The work of Lovis Corinth, Käthe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker has long defied precise categorization, Bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their oeuvres touch upon Expressionism without wholeheartedly embracing it. All three anticipated the movement in many ways, and Corinth and Kollwitz, who (unlike Modersohn-Becker) lived to experience it, indirectly absorbed some elements of the style in their later work. Yet these German pre-Expressionists remained in essence loners, whose place in art history is defined by the idiosyncrasies that set them apart.
While Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) has a more conventional career than the two women, he was far from an overnight success. His years of training—which started at the Königsberg Academy in 1876 and eventually took him to Munich, Antwerp and Paris—were long and arduous, and not until the beginning of the twentieth century, when he was already in his forties, did he establish himself professionally under the auspices of the Berlin Secession. Having grown up at a time when the aptly nicknamed “brown sauce” school of painting held sway, he only came into his own as a colorist by gradually assimilating to the lessons of the so-called German Impressionists. The Germans never altogether accepted the formal and optical theories that underlay the French style, but instead, conditioned by their own Romanticist tradition, tended to view the loose, painterly brushstroke of Impressionism as a vehicle for expressing feeling. Corinth’s oeuvre displays a range that is almost disconcertingly broad: from typical historical and mythological subjects that would easily be at home in the salons of the nineteenth century, to the wild, proto-Expressionistic Walchensee landscapes and self-portraits of his last years, Corinth, perhaps more than any other artist, managed to germinate the seeds of modernism that lay dormant in conventional academicism.
Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) and Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), as women, faced even more formidable obstacles than Corinth. The regular art academies were not open to them, and though Modersohn-Becker did eventually study at the Academie Colarossi in Paris, both received the bulk of their initial training at Germany’s segregated women’s art schools. From there, Kollwitz struck out fairly quickly on an independent path, choosing not to pursue a career as a painter, but rather to concentrate on printmaking. By appealing directly to the people who were the subjects on her socially motivated prints, Kollwitz managed to circumvent the male-dominated system that would undoubtedly have proved more of a hindrance had she been a painter. Modersohn-Becker was not so lucky. In 1898, she decided to join the artists’ colony at Worpswede—a back-to-nature group whose philosophy and moody, muted landscapes recalled the French Barbizon school—but the implicit conflict between marriage and career, and subliminal competition with her husband, the painter Otto Modersohn, became a growing problem. Finally, after several extended visits to Paris, she felt compelled to make a genuine break, and in 1906 she decided to leave Germany and her husband for good. This triumph of will was unfortunately short-lived, for Otto was determined to win her back, and in the spring of 1907 she returned to Worspwede; she died following childbirth that autumn. Her visits to Paris, however, were liberating not only personally, but also artistically, for they allowed her to absorb, well before any of her German colleagues, the lessons of early French modernism. Like Corinth, she struggled to imbue her work with an expressive sense of color that directly anticipated the work of the later Expressionists.
The present exhibition, very naturally, tries to stress the characteristics that unite Corinth, Kollwitz and Modersohn-Becker, but does not ignore the qualities that distinguish them from one another. Corinth and Modersohn-Becker were sometimes landscapists, Kollwitz was not. Kollwitz and Modersohn-Becker were both interested in portraying the sufferings of common people, but Kollwitz was also interested in delivering strong statements about social ills, while Modersohn-Becker was not. All three were strong draughtsmen, but only Kollwitz worked more or less exclusively in black and white. Modersohn-Becker did her most important work as a painter; her few prints, though charming, were all done during a brief span of time and show a Jugenstil influence that she would later throw off. The other two artists, by comparison, pushed printmaking to its very limits, obtaining a spontaneity of effect that concealed a profound mastery of craft. All three executed numerous self-portraits—introspection and self-expression were part and parcel of the German tradition to which they belonged—but Corinth and Kollwitz rival Rembrandt in their output. Lastly, all three retain ties to the nineteenth century, to the corporeal reality of their subject matter, that distinguish them from the later Expressionists, making them harbingers rather than participants. Expressionism developed differently in Germany than in Austria, and the presence of such clear-cut precursors as Lovis Corinth, Käthe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker is one reason. The origins of Expressionism in Austria will be explored in our next exhibition, From Art Nouveau to Expressionism.