German Revolution Expressionist Prints

Lady Lever Gallery, until 28th February 2021, free (tickets required for visit)

I actually wrote my undergrad dissertation on German Expression. Specifically about Die Brücke. It was a strange thing to write because the more I researched, the less I liked the artists. I mean, one of them was a Nazi supporter, for goodness sake. I let the subject largely slip out mind once the dissertation was finished, but this exhibition reminds me of what appealed about the style and period in the first place.

black & white woodblock print of two figures, one may and one woman, sitting on the ground. The woman has her hands over her face.
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff “Mann und Weib (Man & Wife)” , 1912, woodcut © DACS 2020

The advertising for the show was a bit confusing: what were the names Goya, Schiele and Picasso doing on the poster? Of course, in the event their inclusion makes sense. What their images do is set the scene; the German movement didn’t exist in a vaccuum, but in dialogue with a wider European pre-war concern about whether human condition was becoming lost to a shallow consumer culture, and social inequalities.

Though as I found all those years ago, what the German movement offered as its counter to the complexities of modernity was based on a false idealisation of colonised communities. In fact one of the artists that’s missed for not somehow being in the context-setting introduction is Gauguin. His Tahitian work is an obvious parallel to Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s “Man & Wife” (pictured) & Emil Nolde’s “Young Couple” are in one way re-imaginings of Adam & Eve – but also give a view of Palau as a ‘primitive idyll’.

One thing the show does well is a simple act of decolonisation – a line in the captions to say that these images aren’t accurate reflections of South Pacific life under German rule. They also acknowledge Nolde’s Nazi sympathies. It’s so essential for properly contextualising these works. Acknowledging the difficulty means we’re taking in everything they are: significant in their time, place and influence, but not entirely admirable.

Green background with two trees, woman in black printed on front. Her face is based on masks,
Conrad Felixmüller, Lonely Woman, 1919, woodcut, cat. 30 © DACS 2020

And the thing is that these exotic fantasies aren’t even the most powerful works. Those are instead the ones which focus their gaze on German life and society. The uniting aesthetics are that they’re black and white, and the graphics are linear and dense. There’s an immediacy to the style, and an unease. Even in the calmness of Gabriele Munter’s “Exhibition Poster for Copenhagen”, you feel it’s only a respite from something more troubling.

The focus is also on the human figure as subject. This part of Expressionism wanted to get civilized society questioning itself by giving it a glimpse into its own soul, and it’s not a comfortable one. Subjects are rarely at peace, but instead tend towards haunted. There’s Otto Dix’s “Artisten (Acrobats)”, who hover in that Dix-ian way between delight and nightmare. Kathe Kollwitz – by some distance the most powerful artist here – creates parallels between figures over a 20-year period which only get darker, her figures more spectre-like as war and economic turmoil take their toll.

Is German Revolution Expressionist Prints ‘timely’? Such a cliché. But it is cathartic to spend time in a language which understands times of social turbulence. I went to to this show on the day that second lockdown was announced, so who knows when this will even be open to visit again. But if you can and you’re after something lively, urgent, yet anguished, I’d recommend.

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