrendt is a historian at the Humboldt University in Berlin. He has just published "'Die Brücke' zwischen Staatskunst und Verfemung" (Frank Steiner Verlag), a historical investigation of the political reception of the Brücke.
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