Max Klinger (1857-1920)—a renaissance talent who excelled at painting, sculpture and printmaking—was one of the most influential German artists of the early twentieth century, yet today his contributions are seldom properly acknowledged. Perhaps it is the very multiplicity of his interests—and his persistent commitment to an increasingly outmoded form of historical mural paintings—that make his achievements so difficult to pin down. Furthermore, his ponderous sculptures and paintings, though highly acclaimed in their time, did not ultimately have the impact of his more innovative prints. And, despite its central importance to the German Expressionist moment, printmaking is all too frequently dismissed as a secondary art form.
Yet another obstacle to an integrated understanding of Klinger’s contribution is the intentional dualism that divides his oeuvre. As he explained in his highly influential 1891 treatise Painting and Drawing (and as his work clearly demonstrates), Klinger considered the aims of colored and black-and-white work to be diametrically opposed. Whereas he felt painting was best suited to the accurate representation of nature, he believed that drawing was more appropriate for the expression of fantasy and subjective responses to experience. “Realistic coloring,” he wrote, “will destroy that spiritual world which drawing, alone of all the arts, shares with poetry.” If this philosophy tended to split his oeuvre in two, his approach to printmaking was similarly bifurcated. Anticipating Freud and Surrealism, he mined his subconscious for phantasmagorical images. On the other hand, he was a noteworthy social realist, who in his 1883 series Dramas documented the ills of the day, with journalistic precision, conducting exhaustive research into episodes and scenes suggested by contemporary newspaper accounts.
It was the latter of these two tendencies that, very naturally, had the most profound influence on Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), ten years Klinger’s junior. Well before Kollwitz had even heard of Klinger, her teacher, Karl Stauffer-Bern, sensed an affinity between the two. When, at his suggestion, the eighteen-year-old student visited an exhibition of Klinger’s series A Life, the prints came as a revelation. Klinger’s (at the time) unusual sympathy for the plight of women, and his use of the print cycle to explore themes more complex than can be assayed in a single work, were to remain with Kollwitz for the rest of her career. More immediately, she, like Klinger, was driven to formulate a pictorial equivalent to the social realism of Emile Zola, whose novels were especially popular with her classmates in Munich.
For several years, Kollwitz struggled to give form to Zola’s Germinal, but though the novel inspired one of her more important early etchings, the bulk of her efforts focused on painting, which she found frustrating and consistently unsatisfying. In this regard, Klinger’s Painting and Drawing proved pivotal, validating her desire to abandon painting and pursue printmaking. Klinger had, almost single-handedly, succeeded in establishing etching in Germany as a legitimate art form in its own right, although the medium’s older function as a means of generating multiple and affordable reproductions had not yet been usurped by modern commercial methods. Kollwitz, benefiting from this confluence of new and old approaches, left Germinal to create her first print cycle: a reworking of Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers. When the cycle was shown at the “Greater Berlin Art Exhibition” in 1898, Kollwitz was nominated for the Gold Medal. And even though the conservative emperor Wilhelm II vetoed the award, her reputation was hereafter secure.
For artists who, like Kollwitz and Alfred Kubin (1877-1959), were inherently uncomfortable with color, the importance of Klinger’s philosophy cannot be overestimated. Kubin, in his autobiography, recalled that while he was in awe of the masterpieces displayed at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (where he began studying in 1898), he could not relate personally to them. His first exposure to Klinger’s etchings, like Kollwitz’s, was a revelation, though unlike her he responded chiefly to that aspect of the oeuvre which dealt with the grotesque and fanciful. As with Kollwitz, Klinger’s work was recommended to Kubin by a friend who saw a similarity between the two—even though Kubin, like Kollwitz, was unfamiliar with Klinger at the time.
Appropriately, the first Klingers that Kubin saw were the bizarre Glove prints, which chronicle a man’s fetishistic obsession with a purloined glove. Immediately after seeing A Glove, Kubin went into a sort of hallucinatory trance, in which the macabre underpinnings of mundane existence became suddenly visible to him. The experience naturally had an effect on his work, nearly monochromatic watercolors depicting a Klingeresque world of tormented sexual encounters and mythical beasts. Having found his artistic “voice,” Kubin quickly prospered. In 1902 he had his first one-man exhibition at the prestigious Cassirer Gallery in Berlin, and the following year the collector and publisher Hans von Weber issued a portfolio of facsimile reproductions of his drawings. Despite a brief fling with painting, Kubin would remain primarily a draftsman, his lambent ink drawings usually tinged with only the subtlest touches of watercolor. As he matured, his hallucinatory attacks and the nightmarish quality of his art gradually receded, but his work continued to explore the peculiar undercurrents beneath ordinary experience. Like Kollwitz, he had taken one aspect of Klinger’s multifaceted production and developed it into an idiosyncratic, yet significant component of the modernist tradition.