Good morning everyone!
I am beyond excited to share with you my journey to the MFA last week. What made it so special was that I came away from Making Modern with a linear, tangible storyline to add to the vat of cultural knowledge in my brain. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find museums extremely overwhelming. A single exhibit can house so many written panels filled with background information and analysis that it’s difficult to extract a coherent thought. I like to leave a museum feeling like I learned something specific, something that can be summed up in a sentence, and then expanded upon if requested. If you asked me what I learned from Making Modern I would tell you, “The exhibit covered a lot of ground, but my mine takeaway was that German Expressionism had a huge impact on American artists, especially those in Boston.”
Through the next few paintings, I hope to explain that specific relationship to you all.
Karl Zerbe and Max Beckmann, two distinguished German expressionist painters, fled Germany during the second world war. They arrived with many other German immigrants, though the majority of these were German-Jews. Zebra was Jewish. Beckmann was not, but his unnaturalistic art had been directly attacked by Hitler, who opposed art that inhabited an unnatural world. He considered such works “Un-German,” and gathered them together in The Degenerate Art Exhibit (1937). Hitler’s policy towards ‘Degenerate artists,’ as Zerbe, Beckmann and their peers came to be called, rapidly escalated. It eventually became necessary for Beckmann to flee with Zerbe. Zerbe would become the head of the painting and drawing department at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Job (1949), is a wonderful example of Zerbe’s intense, emotional style, right in the vein of German Expressionism.
Job is a figure from the Bible. His kindness and goodness are praised by God Himself. Satan challenges God, stating that Job is only good because he has been blessed with prosperity. And so, God agrees to let Satan torment Job, in order to prove that Job will never curse Him. Satan puts Job through many hardships- his livestock and his family die, and then he is afflicted with full-body sores. All the while, he refuses to curse God. Even when egged on by his philosophizing friends, he will not curse God. At the end of the story, Satan is proved wrong. God returns Job’s livestock and children and blesses him with even more prosperity than before.
What makes Job so poignant is that it is not simply a biblical portrayal. It is actually a self-portrait. Zerbe paints himself through the guise of Job in order to say something about his own self. He was a German-Jew after all, and the horrors of the Holocaust were enough to make anyone question his faith. How could God allow such things to happen to His people? Would God, if He existed, stand by while such carnage occurred? I believe that Job depicts Zerbe’s personal struggle with his faith. Ultimately, faith prevails, as Job refuses to curse God and Zerbe finds hope in the Jewish faith.
The visual elements of Job support this double narrative. His outstretched hands are pleading. The palms are exaggerated with heavy, dark lines. The viewer’s eye is drawn to their deep carvings. Similar lines are etched into his weary face. Take a look at this detail of Job’s face:
Lines on the skin are caused by age, but also by stress. Additionally, they give the appearance of one having lived through trying times. We associate wrinkles with worldliness and experience. Here, Zerbe portrays his life experiences- persecution, turmoil, escape, perhaps the death of family and friends- through the deep lines that cover his body. His wears his pain and grief on his skin.
It is tempting to draw comparisons with the bodies of Holocaust victims. Here, Job looks emaciated, his torso shrunken beneath gaunt shoulders. I am hesitant to make such a leap because Zerbe arrived in Boston in 1937. He never knew life in the camps, though I am positive that knowledge of them affected him deeply. Perhaps the gauntness of this figure is a reference to the starved bodies of his Jewish brothers and sisters, searching for hope and clinging to their faith despite adversity. This would then be the second reference Zerbe used in order to characterize himself, the story of Job being the first.
Job utilizes unnatural colors and abstract shapes. His skin contains streaks of green, red, yellow, blue, brown, orange, purple and white. These colors don’t pretend to blend. They run into each other with abandon, only interrupted by thick black lines that demonstrate Job’s shallow torso and protruding collarbone. It is difficult to make out what is behind Job’s head. I see a configuration of yellow and red rags. What immediately comes to mind is the German flag, though there are no overt depictions of stripes. Bits of patterns pop up here and there on the surface of the painting. There are a few inches of red and black chevron on either side of Job’s arms, and green squares between his legs. Such unrealistic, abstract colors and shapes are characteristic of German Expressionism. They increase the painting’s emotional tenor. Imagine for a moment what this painting would look like if a black background were painted rather than this cacophony of colors, shapes and patterns? Would it feel as jumbled? Would Job look as desperate?
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Still Life with Three Skulls (1945), exemplifies Max Beckmann’s dark, symbolic strand of German Expressionism.
As I mentioned before, Beckmann was not Jewish, but he fled Germany because of his controversial artistic practices. He was deeply affected by the carnage of the war. In Still Life with Three Skulls, Beckmann explores the ephemerality of life through the transient existence of objects. Skulls represent the briefness of human life. The millions dead in the War and the Holocaust were a reminder of the flimsy barrier between life and death. In depicting playing cards and bottles of liquor, it can be interpreted that Beckmann is criticizing mankind for gambling with life, such a frail thing that could be taken away at any moment.
The motif of the playing card can also be interpreted as luck. It is as if life is one giant game, and you never know if you will suddenly win or lose.
In the first interpretation, Beckmann takes a morally superior role. He chastises people for wasting away their lives when so many people have had theirs forcibly taken. In the second interpretation, Beckmann takes a passive, pessimistic role. He views life as a game that is out of our control. Whether we live or die depends on what dice you roll.
Of course, the wonderful thing about art history is that so much is subjective. I think both interpretations make sense. However, I’d like to apply a little historical background to see if one seems more fitting than the other.
Germany was late to the unification game. The many duchies, principalities, kingdoms and city-states that made up Prussia (and later, Germany) didn’t unite until the late 19th century. After this point, the Germans were eager to prove that they belonged on the global stage. They industrialized rapidly, and focused on building their navy in order to compete imperially with Britain. Their involvement in World War I (a Grade A disaster) led to a soul-crushing set of terms decided on at the Treaty of Versailles. Most notably, the Germans were forced to pay tremendous war reparations. These reparations were so immense that the German government was still paying Great Britain for damages in 2010. (That’s right. I said 2010). So you can imagine how massive the numbers must have seemed to the Germans back in 1919. But even more difficult for the Germans to cope with, was the statement that the Germans were solely responsible for the entire war. Germany experienced 2 million casualties during the war. This statement effectively blamed Germany for that massive loss. This was very difficult for people to wrap their heads around. First, they lost millions of their brothers and sisters. And then, they were told that it was their own fault. Added to that, the country was in crippling debt. It is not difficult to see how Hitler manipulated the vulnerable population. His rise was gradual, and his racist policies piecemeal. From then on we see the Second World War, which led to many deaths, and the Holocaust, which decimated the Jewish population in Europe. THIS is the Germany that Beckmann was part of. This was his heritage, his perspective, his everyday life.
Does that information illuminate anything about the two interpretations I proposed?
Beckmann was part of a culture that struggled with guilt, debt, and helplessness. Would such a man be morally superior towards his fellow men, or passively pessimistic towards the events of life that were out of his control? I personally believe that it’s the latter.
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Now I would like to turn to the American artists who were so affected by Zerbe and Beckmann’s presence in the United States.
Marsden Hartley painted lots of bright, unnaturalistic landscapes and nonfigurative, heavily symbolic paintings. The former style was most definitely characteristic of German Expressionism. We see lots of colorful, unrealistic nature scenes in German works of the early 20th century. However, his portraits were heavily influenced by the German presence in Boston in the 1940s. He later spent time in Berlin, where he was inspired further.
Hartley painted The Great Good Man in 1942.
Compare this painting to Job and Still Life with Three Skulls. Do you see any similarities between the three? The first thing that I notice is the manner in which Hartley paints Abraham Lincoln’s face- he uses thick black paint to create a harsh outline. These lines are quite similar to the thick lines Zerbe used to paint Job’s wrinkles and protruding ribs. Similar thick lines surround the objects in Still Life with Three Skulls. It is quite characteristic of German Expressionism to surround people and objects with color. Perhaps it lent them permanence in an impermanent world.
There is also an emphasis in The Great Good Man on darkness. The black outlines are painted in as jet-black a hue as possible. Hartley has also applied a sort of gloss on top of the color to make it shine. Take a look at the detail below:
Do you not feel that Hartley is reveling in this hue? It feels almost sensual, the way the color both repels with its darkness and pulls with its gleam. I wanted to buy a postcard of this painting, but the reproduction could not capture the sparkling quality of the beautiful black paint.
I find a similar reveling in darkness in Still Life with Three Skulls. In that painting, Beckmann painted gaping holes in the eyes and mouths of the three skulls. There is something tantalizing about the empty space. It should be negative space, perhaps lightly shadowed by light shining into the recesses of the bone. In a naturalistic image, one might see such an effect. But in this highly expressive painting, the negative space is painted thickly and glossily- does that make the negative space, positive space? The space inside the eye sockets and the jaw become players in the painting, taunting the viewer with their ambiguity. In The Great Good Man, Hartley, too, finds pleasure in the ambiguity caused by the color black.
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Jack Levine was Jewish painter, born and raised in Boston. He was also heavily influenced by Zerbe, Beckmann, and the other German Expressionists. This interesting painting is entitled Street Scene No. 1. (1938).
Again, you can see figures outlined heavily with thick, black, brushstrokes. The figures are unnaturally colored in a bizarre orange-red. Their facial features have been painted with coarse, black lines. Even the proportions are exaggerated; the heads of all three figures are bulbously large. Take a look below. These are all characteristics of German Expressionism that we have explored at length.
Furthermore, the space that these figures are situated in feels unsteady. Is the man on the viewer’s left in his own scene, or is he leaning against a building, inside which the other two men reside? Space is ambiguous. It is secondary to the depiction of the men.
We can use small visual clues to learn something about the men in this painting. Their clothing indicates that they are working class. The man on the viewer’s left wears a white t-shirt, wrinkled by thick black lines. Perhaps he works in construction, or down on the docks. Bits of pink and orange floating in murky black vaguely resemble water. He might be resting by the river during a break. The other two men wear long-sleeved white shirts and black vests with bow-ties. One holds something with writing in his hand, and has thick globs of red paint splashed on his palms. Is he a waiter, handling a menu? Then why the red globs? Perhaps he is the chef, cooking an animal that has just been caught. The other man in a vest has a little hat perched on his head that lends him a little more authority. Perhaps he is a policeman, or holds a different city job.
Levine was actually a social realist painter. Social realism is a brand of relatively lifelike figurative painting that has a social-justice slant. Many social realist works aim to make commentary on the livelihood of the working man. This information lines up nicely with the above analysis. Levine has lent these working men great dignity while simultaneously making his social-realist point. Rather than depicting them slaving away in the name of capitalism, he portrays them in a moment of calm, when they have agency over their own lives. Street Scene No. 1. paints working people as individuals, rather than a part of a machine. This reflects his political views, and in the process, renders a dignified expressionist portrait of three working men in Boston.
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Lastly, I’d like to look at this painting by Hyman Bloom, a Latvian immigrant to the United States. It is called Female Corpse, Back View (1947).
Bloom came to the United States with his family in 1920. He would become a key member of the Boston Expressionist School. As we talked about, this school was heavily influenced by German Expressionism. We can see this influence in Female Corpse, Back View.
First and foremost, it is important to note that Bloom was raised in an orthodox Jewish household. He, like Zebre, dealt with the emotional repercussions of being a Jewish person aware of the Holocaust, but with no personal experience living in a camp. This knowledge tormented him, and he became obsessed with the theme of death. A visit to a morgue inspired a whole series of cadaver paintings like this one. If you recall, Beckmann, too, was influenced by themes of death. Still Life with Three Skulls depicts three garish skulls, and deals with themes of passivity and pessimism surrounding death. In Female Corpse, Back View, Bloom approached death from a different perspective.
Upon visiting the morgue for the first time, Bloom wrote, “I had the conviction of immortality, of being part of something permanent and ever-changing, of metamorphosis as the nature of being. Everything was intensely beautiful, and I had a sense of love for life that that was greater than any I had ever felt before.”
Take a moment to drink this in. It’s a very beautiful quote. I was surprised to read it at first. I expected his response, as a Jewish man in 1947, to be anger and confusion, maybe helplessness and fear. Not beauty, not immortality. But this speaks to his unquestionable faith. Perhaps the only way for him to survive, to move forward, was to find a thread of reason in life. In a world that doesn’t make sense, because millions of people are murdered for no reason, finding some logic to hold onto could be the only thing keeping someone going. For Bloom, he explained away the horrors of death by finding beauty in metamorphosis. He saw dead bodies and believed that they were transitioning into the next stage of their lives. Because of this, he painted them in vibrant, gorgeous colors. Take a look.
This cadaver is anything but gruesome. She is red, yellow, pink, gold, purple, teal, green, white, blue, every color under the sun! These colors swirl together in an amorphous blob of joyous hues.
Her figure seems strangely bulbous, even more so than the heads of the men in Street Scene No. 1. I am very curious about this. Is this an accurate depiction of this cadaver? Did she have bony shoulders and a large torso and bottom? Or is he depicting the cadaver in some kind of colorful chrysalis, as she begins her journey into the next life? The browning white cloth, which I assume represents the shroud, cocoons her. Perhaps she will turn into a butterfly. The combination of beauty and ugliness is very Expressionistic. So is the handling of the thick brushstrokes of bright, vibrant color. Perhaps the most German Expressionist is the ambiguity. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what form the cadaver will take next.
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I hope that you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it! Mostly, I hope that I have conveyed to you what I took away from this fascinating exhibit: The German Expressionists had a huge impact on the development of Boston Expressionist Painters. I highly recommend that you go see this exhibit at the MFA. What I covered was only a small section of a much larger exhibit. Check out the German and Boston Expressionist works, but also be sure to look at the works by Georgia O’Keefe, Stuart Davis, and Frieda Kahlo. Let me know what you think!
Until next time!