All exhibitions are, by definition, collections of works of art, and most, by implication, are also subliminally about collecting. The present exhibition (the highlights of which are drawn from a single source) is both an anatomy of a collection, and an examination of a central aspect of Expressionism. These two themes are, in fact, inextricably linked, for true collecting is not the mindless accumulation of trophies, but rather requires a commitment of time, passion and a profound understanding of the art in question.
Scholars may argue over the proper definition of Expressionism, but most would agree that the figure is central to the evaluation of the genre, and therefore to any meaningful collection of it. Landscape and still life, by comparison, are less directly evocative of the human condition and therefore generally must rely on analogy to convey their expressive content. It is in their figural works that the Expressionists achieved their most revolutionary and emotionally powerful statements, and that the movement as a whole is quintessentially encapsulated.
Forming a foundation for figurative Expressionism was a narrative tradition based in academic history and genre painting. This tradition acquired new immediacy and heightened contemporaneity in the hands of Expressionist precursors like Ernst Barlach, Lovis Corinth and Käthe Kollwitz. Whether the narrative was specifically historical (as in Kollwitz's moving studies of rebellious peasants), literary (as in Barlach's picture stories Der Armer Vetter, Der Findlin and Walpurgisnach) or allegorical (as in the Dance of Death, a medieval subject that fascinated Corinth and others of his era), the works were distinguished by an ever increasing tendency to focus on the figure (rather than the setting or scenario) as the primary bearer of content. This drive to concentrate meaning in an emblematic individual gave the portraits of such artists as Corinth special significance in paving the way for Expressionism proper. As the subject's personality began to assume more importance than his or her specific identity, the figure became a surrogate for a broad range of human emotions and experiences. Generic "Everyman" or "Everywoman"characters predominate in the narratives of the full-fledged Expressionists Max Beckmann, Erich Heckel, Lyonel Feininger and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, all of whom found expanded meaning in simple scenes from daily life.
Nevertheless, it can be argued that in the purest Expressionist works the figure appears unencumbered by the trappings of narrative or mundane context. From this perspective, Egon Schiele--though living outside the central German orbit--might qualify as the ultimate Expressionist, for few artists have explored as intensely as he the expressive capabilities of the human body. In terms of subject matter and perfection of execution, Nude with Red Garters is the prototypical Schiele, a riveting personification of adolescent sexuality and insecurity. It was Schiele's willingness to confront the emotional core of his subjects, as well as his models' exquisitely distorted poses (which reach something of a high point in Woman With Raised Skirt), that enabled his work to transcend the conventions of the academic nude.
Self-portraits occupy a special place in the Expressionist canon, for here introspection merges with the more objective projection of an emblematic persona. In this regard, Schiele's Dark Suit, Hat with Wide Band (one of a handful of similar studies presumably done for the Wiener Werkstätte) merits particular attention, for it is both a probing self-portrait and an iconic fashion plate. This dualism--the ability to be both object and subject--is a key to Schiele's self-portraits, as is his chameleon-like role-playing and his dandified self-image (he designed much of his own clothing). While Expressionist self-portraits offer an unrivalled glimpse into the inner workings of the artist's mind, they are also inevitably tinged with an element of artifice.
The exploration of self is so central to Expressionism that occasionally the boundaries between self-portraiture and portraiture blur, and more than one Expressionist has been accused of confusing his sitter's physiognomy with his own. This is, of course, a particular temptation when the subject is of the same sex as the artist, and more easily avoided when the sitter is of the opposite sex. The female portrait, requiring greater effort and empathy, posed something of a challenge to male Expressionists, and Schiele, for one, created his most sensitive portraits of women only after marriage had permitted him to develop deeper insight into the feminine psyche. Oskar Kokoschka, early in his career, employed an abrasive style that many women found alienating, and his increasing turn to female portraiture after World War I was as much a result of changing attitudes toward women (who no longer had to be portrayed as decorative baubles, in the manner of Gustav Klimt) as of the artist's more fluid and sympathetic technique. Otto Dix, a scathing social critic whose career reached its height in the period between the two world wars, felt no obligation to spare women from the probing thrust of his brush. His stunning depiction of a procuress is at once a minutely accurate portrayal of a particular personality and a symbolic indictment of Weimar Republic sexual mores.
Ultimately, it is the Expressionists' ability to move effortlessly from the personal to the general, the specific to the universal, that gives their figural works such commanding presence. These are not and have never been easy pieces, and because Expressionism has thus been largely immune to momentary fads and the lure of quick financial gain, the field has remained relatively stable, even in the current environment. Now that the speculative energy which fueled the art market in the late 1980s appears finally to have evaporated, it is both appropriate and necessary to concentrate on the fundamentals of collecting. Ultimately, it is these fundamentals that have always sustained--and will continue to sustain--the art market.