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Entries in Expressionism (27)


Max Pechstein: A More Authentic Existence

Max Pechstein - The Red House - 1911 - Oil on canvas - 35 × 27 in. (88.9 × 68.5 cm) - The Art Institute of Chicago (click photo for larger image)Painter and printmaker Max Pechstein (1881-1955) was among those artists who were park of Die Brücke (The Bridge) group—the first phase of German Expressionism. Indeed, he was a leading member.

Die Brücke artists regularly worked together, both in their studios as well as out of doors; this communal approach contributed to the early consistency of their style and reflected an important aspect of their utopian program. Echoing larger social concerns about health at the time, Max Pechstein and his colleagues often escaped the constraints of city life to find a more authentic existence in nature, documenting their experiences in their work. Later, after his relocation to Berlin in 1908, he also made solitary trips to Nidden, a remote fishing village on the Baltic Sea. Pechstein painted The Red House (featured here) during the second of these trips, attracted to the expansive dunes and forests of the region, as well as the local people and architecture.

Pechstein was a founding member of several avant-garde groups, including Berlin's "New Secession" (1910) and the Novembergruppe (1918). He was also elected a member of the Prussian Academy of Art. He taught at the Berlin Academy for ten years (1923-33), until he was dismissed by the Nazis because of the so-called degenerate nature of his art. Reinstated in 1945, Pechstein was the recipient of numerous awards before he died in West Berlin at the age of 73. 


Edvard Munch: The Fragility of Life

Edvard Munch - The Sick Child - 1907 - Oil on canvas - 1187 x 1210 mm - Tate Modern, London (click photo for larger image)Norwegian Symbolist/Expressionist painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was a leader in the revolt against the naturalistic dictates of 19th-century academic painting and also went beyond the naturalism still inherent  in Impressionism. His concentration on emotional essentials sometimes led to radical simplifications of form and an expressive, rather than descriptive, use of color. You can read more about Munch on What About Art?.

The Sick Child touches on the fragility of life. It draws upon Munch’s personal memories, including the trauma of his sister’s death, and visits to dying patients with his doctor father. He described the 1885 painting as ‘a breakthrough in my art’ and made several subsequent versions, of which [the one featured here] is the fourth.” (Tate Modern, London) 

All modern art was considered ‘degenerate’ by the National Socialist (Nazi) party. Expressionism was particularly singled out, and the work featured here was given that label. In 1937, German museums were purged of modern art by the government, with a total of some 15,550 works being removed. A selection of these was then put on show in Munich in an exhibition titled Entartete Kunst (meaning degenerate art). This exhibit was carefully staged so as to encourage the public to mock the work. At the same time an exhibition of traditionally painted and sculpted work was held, which extolled the Nazi party and Hitler’s view of the virtues of German life: ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’: roughly, family, home and church. Ironically, this official Nazi art was a mirror image of the socialist realism of the hated Communists.

Some of the degenerate art was sold at auction in Switzerland in 1939 and more was disposed of through private dealers. About 5,000 items were secretly burned in Berlin later that year. The Sick Child was sold at the 1939 auction.


James Ensor: Bizarre Fantasy and Sardonic Social Commentary

James Ensor - Comical Repast (Banquet of the Starved) - ca. 1917-18 - Oil on canvas - 45 1/2 x 57 1/4 in. (115.6 x 145.4 cm) - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (click photo for larger image)Belgian artist James Ensor (1860-1949) quickly stepped off the path of traditional painting and began to develop a revolutionary style that reflected his own take on modern life. Abandoning the usage of illusionism and one-point perspective to organize the image depicted, he began to build volume with patches of color across the surface of the canvas. His canvases are bursting with imagery that impresses the viewer with its presence. The artist was particularly intrigued by commenting on society’s shortcomings through carnival themes. His social commentary evolved from being subtle to overtly cynical.

“The current title of this painting reflects the two names it was given during Ensor’s lifetime. Scholars have interpreted the enigmatic scene as a critique of the German occupation of Belgium during World War I, which the artist experienced firsthand. The grouping around the table evokes the Last Supper, but Christ and the Apostles are replaced by ill-behaved, grotesque, and masked figures—some of Ensor’s favorite motifs. Their meager meal, including insects and a raw onion, may evoke the near-famine that Belgians endured. Ensor underscored the theme of mortality by quoting three of his works depicting rowdy skeletons in the background.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)


Christian Schad: The Classical Collides with Symbolism

Christian Schad - Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove - 1929 - Oil on canvas - 1200 x 800 mm - Tate Museum - London (click photo for larger image)

German artist Christian Schad (1894-1982) was associated with both the Dada and the New Objectivity movements. Considered as a group, Schad's portraits form an extraordinary record of life in Vienna and Berlin in the years following World War I. The work featured here is a large portrait-orientated oil painting of two funfair performers. It was created in 1929, in Berlin, where Schad lived from 1927 to 1943. It is executed on a plain-weave linen canvas with the paint applied consistently all over. Schad met the subjects in north Berlin, where they appeared together using the bird-related names referenced in the work’s title. As part of their performance, Agosta displayed his upside-down ribcage – a deformity with which he was born – while Rasha, who was from Madagascar, appeared with a large snake wrapped around her. In a 1977 text, Schad claimed that the models were “simple, obliging and, like all performers, dependable and punctual. They told me much about their lives that was much more interesting than what I would have been told at a five o’clock tea”. 


“A Signature at Gunpoint Cannot Lead to a Valid Conveyance”

Egon Schiele - Woman Hiding Her Face (click photo for larger image)“The Art Newspaper” reported on April 6th that London art dealer Richard Nagy has to return two Egon Schiele works worth $5 million dollars to heirs of Holocaust victims. Although Nagy argued that his purchase of the works was entirely legal, Justice Charles E. Ramos posited that the manner of the initial seizure of such works undermines this argument. “A signature at gunpoint cannot lead to a valid conveyance.”

The battles and debates over who legally holds title to works alleged to have been confiscated by the Nazis during WWII continue—as do the lawsuits over such art. In 2005, Massachusetts industrialist David Bakalar claimed ownership of yet another work by Schiele. That suit was won by Bakalar, on the grounds that the heirs of the original owners did not claim their right to title soon enough. According to the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act (HEAR)—claims can now be made on Nazi-looted work up to six years after they have been discovered.

In both cases noted here, the original owner of the art in question was Fritz Grünbaum.

Grünbaum was an Austrian Jewish cabaret artist, operetta and pop song writer, director, actor and master of ceremonies. He was also a  well-known collector of Austrian modernist art. Of the more than 400 pieces he owned, 80 of them were works created by Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Grünbaum was killed in Dachau concentration camp in 1941.

In many such cases, proof of original ownership cannot be determined, nor can it be proven that such items were stolen by the Nazis. Richard Nagy intends to appeal the decision on the basis that evidence of seizure of the works by the Nazis does not exist.

Egon Schiele (1890-1918) was one of the leading figures of Austrian Expressionism, whose works embody an “unprecedented level of emotional and sexual directness and use of figural distortion in place of conventional notions of beauty”.

The work featured here is one of the two works awarded to Grünbaum’s heirs. You can read more about Schiele right here on What About Art?