Every autumn I go to Print Fair in New York, an amazing display of prints and drawings brought for sale by roughly 100 print dealers from around the world. It’s like being a kid in a candy store where you are allowed to open frames, use a magnifying glass, and sometimes even touch artworks to scrutinize every detail if you’re really serious about buying. As the curator of the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, I always hang out at the booths of the best dealers specializing in this area, and this year I was blown away by two extremely rare prints that would fit perfectly into a LACMA exhibition I am organizing for 2013 entitled From Van Gogh and Gauguin to the Blue Rider: German Expressionism and France. The show will be full of colorful paintings by French Neo-Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Fauves, Cubists, and German Expressionists.
But the amazing (and I think still untold) story of artistic exchange between German and French artists before World War I must also be conveyed through works on paper. If artists often begin their ideas with drawings, how did the leading Expressionist artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (of the first Expressionist group, the Brücke) react when he saw the first major exhibition of Matisse’s Fauve works in Germany at the Paul Cassirer Gallery in Berlin in January 1909? His 1909 lithograph The Dreaming Woman may give us some clues. It’s a pretty large lithograph, and the lines are beautiful sweeping gestures that help simplify the figure of Dodo, his partner at the time and the subject of many of his drawings and colorful paintings during that year. Here the focus is on line, something we often associate with Matisse. But this lithograph shows Kirchner already to be a master of line as well—his sketchbooks, now in his estate near the Swiss town of Davos, show him already brilliantly capturing the motion of dancing and gesturing figures in a fluid line, much in contrast with the relative stasis of Matisse’s decorative compositions. Clearly Kirchner didn’t need any help learning how to draw! But he may have gained something else from Matisse, who had just published his famous 1908 text Notes of a Painter in Germany, in which he remarked “What I’m after, above all, is expression…. the place occupied by figures or objects, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything plays a part.” At this time no one really agreed on what “Expressionism” meant, and one of its first usages was to describe exclusively French art in a 1911 Berlin catalogue. So perhaps Kirchner learned something about how he could use the entire composition to express himself.
Of course not all German artists liked Matisse. Max Beckmann was famously “shocked” into lamenting “one impertinent effrontery after another,” and was prompted to ask “why don’t they just simply make cigarette posters?” And Max Pechstein, who went to the show with Kirchner and probably had already met Matisse in Paris, remarked on a postcard “Matisse partly really terrible“; but Kirchner wanted to recruit Matisse right away to the Brücke group.
Meanwhile fellow Brücke member Erich Heckel was just as much absorbed with Van Gogh and Gauguin. (You can see Van Gogh’s influence in the brushstrokes in LACMA’s 1909 painting by Heckel, Sand Diggers on the Tiber, which will be back on view in early February when it returns from an exhibition in Germany.) Gauguin informs the massive contour lines that evoke volume and simplify and flatten forms in his 1908 lithograph Woman on the Bed. Yet the lines here are wonderfully spontaneous, just enough detail to capture this figure and an image on the wall behind her. This lithograph is from one of Heckel’s most inventive phases as he made a shift from the forceful formal means of Expressionism to New Objectivity, the new sober, unsentimental, cool, and factual art of the 1920s. Yet during this time Heckel made only a handful of impressions of such prints, making them exceedingly rare today. It is on a lovely greenish heavy laid paper that we seldom see. Both of these prints jumped off the wall when I saw them, and I knew I had to act quickly to get them.
Another wonderful print was hiding in one on the many boxes of prints the Print Fair dealers bring along: Franz Radziwill’s enigmatic 1922 etching Girl at the Table. The faceless figure might strike some as unfinished, but the artist did sign his work in the lower margin. In fact a similar faceless woman is portrayed in a watercolor postcard he made while creating the portfolio from which this work comes, entitled simply Ten Etchings. Around 1920, many German artists became fascinated by the Italian Pittura Metafisica (“metaphysical”) painter Giorgio de Chirico, and this is certainly suggested in the architecture and bottle on the table in this sparse composition. Meanwhile the influence of Brücke expressionist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff is also seen throughout the composition, especially in patterns of striated and cross-hatched lines. Although best known as a painter of hyper-realist paintings in the mid-1920s, Radziwill’s first works were made in a more expressionist style with the transition to New Objectivity occurring in the early 1920s, precisely at the time of this rare etching. While announced in an edition of sixty, in actuality only some fifteen impressions of this print were made. The plates were seized in 1933 by the Nazis as “degenerate art,” along with a considerable number of graphic works in Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, never to be seen again. I feel very fortunate that LACMA now has these works.
Timothy Benson, Curator, Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies
Can’t wait for this upcoming exhibition. Kirchner is one of my favorite artists and that particular period of art (just before and between the world wars) is absolutely fascinating – and inspiring – to me.