The Johnson Museum’s new exhibit, titled Age of Discontent: German Expressionist Works from a Private Collection, is an exciting display of prolific, creative collaboration. Opened on April 7, Age of Discontent studies German artist groups Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) and other individual expressionist artists of the early 20th century.
The exhibit presents not only a significant movement in art history, but also commends the advancement of the University’s art museum. In 1970, Cornell’s A.D. White Museum, the precursor to the Johnson, was the first in the country to exclusively display the work of Die Brücke. Now through the current exhibition and its addition of art from the Der Blaue Reiter group, the museum shows an expansion in their German Expressionist art collection and overall development.
To appreciate the exhibit, it is imperative to familiarize yourself with the historical background of the groups and their motives, as well as their lasting influence on art history. The Die Brücke group — initially comprised of artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel, Fritz Bleyl, and later, Emil Nole, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller — formed through friendships brought together by a university and their shared radical viewpoints on art. The members aimed to liberate themselves from traditional art through the creation of a new type of artistic expression. Their 1906 manifesto stated that they desired “to achieve freedom of life and action against the well-established older forces.” They anticipated that, through a different approach of creating art, they could bridge the past and the present — therefore resulting in the name of their group, Die Brucke (The Bridge).
Their collective style used themes of figural distortion, bright colors, emotional rigidity and inspiration from the primitivism movement. For those that are unfamiliar, primitivism is Western art movement that finds inspiration from prehistoric ages and incorporates those visual forms and motifs into their work. A common example would be Pablo Picasso’s art which draws inspiration from African art and incorporates primitive motifs such as tribal masks. Die Brücke expressed reverence to former German artists Albrecht Durer and Matthias Grunewald by reawakening older media such as woodcutting, dry-pointing, etching and lithographing, and adopting it as their main way of creating. Art created by these various forms of printmaking were shown in the exhibition, along with the more common media of oil paint and pencils.
The Der Blaue Reiter group also was inspired by primitivism and emotion, with special emphasis on spiritual truths. The name of their group came from a title of a Wassily Kandinsky painting who, along with Franz Marc, originated the group. Although the exact reason of their name is not entirely understood, it was thought that blue was a color of spiritual significance to Kandinsky. While both groups are known for their pivotal roles in German expressionism, individual artists — such as Kathe Kollwitz, Leo Mediner, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee and Oskar Kokoschka — who are not necessarily members of the movement are also associated with it. Accordingly, even these extraneous artists were foci of the exhibition.
A lot of the expressionist artwork contains physically distorted figures. Exaggeration of a feature was an artistic tool used to more obviously express an emotion. The figural distortions, simplicity and lack of attempt at realism in the drawings calls to mind modern newspaper comics. Most of the work conveyed strong dark emotions, frequently of pain, grief and sadness. In expressionism, the importance of emotion overrides accurate representation of the world. For example, a still-life painting placed more emphasis on the emotional quality expressed through color rather than the actual manifestation of these objects in a three-dimensional setting.
With close examination of the work in the exhibit, it is easy to find the slight expressive distinction between artists. Yet the arrangement of the exhibition prevents the viewers from examining only one artist instead of the whole. If there are multiple pieces by one artist, they are intertwined throughout the other works instead of grouped together. This mixed arrangement conveys the importance of German expressionism as a whole and its overall achievement, rather than the progression of the individual artist.
Age of Discontent is on display in the Johnson Museum until July 29.