20th-century anxiety on display at St. John's German Expressionism exhibit

September 03, 1993|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing Writer

"One cannot forever paint women knitting and men reading," wrote the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. "I want to represent people who breathe, feel, love and suffer."

When Munch (1863-1944) exhibited his works in Berlin in the early 1890s, their effect on the young German painters who viewed them was profoundly liberating. In the brooding, emotionally raw paintings of Edvard Munch were the seeds of German Expressionism.

Fifty-seven works from the Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection of German Expressionist Art are on display at the Mitchell Gallery on the campus of St. John's College.

They make it clear that artists like Emil Nolde, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and their colleagues took Munch's words to heart. Never far removed removed from the realm of the subconscious, the images that fill the gallery are fascinating in their troubled anxiety. By and large, the Expressionists were not an optimistic lot.

In Emil Nolde's "The Sick, The Physician, Death and the Devil," for example, a kindly looking man and his bespectacled doctor are joined by a skeleton and a hellish specter, both with decidedly sinister bedside manners.

Christian Rohlf's "Death as Juggler" is a 1919 woodcut depicting a skeletal form tossing unrecognizable figures into the air as three onlookers shrink in horror. The work's World War I vintage suggests that this artist knew disillusionment and pain from the inside.

Less macabre but equally eerie is Nolde's etching of a ghostly steamship receding inexorably from consciousness, and Conrad Felixmuller's "Political Speaker," in which the subject's head is cocked at such a distorted angle that it leaves his swan neck and the rest of the torso tailing strangely behind.

Fragmentation of the human form was part of the Expressionist impulse, as this exhibit makes clear.

Otto Mueller's "Two Nudes in the Dunes," for example, reduces its subjects to acute angles and triangles, while Rohlf's "Man With a Carnation" is a minimalist study in which the face is mere lines and gentle smudges.

An element of social commentary is evident in works such as Otto Dix's "A Pimp and His Girls," in which the depraved purple visage of the pimp becomes a metaphor for corruption in an urban setting.

Finally, Max Pechstein's colorful but amorphous "Bathers" and Gerhard Stich's blurry, disappearing "Girl With Yellow Fur" remind us that Expressionism was a major step in the direction of pure abstract art, 20th-century imagery that would leave physical reality far behind.

1% The exhibit runs through Oct. 24.

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