MoMA unveils stunning show of German expressionism

Posted March 28, 2011, at 7:30 p.m.

NEW YORK — With its jagged gouges and sometimes primitive look, the woodcut is a favorite of children’s arts and crafts classes. It delivers a message that is simple, urgent, bold.

No wonder, then, that it was the paramount medium for the expressionists, a group of artists in Germany and Austria in the early 20th century who rejected the conventions of academic painting in search of a more authentic lifestyle than that of the complacent bourgeoisie.

Even today, their scathing critique of the moneyed classes, and later, of the horrors of World War I, carries an electrifying force. Now more than 250 of their works, representing nearly 30 artists, are on display at the Museum of Modern Art in a superb exhibition organized by associate curator Starr Figura.

It begins around 1905 in three cities where expressionism first flourished and ends in the early 1920s, when the harsh social and economic climate of Weimar Germany led to a cynical, realistic style called the New Objectivity.

One center was Dresden, where a group called Die Brucke (German for bridge —a symbol of a passage to the future) rendered the human figure and urban streetscapes in the distorted, simplified, angular shapes of traditional African and Oceanic masks and sculpture.

In Munich, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), led by Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, embraced vibrant color and abstracted forms in an earnest quest for spiritual rebirth. Animals and nature were an important motif, as seen in Marc’s semi-abstract horses and cows and a wonderful tiger by the lesser-known Heinrich Campendonk. The image of horse and rider also suggested a journey to a higher realm.

In Vienna, meanwhile, where Sigmund Freud was probing the relationship between sexuality and neurosis, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele were doing their own psychological exploration in unforgettable portraits and nudes characterized by tortured lines and agitated gestures.

Eventually, the leading artists gravitated to Berlin, where influential dealers and publishers were creating a robust print market. As war approached, many artists were patriotic and supportive, believing such a cataclysm might finally end the corrupt and materialistic status quo under Kaiser Wilhelm II.

But as the war dragged on, they became disillusioned. Highlights of the exhibition include a portfolio of 50 searing etchings by Otto Dix, based on his experience in the trenches, and a series of woodcuts by Kathe Kollwitz focused on families left behind in the war.

As Weimar collapsed into chaos, artists created colorful, even shrill posters to rally the public behind the doomed democracy. But it was not to be. Their fervent belief in art’s ability to transform society gave way to disillusion and despair, as seen in hard-edged portraits by George Grosz and Max Beckmann. To make matters worse, government attempts to stabilize the economy led to a collapse in the print market.

The “graphic impulse” was over, but not before these artists had revitalized a medium with deep roots in Germany, dating back to Albrecht Durer and medieval woodcuts.

The exhibition grew out of a four-year project to digitize MoMA’s collection of 3,200 expressionist works on paper, one of the largest outside Germany. The museum has built a special website, moma.org/germanexpressionism, which allows visitors to explore the movement and search the collection online.

“German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse” opened March 27 and closes July 11. It will not travel.

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