GSE logo

The Expressionist Legacy

October 22, 2019 to February 29, 2020

We live within history. This is among the most important lessons I learned from Otto Kallir, my grandfather and the founder of the Galerie St. Etienne. History is never static. Every new day differs imperceptibly from the last, until eventually the world becomes unrecognizable. In the future, historians will struggle to figure out how we felt and why we acted as we did. They will examine things we now hold dear and reassess them according to their own values. Our view of the past changes to suit the needs of the present.

Great art transcends its time by speaking afresh to successive generations, but each generation also imposes its own interpretive agenda. This may be especially true of Expressionism, the artistic signifier associated with America’s enemies in both world wars. Austrian and German modernists have never quite managed to escape the stigma of fascism. Even though they numbered among Hitler’s victims, they were products of the same culture as the Nazis. Recently, the Expressionist legacy has been further complicated by the recognition that Nazi purges facilitated the international dissemination of the work. Those who saved Expressionist art from destruction in the 1930s and ‘40s are, in light of today’s greatly increased prices, sometimes accused of profiting from the Holocaust.

“Expressionism” is commonly used to designate the brand of modernism that originated in German-speaking Europe, but unlike “Impressionism” or “Cubism,” it does not describe a specific style. Artists working in such far-flung centers as Berlin, Dresden, Munich and Vienna never constituted a cohesive movement. Nor did the artists eventually branded as Expressionists necessarily embrace that label. Their sole common denominator, really, was an aversion to the art of their parents’ generation: an art mired in historical references, oblivious to contemporary circumstances, in thrall to bourgeois materialism and perpetuated by an academic system designed to enforce the status quo. If the artists themselves could have chosen their own label, it might simply have been “new”: as in the Brücke’s “neudeutsche Kunst” (new-German art), Egon Schiele’s Neukunstgruppe (founded in 1909), the Munich gallery Neue Kunst (which represented Schiele), or Kallir’s original Viennese Neue Galerie (established in 1923). Seeking to escape the stranglehold of the past, the last thing these artists wanted was to impose further stylistic restrictions. As Schiele said of the Neukünstler, “formula is his antithesis.” The Brücke group (founded in 1905) described their community as comprising “whoever renders directly and authentically that which compels him to create.” What Wassily Kandinsky termed the artist’s “inner necessity” was essentially an individual matter.

The motto of the Vienna Secession—“To each age its art, to art its freedom”—could as easily apply to the Expressionist generation, whose innovations would be unthinkable without the secession initiatives that preceded them. Responding to international trends such as Impressionism and Symbolism, secessions in Munich (founded in 1891), Vienna (founded in 1897) and Berlin (founded in 1898) provided progressive alternatives to the local artists’ associations, which favored crowd-pleasing academic realism. Not coincidentally, in an era of dwindling aristocratic patronage, the rival exhibition venues also reflected a struggle to control the market. Whereas the older artists’ associations limited the display of foreign art in order to protect domestic production, the secessions, in the words of Gustav Klimt, recognized “the necessity of bringing artistic life...into more lively contact with the continuing development of art abroad.” In addition to exhibiting their members’ work, the secessions showed a panoply of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Symbolist art, and paid attention to outliers like Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh and Ferdinand Hodler. In 1903, the Vienna Secession presented an exhibition on the “Development of Impressionism” that ranged from unexpected ancestors like Velázquez and El Greco through to successors such as Georges Seurat, Van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin. Removed from its original context in time and place, the foreign art shown by the secessions in Germany and Austria offered an enticing menu of styles that invited reinterpretation rather than imitation.

Austrian and German “Impressionism,” incorporating an amalgam of foreign and domestic influences, was very different from its French prototype. The optical aspects of French Impressionism—the attempt to record the shifting effects of light—did not much interest Austrian or German painters. From the outset, these artists deployed the fragmented brushstrokes typical of the style for emotional effect. In Austria, the genre was called Stimmungsimpressionismus (mood Impressionism). By the time of his death in 1925, Lovis Corinth, the leading German Impressionist, had developed a heavily impastoed technique that imbued even innocuous subjects like landscapes and still-lifes with an aura of foreboding. Between 1906 and his suicide in 1908, the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl progressed from ersatz pointillism to deconstructing subjects with wild slashes of paint in hues that bore little connection to observed reality.

As the secessions began to decline in the first decade of the twentieth century, their polyglot approach was taken up by new artists’ associations. Kandinsky spear-headed two breakaway groups in Munich, the Phalanx (in 1902) and the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (in 1909), which exhibited future Blauer Reiter members Alexej Jawlensky, Gabrielle Münter and Marianne von Werefkin, alongside Pablo Picasso and French contemporaries such as Georges Braque, André Derain and Georges Rouault. The Blauer Reiter Almanac, published in 1912, was a catalogue of elective affinities that ranged from Cubism to Egyptian cutouts and devoted the greatest number of illustrations to the self-taught French painter Henri Rousseau. That same year, the Sonderbund, an association chaired by the collector Karl Ernst Osthaus, staged a massive survey of international avant-garde art in Cologne. The exhibition included contributions from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Spain and Switzerland, with special sections set aside for Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Munch, Picasso and Signac. The goal was to present “an overview of the latest movement in painting... which strives for a simplification and strengthening of expressive form, a new rhythm and colorfulness, a decorative or monumental effect—an overview of that movement which has been called Expressionism.” The term “Expressionism” was at this time being used quite broadly, or, as at the Berlin Secession in 1911, to distinguish French Post-Impressionism from Impressionism.

During the years when these sundry artists’ groups— the secessions, the Phalanx, the Brücke, the Neue Künstlervereinigung, the Neukunstgruppe, the Blauer Reiter—were coalescing, fragmenting and reforming, the battle for the future of art was still being waged. If it had been decided by popular vote, modernism would never have won. The general public far preferred conventional realism, and the German and Austrian emperors saw the new art as at best, ugly, and at worst, a veiled assault on their regimes. In Germany, an additional problem was the association between modernism and the nation’s longtime enemy, France. First unified in 1871 at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War, Germany was preoccupied with establishing a singular cultural identity. Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the new nation, pursued a Kulturkampf (culture battle) focused principally on education. Whereas German literature was readily identified by language, it was not immediately evident what, if anything, was “German” about German art. The easiest answer to that question was: recognizable German subject matter. Political priorities, popular taste and academic tradition were in alignment.

Among the flashpoints in Germany’s ongoing culture war was the artists’ colony at Worpswede, near Bremen. Worpswede was one of many similar groups that lived in or frequented rural German enclaves around the turn of the last century. Opposed to both academic officialdom and industrial cosmopolitanism, participating artists sought to discover their authentic German roots. Worpswede is today the best remembered of these colonies, chiefly because of the diametrically different contributions of two members: Paula Modersohn-Becker and Carl Vinnen, who was associated with the group from 1895 to 1903. Paula Becker moved to Worpswede at the age of twenty-two in 1898, and three years later married Otto Modersohn, a colleague eleven years her senior. While Modersohn waxed rhapsodic about how wonderful it was “to be a German, to feel German, to think German,” Modersohn-Becker was increasingly drawn to Paris, where she eagerly absorbed the formal lessons of Cézanne and Gauguin. As the couple’s marriage crumbled under the pressure of divergent creative viewpoints and the need to live in different places, Modersohn-Becker melded German and French sensibilities to become, in the words of scholar Diane Radycki, “the first modern woman artist.”

By the time Modersohn-Becker died following childbirth in 1907, the “Frenchification” of German art was a hotly contested national issue. While there were those, such as the critic Julius Meier-Graefe, who believed German art stood to benefit from the influence of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, many German artists felt passed over. Not only the secessions, but Hugo von Tschudi, the director of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie (until he was sacked by the emperor in 1908), and the major German dealers (often in close collaboration with French colleagues) seemed to favor foreign art. The purchase by the Bremen Kunsthalle of a Van Gogh painting in 1911 prompted Vinnen to publish his historic Protest of German Artists, which was signed by some 118 colleagues from across the land. Tinged with anti-Semitic innuendo, Vinnen’s introductory essay accuses dealers (many of whom were Jewish) of manipulating the market, colluding with unscrupulous critics to “unload [French] pictures on German collectors at exorbitant prices.” “As this is being foisted upon us by a large, well-financed international organization,” the Protest continues, “an earnest admonition is in order: to proceed no further in this way, and to be clear about what we are in a position to lose, namely nothing less than our essence and our inherited native capacity.... A people is only driven to great heights by artists of its own flesh and blood.”

The widely shared feelings articulated by Vinnen were partly responsible for the eventual Germanicization of Expressionism. Curator Timothy Benson casts Kirchner’s 1913 Brücke “Chronicle” as a tacit response to Vinnen and a turning point in this process. Refusing to credit what appear to be obvious French sources, Kirchner cited “the German masters of the Middle Ages,” German Renaissance woodcuts and African and Oceanic carvings as the Brücke’s chief inspirations. It was left to the critic Paul Fechter, in his 1914 book Der Expressionismus, to formally codify Expressionism as a distinctly German phenomenon. Focusing on the Brücke and the Blauer Reiter, Fechter divided Expressionism into figural (“extensive”) and more abstract (“intensive”) branches, each of which evidenced a metaphysical orientation that could be traced to Germany’s “old Gothic soul.” An important influence on Fechter and others trying to decide what made art “German” was Julius Langbehn’s wildly popular 1890 tract, Rembrandt as Educator. Langbehn postulated that there was a Nordic essence that extended across Northern Europe. Whereas French art was deemed superficial and decorative, it was permissible to claim Van Gogh and Munch as Expressionist forbears.

The boundaries between French and German modernism were hardened by World War I. Hereafter, Germany had its own proprietary “ism,” Expressionism, to compete with other nationally demarcated movements like Impressionism, Fauvism, Futurism and Constructivism. “German Expressionism” was essentially a political construct, and as such it is inseparable from the ideological “isms” (socialism, communism and fascism) that shaped twentieth-century history.

The reification of Expressionism as generically German and specifically tied to the orbits of the Brücke and Blauer Reiter left hanging artists who did not entirely conform to the paradigm. What about Germans like Corinth and Modersohn-Becker, who anticipated Expressionism stylistically but did not belong to either of the key groups? What about Austria’s modernists, who shared some, but not all, of the same cultural influences as the Germans? Austria, which had been ruled by the Hapsburgs since the thirteenth century, was more secure than Germany in its identity and less antagonistic toward France. At the same time, Austria lacked the strong network of dealers who, from the late nineteenth century onward, had been funneling French avant-garde art into Germany. Klimt, trained in the tradition of allegorical history painting, responded more strongly to the Dutch and Belgian Symbolists than to French modernism. Among the next generation of major Austrian artists, only Gerstl was old enough to have been influenced by the Secession’s 1903 Impressionism survey. Klimt, Van Gogh and Hodler were Schiele’s primary influences; his attempt to join the Blauer Reiter in 1912 was rebuffed. Kokoschka, who established enduring ties to the Berlin dealers Herwarth Walden and Paul Cassirer in 1910, was the only Austrian to be fully embraced as an Expressionist; sometimes he is misidentified as a German.

If Expressionism was a vexed concept before World War I, matters only grew more confusing after 1918. German and Austrian artists coming of age in the wake of their nations’ military defeat encountered vastly altered economic and political circumstances. Gerstl, Klimt and Schiele were dead, and while most former members of the Brücke and Blauer Reiter had survived, their art no longer felt relevant. Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz and other postwar German artists found it necessary to directly confront the failings and foibles of contemporary society. “Art for art’s sake” would not suffice; the earlier Expressionists seemed too disengaged, self-indulgent and, their anti-materialism notwithstanding, too bourgeois. Nevertheless, while the postwar rejection of materialism may have been more politically grounded, Weimar-era artists shared with their predecessors a belief in the transformative power of art, as well as numerous visual similarities, including exaggerated forms and unnatural colors. What has been called “second-generation Expressionism” lasted at least though the mid-1920s, when it was gradually superseded by the more realistic style known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).

Neither the first- nor the second-generation Expressionists were ultimately able to transform society. Most people found modernism alien and incomprehensible. Even the art of Weimar-era socialists, like Grosz, was too negative, too acerbic, to please the Communist Party. Stalin accepted only Socialist Realism and sent many Russian Constructivists to the Gulag. The Nazis, nonetheless, denounced the avant-garde as “cultural Bolsheviks.” Reviving the debates of the early twentieth century, Hitler characterized modern art as “un-deutsch,” “Jewish” and “degenerate:” a combination that made the work nothing less than a mortal threat to the German Volk. Expressionism ended up being condemned by both the left and the right.

It is by now well known that Hitler expunged all the “degenerate” art from German public collections, sent it on a national tour in 1937, and then sold it abroad. Those who bought these works had to know they were helping fund German rearmament, but the sale of public property by the German state was not then and has never since been judged illegal. “Degenerate” art was not targeted for theft by the Nazis: what they wanted and specifically took from Jewish collectors were Old Masters and other paintings in a classical style. The theft of Jewish-owned degenerate art was largely a byproduct of Nazi persecution, and the process was, accordingly, far from monolithic. Jews lucky enough to emigrate early were often allowed to take their Expressionist collections, provided they first paid the various “Jew taxes.” To raise these taxes, to support themselves and their families while under Nazi rule, and to finance their lives in exile, many Jews sold all or part of their collections. Sometimes the seller got the money, and sometimes it went into a blocked account; sometimes buyers paid a fair price, and sometimes they did not. Art left behind following emigration or deportation was routinely seized by the Gestapo. Still, Expressionist works, especially works on paper, were often worth so little that Jews could pass them surreptitiously to relatives or friends. Every collector’s story was different.

Between 1937 and 1940, an outpouring of refugee collectors, dealers, artists and art from Germany and Austria sparked an upsurge in Expressionist exhibitions abroad. The New Burlington Art Galleries in London, the Maison de la Culture in Paris, the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, the Institute of Modern Art in Boston and the Milwaukee Art Institute were among the organizations that attempted to counter Hitler’s cultural policies with shows of “banned” art. Works that had once belonged to German museums featured prominently in these exhibitions and were acquired by any number of collectors and institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art. “The only good thing about the exile of such fine works of art from one country is the consequent enrichment of other lands where cultural freedom still exists,” declared MoMA’s director, Alfred Barr. Indeed, those who bought “degenerate” art in the 1930s and ’40s often felt they were engaged in a heroic salvage mission. The press release for the Galerie St. Etienne’s 1940 exhibition, “Saved from Europe,” noted that the works on offer had “escaped destruction by air raid, fire or water, or at best, the ‘honor’ of wandering into some Nazi collection.”

In the years immediately preceding America’s entry into World War II, German Expressionism was seen as emblematic of the democratic freedoms we would soon be fighting for. This changed radically after 1941. Austrian and German refugees, including artists, were already being interned in Britain. In the U.S., German natives had to register as “enemy aliens,” while Austrians, seen as “Hitler’s first victims,” were left alone. Austrian modernism was thus relatively immune from the opprobrium directed at all things German during the war years. But it also lacked the name-brand recognition of its German counterpart, which had invariably been identified by nationality in the prewar exhibitions. Otto Kallir, who had arrived in New York in 1939 with much of his inventory intact, and whose Galerie St. Etienne was an economic lifeline for the refugee community, discovered that, with the exception of Kokoschka, Austrian art was unknown and virtually unsalable. In reviewing “Saved from Europe” (which also included French paintings consigned by émigrés), the New York Herald Tribune opined that Kallir shouldn’t have bothered with Klimt and Schiele.

There are several uncanny parallels between pre-World-War-I Germany and America’s post-World-War-II cultural environment, including the name of the dominant postwar art movement: Abstract Expressionism. Like Germany, the U.S. had been struggling to emerge from the shadow of France and to forge an artistic identity of its own. In the prewar years, MoMA and other progressive museums had been attacked by local artists for appearing to favor foreign art. And the American public was no fonder of modernism than the average German. “Ham and eggs art,” President Truman called it. George Dondero, a Republican congressman from Michigan, went further, declaring that, “all modern art is communistic.” Against these obstacles, America’s art-world elite, like their German predecessors, fought to domesticate modernism. Like German Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism served political ends, cementing America’s newfound status as what the syndicated columnist Walter Lipmann called “the center of Western civilization.”

The association between “Expressionism” and individual expressive freedom, forged in response to Hitler’s campaign against “degenerate” art, carried over to Abstract Expressionism. Dondero notwithstanding, American abstraction was used as “benevolent propaganda” (per Alfred Barr) against communist totalitarianism. In a famous chart first published in 1936, Barr wove the disparate strands of modern art into a single thread leading to total abstraction. Picking up where the Europeans left off, Abstract Expressionism fulfilled modernism’s destiny by distilling painting to its essentials. "Content,” as decreed by the influential critic Clement Greenberg, was “dissolved so completely into form that the work...[could] not be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself." Whereas figural art, in the prewar era, often had leftwing connotations, the absence of identifiable content ideally suited Abstract Expressionism to America’s anti-communist agenda. According to another critic of the time, Harold Rosenberg, the Abstract Expressionists made “the political choice of giving up politics.”

Despite its similarity in name, the Abstract-Expressionist era was not especially hospitable to earlier forms of Expressionism. With the exception of Kandinsky, whose approach to abstraction was commonly misinterpreted, the social, political, psychological and spiritual aspects of Austrian and German Expressionism were anathema to many postwar American critics. The history of modern art was taught, at least through the 1970s, as following a straight line from Paris to New York. Nonetheless, the Central European art historians, curators, collectors and dealers who immigrated to the U.S. before and after World War II exerted a significant lingering influence. Kallir had his first successes with Klimt and Schiele in the 1950s, and then collaborated with museum director Thomas Messer, a Czech émigré, on Schiele’s first American museum tour in 1960, and on the Guggenheim’s Klimt/Schiele exhibition in 1965. The de-facto ban on content eventually triggered a backlash, culminating with the emergence of Neo-Expressionism in the 1980s. In 1991, the West’s undeclared war against communism ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The twenty-first century thus far has been relatively resistant to sweeping ideological and artistic “isms.” The seemingly unassailable certainties of the Cold War era have been rent asunder, and heretofore suppressed social fissures have emerged. Compelled to deal with a more diverse, less Eurocentric world, today’s art scene is more open to disparate aesthetic viewpoints. The multiple histories embedded in Austrian and German modernism, which cannot readily be subordinated to a single unifying premise, are well-suited to the present moment. The broad concept of Expressionism represents a range of emotional, intellectual and spiritual responses to a period of unprecedented sociopolitical upheaval. In the deepest sense, Expressionism shows us what it means to be human.

The Expressionist Legacy is the grand finale to a series of three exhibitions celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Galerie St. Etienne. We are deeply grateful that many of the museums and private collectors who worked with us over the past decades consented to lend their treasures to this important commemoration. In particular, we would like to thank the Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Morgan Library & Museum, the National Gallery of Art and our anonymous private lenders for their generous cooperation. This exhibition would not have been possible without you and your dedicated teams. —Jane Kallir