Germans mastered art of bleak print Review: When Expressionists looked at the early 20th century, they were not happy. Their melancholy fills BMA show.

July 16, 1996|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

German Expressionism is not a pretty picture. Just consider the "Two Young Women" depicted by Otto Mueller in his 1919 lithograph by that title. They seem old before their time, and even more cynical than any of today's jaded Gen X-ers.

Although their casual nudity reveals that their bodies are in relatively good shape, their heads prompt a harsher assessment. Their long necks and angular faces are composed of such sharp lines you might cut yourself if you touched them. And their tightly closed mouths, slits for eyes and thick slashes for eyebrows make them seem too nasty for words.

Say hello to these two ladies if you dare in the group exhibit "A Modern Renaissance: German Expressionist Prints and Drawings," which the Baltimore Museum of Art has assembled from its extensive holdings in this area.

The art-historical point of the show is that German artists of the early 20th century turned to woodcuts and other printmaking techniques with all the fervor of their Renaissance predecessors. Prints were an expressive and inexpensive way for these agitated modern Germans to get their work out. Through such artist organizations as the Bridge and the Blue Rider, they shook up the art establishment. Indeed, their disturbing take on contemporary society prompted the Nazi Party to declare such artwork degenerate in 1937.

Why exactly did the German Expressionists have such a bleak view of society? More than any other single event, Germany's humiliating defeat in the First World War engendered a depression that extended from the economy to the artistic psyche. Himself a veteran of the war that inflicted such tremendous losses between 1914 and 1918, Otto Dix revisits the trenches in two etchings from 1924, "Ration Carriers Near

Pilkem" and "The Outposts Must Maintain the Bombardment at Night." Seeing the dead huddled together with the living against the blasted ground, you realize how impossible it would be for Dix to retain any sort of idealistic nationalism down there in the mucky trenches.

But the bleak world view predates that so-called war to end all wars. An older artist who influenced the Expressionists, Kathe Kollwitz, has a 1907 etching, "Battlefield," that was inspired by an early 16th-century German peasants' revolt. What's striking about Kollwitz's etching is how she avoids mass spectacle and instead focuses our attention on an elderly woman leaning over a fallen warrior to check for signs of life. The only light in this very dim scene is thrown on one of the woman's hands reaching for the man's neck. Kollwitz makes us focus even more, until all we see are the veins on that ancient hand.

It's an expressionistic tendency to remove extraneous detail from the picture, then exaggerate the remaining dark lines so that they pack the maximum emotional punch. This stark strategy readily lends itself to the black-and-white realm of most printmaking techniques, but the Expressionists sometimes did not content themselves with that basic B&W contrast. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's 1919 color woodcut "Pine Trees" depicts a couple of silhouetted human figures walking through a dense forest in what must be the depth of night. The looming tree trunks are so completely blue that the effect is both beautiful and slightly ominous. It was in Kirchner's emotional nature to see that much blue in the pine trees, and so blue they became.

Whether walking through an immense forest or down a city street, posing alone or in a small group, people come across in these early 20th-century Expressionist prints as neurotic, insecure, sadistic and on the endangered species list. In short, just like you and me in the late 20th century.

Have a look at the 1907 Kirchner lithograph "Ruth in a Morphine Trance," in which the woman's open mouth and vacant eyes make it painfully clear that she was unable to just say no.

Or for a gander at the dating game, look at Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's 1895 lithograph "Vampire," with its female vampire bending over to bite into a man's neck. True to fatalist form, Munch emphasizes the transgression by making the skin quite white in an otherwise dark print. The angst in the fin-de-siecle air evidently extended beyond Germany and covered much of northern Europe, as Munch likewise goes for the jugular.

The Expressionists who saw the world in such savage terms were no less blunt in looking at themselves. Indeed, self-portraiture was as popular with them as landscapes, portraits and religious subjects.

Max Beckmann's 1921 etching "Self-Portrait in Bowler Hat" includes traditional symbolic props placed to either side of the artist: a cat representing the dark side of sexuality and a lamp representing wisdom. As in the Renaissance portraiture that influenced his choice of props, Beckmann also raises his hand before him in the traditional gesture signifying his artistic profession. But by way of modern vice, he's clutching a cigarette rather than a brush.

Bleak view

What: German Expressionist Prints and Drawings

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Sept. 29

Cost: $5.50 for adults, $3.50 for seniors and students, $1.50 for children and free for museum members

Call: (410) 396-7100

Pub Date: 7/16/96

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