Episode 9: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s "Reclining Nude" (1910)
It’s time to get messy.
If you’ve been listening to the episodes relatively in order, then you’ll have noticed that we’ve been talking a lot about the early 20th century. Largely, it’s been with respect to respect to Cezanne and Picasso, and we’ve established that the 20th century is about the validation of your own unique perspective onto the world. Now let’s further divide painting that subjectivity into two camps: your head, and your gut. Are we thinking through this idiosyncratic, experimental turn-of-the-century world, or are we feeling it? It’s kind of an art historical Meyers-Briggs of the early 1900s. Is your end goal to objectively capture subjectivity in an intellectual exercise, like we see with Cezanne and Cubism? Or is the goal to plunge your hands into your viewer’s chest, rip out his still-beating heart, and hand him the bloody pulp your only means of having him fully understand your pain? If you prefer the latter, then welcome to the world of German Expressionism.
Empathy is a key word to associate with Expressionists in general: by and large, they wanted you to feel what they were feeling, and they were willing to go to extreme aesthetic lengths to arouse a reaction from you. Borrowing from Van Gogh’s manic brushstrokes and the vibrant Post-Impressionist palette, German Expressionists used high-keyed, discordant colors and intentionally destabilizing perspectives, all with the intention of agitating your eye, and thus exploiting your discomfort. You know how unsettled the colors and perspectives of this painting makes you feel? Good.
And it wasn’t even as if these painters were all that miserable themselves – this branch of the movement, Die Brucke, or the Bridge, was founded by a small group of Dresden architecture students in 1905, so there was still some time before WWI came along to validate the misery we see on many of these canvases. I mean, it’s not like you need a world war to inspire melodrama in art students. Still, though, wasn’t just about feeling bad, it was just about feeling something. It was about seeing if paintings could really capture and express human emotion, and what aesthetic techniques it takes to make it really resonate for viewers.
To create something so new, they needed to look under new rocks, and expand their geographical horizons. Like Gauguin, the members of Die Brucke were captivated by exotic, non-Western cultures that seemed to connect more closely with raw, primal emotion – people who appeared to lose themselves in dance, in sexuality, in a kind of pre-Christian, idealized Paganism of rusticity and ritual. In other words, the polar opposite of a stiff-upper-lipped, corseted western European society in the throes of an industrial revolution. And so it’s not surprising that so many artists of this period decided to take a leaf from Gauguin’s book and determine that the best way to go forward was to retreat backwards, to rub shoulders with, in their words, less-developed societies. After all, what was so great about progress anyway, if it just served to repress human instinct? They wanted to trace their origins back to the Garden of Eden before the fall, too, even if, like Gauguin, they were creating a fantasy world.
The German Expressionists were only a few of the many artists across Europe who were dabbling in non-Western art. There are some aesthetic calling cards, and you can see them from Gauguin to Picasso to Kirchner to Matisse: a purposefully simple style; rough, unfinished textures; flattened shapes of bold, pure, often discordant color; lumbering, nude figures, all painted with a sense of wild abandon. And all of this art fell under the umbrella of a period that came to be known as Primitivism. I know. The phrase Primitivism sounds like it should be a dirty word, and to our contemporary, post-Colonial, post-Orientalist ears, it is. But it’s also a handy way to categorize the art that came from this specific period – where European artists were visiting ethnographic museums and collecting pieces of African and Siberian and Oceanic art, art that felt exotic and strange, and yet was able to express a deeply instinctual truth about the human condition, before pesky Western critical distance and puritanical religious mores got in the way. Primitivism represented cultural and societal taboos that Europeans didn’t dare engage in, yet still peeked at through slightly spread fingers. It was violence and sexuality, impulse and instinct, and, above all, deep, intense emotional feeling. From the sacrificial virgin ritualistically dancing herself to death in Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” to the sharp shards of fruit and brazen outward stares of the prostitutes in Picasso’s “Demoiselles D’Avignon”, the arts across Europe was teeming with the allure, and subsequent shame, of a society needing this kind of “primitive” worldview to escape the anxiety of urban modernity.
So back to our friends of Die Brucke. The term “The Bridge” came from their manifesto, where they stated their desire to break free from the chains of convention, i.e. the academic style they’d been studying, in order to create a new mode of artistic convention. They wanted to bridge the past to a utopian future, where, lest you forget that they’re art students, “the only rule is that there are no rules.” They were, in fact, a movement so open and receptive that it’s difficult to categorize them much beyond their own refusal of the status quo. Life in Die Brucke was a bohemian, free love wing-ding, with no restraints or inhibitions. Friends modeled for friends, artists slept with models – wink – and the studio became a highly emotional, highly sexualized hotspot uncontaminated with the cold, gray conditions of industrial city life. Honestly, it sounds pretty awesome. The heat is practically coming off of this reclining nude, who lies draped across a tattered couch in Kirchner’s studio. Her yellow body, freed from a deformative corset, is fully in harmony with nature. It radiates warmth and calm, a luscious, tactile heat, even as her sexuality can send you into a tizzy.
Nonconformist as these artists were, though, by painting in this kind of blocky, raw, “primitivist” style, they were actually connecting quite deeply to their own past. See, German art has kind of always looked like this. Germany, unlike Italy and France, never actually experienced a Renaissance, the rebirth of antiquity that took the rough, unhewn expressive gargoyles and crucifixions of the middle ages and put them through the classical clean-up machine, subsequently making art neat and tidy and lovely again. If you were to look at German art through the centuries, you would be assaulted with raw, expressionist emotion and probably need to cleanse your palate, so to speak, with a nice Rococo landscape. There was a phrase for this aesthetic in the Romanesque cathedrals of the 12th and 13th centuries: “expressive beauty” – a deliberately wrenching and grotesque style of painting and sculpture, often on the facades of churches, which would make it abundantly clear what price you were going to pay in the afterlife if you didn’t stop in your tracks and go inside.
Die Brucke was deeply indebted to their German aesthetic past, and in their own way, worked to revive and affirm their cultural heritage. They created their own expressive beauty by rejecting finish or elegance, and instead favoring crude contours and thick, visible brushstrokes. They were clearly influenced by the rough, sculptural woodcuts they admired and emulated, and the thick, dark outlines they worked into their art, as if they were painting with stained glass. In this way, German Expressionists came by their Primitivism style more honestly than any other European painter.
It is particularly ironic, then, that a few decades later, they were branded by Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine as the epitome of anti-German, depraved enemies to the Reich. “There is a war in the air,” Kirchner wrote in 1933 to his dealer, Karl Hagermann. He continues: “In the museums, the hard-won cultural achievements of the last 20 years are being destroyed, and yet the reason we founded Die Brucke was to encourage truly German art, made in Germany. And now it is supposed to be un-German.”
Propaganda was an insidious, powerfully effective tool of Nazism. After the humiliation of WW1 and the incompetent Weimar Republic that followed, it makes sense that the Nazis needed to rid Germany of the art that was capable of tapping into just how much Germans were feeling. It was because this art was so effective at arousing emotions in the typical German viewer that it was targeted, and summarily quashed. But what is particularly interesting is how it was quashed. Goebbels and his ministry of ‘cultural enlightenment’ had a piercingly perceptive understanding of how to use propaganda effectively. It’s not an overstatement to say that it was the only war the Hitler won.
The war against modern art in Nazi Germany came to a head in the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition, or Entartete Kunst. 650 works of art by 112 artists – some Jewish, all modernist, and 25 just by Kirchner alone –were plundered from museums across Germany. But rather than destroy this art, which would have been the easiest thing to do, Goebbels brilliantly decided instead to mount an exhibition with the explicit aim of using its emotional power against itself. How? Well, almost 2.9 million Germans – an average of 20,000 per day – came to point and laugh at these paintings. Because every conceivable element of the exhibition was grossly manipulated to ensure that a viewer would come away disgusted. The venue, the Institute of Archeology, was deliberately chosen for its cramped space and dark, narrow rooms. The objects were displayed to evoke maximum visual agitation– some without frames, others crooked, others still with slogans painted across the object itself, daring the viewer to take it seriously. Imagine how confusing it must have been for a visitor, to see these objects framed with such repulsion, and then to find himself feeling a sense of empathy with them. Imagine the anxiety he would feel as he looked around furtively to see if anyone else was feeling this sense of connection. If he was experiencing empathy, then maybe he was as sick as the artists. So what other choice does he have than to push it down, and mock the object away?
The Degenerate Art exhibition was disturbing in its effectiveness, an early and prophetic example of how adept Nazi propagandists were at drawing a line in the sand between us and them. They made the consequences of not going along with the masses not just procedural, but moral. What kind of person am I if I get aroused by these paintings? What kind of German am I? And Kirchner’s story, in this context, is a particularly tragic one. He was a German art student who reveled in his own German artistic heritage, who volunteered for military service at the outset of WWI, and who suffered subsequently a mental breakdown from which he never fully recovered in his lifetime. His poor health, his forced resignation from the Prussian Academy of the Arts in Berlin, and his being branded as a degenerate ultimately proved too much to take. In 1938, in the looming shadow of WW2, Kirchner committed suicide.
There’s a bittersweet tag to this story. The day before the opening of the Degenerate Art exhibition, at the nearby House of German Art, the Nazis mounted their own, proper exhibition, modestly titled, “The Great German Art Exhibition”. The purpose of the show was, essentially, to be Entartete Kunst’s foil. Enough time with the obscene degenerates, they figured, and you’d be forced to run screaming into the open arms of decency. Unfortunately for them, though, the art sucked. The objects in the bright, airy exhibition hall were a derivative,inert stab at classical antiquity – alluding, ironically, to that Renaissance that Germany never hard. Nude prepubescent girls painted with sterile realism; sculptures of bulked up, soulless meathead supermen. Just as naked as the Expressionists, but completely unsexy. No heat, no empathy. And…no visitors. Barely anyone came, relatively speaking. A puny 420,000 Germans came to the Great German Art Exhibition, nearly 5 times fewer than went to see the Degenerate Art, and the exhibition closed, quietly embarrassed, later that year. Even Hitler was disappointed with it. And no one talks about it. It barely has its own Wikipedia entry today.
You know, they should have taken a leaf, this time, from the German Expressionists. It turns out art without a soul really doesn’t do much for a viewer.