Hi everyone! It’s been a while since I last wrote. I’ve been super busy with my intensive German language class. (Es ist fantastisch!) But I’ve been meaning to get back in the game. I never quite finished blogging about my Euro Trip, specifically the museums I visited in Berlin. I really enjoyed the Berlinische Galerie. This museum explores the history of art specifically within the city of Berlin. Rather than discussing one of the special exhibitions I’d like to talk about the permanent collection, and how it reflects the history of Berlin.
I initially planned to discuss the entire permanent collection in one post, but I got so excited writing about the first two paintings that my word count quickly became quite high. And so, I’ve decided instead to break this post into increments. Part 1 examines two works: a painting by Ludwig van Hoffman from 1900 and one by Ludwig Meidner from 1912. The two demonstrate changing conditions and artistic trends in Germany during this vital 12 year period.
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Until the late 19th century, German art predominantly followed the artistic trends occurring in other European nations. The German states witnessed their own Renaissance (as part of the larger Northern Renaissance), and subsequently experienced developments in the Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-classicism. Romanticism found its way to Germany at the same time that it did to England, manifesting itself in a movement with distinctly German character. Think of Caspar David Friedrich, whose Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog evokes the grandeur of the German landscape while shielding the identity of its protagonist. Though the work is filled with tension, it’s undertones of civic duty and grandeur as well as its cleanly licked surface remain academic in nature.
It wasn’t until 1892, when a group of German artists in Berlin chose to secede from artistic conservatism, that German art took on a life of its own. The Berlin Secession, as it came to be called, was more about separation from academic art (the art exhibited in salons across Europe) than it was about specific visual trends. The Berlin Secession encompassed artists who dabbled in pointillism, symbolism, art nouveau, and naturalism.
The following is a painting entitled Abendsonne (Evening Sun), painted in 1900 by Ludwig van Hoffman.
Note the softness in the brushstrokes that dot Abendsonne. Compare these to the smooth, almost invisible brushstrokes in Wanderer. Furthermore, note the figures’ state of undress. In classical academic painting, nudes are typically Venus figures or nymphs. In religious societies (such as the German States), these nude figures were not seen as German women. They were characters removed from the realities of human flesh and interpersonal interaction. Thus, their nudity was no threat to German morals and values, such as religion, chastity, and female modesty. In Abendsonne, van Hoffman has removed the Greek imagery associated with the acceptable female nude, and left in its place the realities of the naked woman. This unraveling of the myth of the female nude occurred in France several decades earlier. It is exciting to watch it be staged on the German canvas in 1900.
However, though the female figures in Abendsonne resemble actual German women bathing, they have still been awarded a decent degree of modesty. The two entirely naked figures are so far away in the middle-ground that the viewer cannot consume the specifics of their gender. They are also positioned so as to hide the most obvious aspects of their gender. The figure in the foreground holds a wad of fabric around her body as she walks to the water to join the other women. The positioning of this fabric is tantalizing to the viewer. Note the tiny brushstroke between her arm and her chest that indicates the slightest shadow on the side of her left breast. The shadows across her neck and sternum draw the viewer’s eye down her body until it stops, frustratingly, at the obfuscating folds of fabric.
Skin is not the only tantalizing aspect of Abendsonne. The play of light is as delicate and sensual as the shadows dancing across the figure’s skin. Notice how the flecks of yellow brushstrokes seem to rest daintily atop a path of green grass, or the length of a tree-branch. It is as if van Hoffman’s paintbrush were a finger grazing skin ever-so-lightly, leaving behind a bit of light with its touch. The lemony-yellow color of the light- the color of the evening sun- is sensual in nature and in its connotations. Soon the yellow will turn to darkness, and we will lose all view of the naked women. This is our last moment to view them, and to consume them.
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The second painting I’d like to examine is a work from Ludwig Meidner’s “Apocalyptic Paintings” series, which he began in 1912 and completed just before the outbreak of the First World War. 12 years had past since van Hoffman painted the sensual Abendsonne. Life in Berlin had changed, and this was reflected in the work of the city’s artists. Take a look at this Apocalyptic Painting before reading more about the painting’s context.
In 1882, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy signed the Triple Alliance in order to ensure European allies during their personal quests for land acquisition. Additionally, Germany had only been officially unified as a nation-state in 1871. It was eager to solidify its place on the map of Europe with strong allies- specifically ethnically related allies.
In 1894, the Franco-Russian Alliance was signed in response to the Triple Alliance. It signaled the deterioration of both Franco-German and Russo-German relations. Further alliances were formed as the 20th century plodded forward, indicating growing animosity between Germany and the rest of Europe. The Franco-Italian Agreement in 1902, the Entente Cordial in 1904, the Anglo-Russian Agreement in 1907, The Russo-Italian Agreement in 1909, and the Anglo-French Naval Agreement in 1912 gradually tied together all of Germany’s enemies. This made the Germans very uneasy. The forging of military alliances kept everyone on their toes– the possibility of violence was on the horizon.
Other factors contributed to the strengthening of political and military divides in Europe. The first Moroccan Crisis (1905) involved the German Kaiser intervening in North Africa to declare his support for the Sultan of newly-independent Morocco. This move was intended to drive a wedge between France and England, whose colonial disputes had a long, long history, but instead brought the two countries together AGAINST GERMANY.
A second Moroccan Crisis, as well as the involvement of the Great Powers in the Balkan Wars, deepened animosity between nation-states.
AND SO, now that you have an understanding of the political situation in Germany between the painting of Abendsonne and Apocalyptic Painting, are you surprised at the differences between the two?
Here is Apocalyptic Painting once more:
Note the darker color palette. The sky is filled with blacks, greys, and dark blues. The people are a wash of black and maroon clothing. The yellow hills are tinged with a putrid shade of green and a corrosive black to indicate shadows- and perhaps evil itself.
The brushstrokes are much thicker as well. Take a look at this detail that demonstrates the three-dimensional quality of Meidner’s brushstrokes:
Thicker brushstrokes make it more difficult for the artist to render realistic-looking faces. However, their capacity for emotional expressivity is greater. Globs of paint mottle the countryside, allowing its destruction to be rendered more emotionally than realistically. Instead of a naturalist interpretation of what a field ablaze looks like, Meidner’s painting presents the sensation of one’s home being destroyed. Thick wads of paint render the landscape more and more unrecognizable until it takes on a creepy, garish character of its own. A yellow hill one used to sit on in summertime now looks evil due to its sickly green overtones and sharpened outline.
Thick brushstrokes also allow Meidner to simplify human expression, leaving behind the purest of human emotion while eliminating the anecdotal detail of individuality. Note the two women at the foreground of this detail. The woman on the right has been pared down to her wide eyes and outstretched hands. These two glowing orbs on the front of her face embody the essence of fear. Her hands, clutching each other and stretched in front of her face, reflect man’s last human protective instinct. As if putting her hands in front of her could possibly protect her from what is to come.
Lastly, I’d like to spend some time on Meidner’s attention to space. How is the landscape’s sense of perspective constructed? No plane stands entirely horizontally. The foreground, middle ground, and background blend into one another due to Meidner’s use of curving, diagonal, and intersecting lines. These lines disrupt the viewer’s attempt to separate what is near from what is far. They ignore the rules of physics, swooping from the top of a mountain to a crowd of huddled figures in the span of two inches. Because the surface of the painting is uneven for its own inhabitants, the viewer’s experience of Apocalyptic Painting is equally vertigo-inducing.
The destruction of perspective contributes directly to the painting’s sense of chaos. There is nothing more terrifying than one’s trusted sense of the universe being upended. In Apocalyptic Painting, the end of the world is symbolized by the literal implosion of the earth.
And so, what are we to make of the fact that Meidner painted Apocalyptic Painting BEFORE World War I? He would later explain that he had the gift of foresight, but I would argue that he had the gift of observation. He recognized the tensions rising in Germany due to external political and military conditions. He understood the implications of these conditions and their likely culmination in war.
…But I think there’s more. In Apocalyptic Painting, the world is not simply coming to an end. The ground beneath the people’s feet is caving in. This suggests an internal collapse rather than an external bombardment. It makes the apocalypse personal, even implying oneself in the fact of its existence. Perhaps Meidner had not only the gift of observation, but the (truly rare) gift of self-criticism. Could he have looked objectively at Germany’s growth since 1871, its political and military decisions, rapid industrialization, and the discomfort of its people, and wondered if Germany itself would play a role in its own downfall?
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What do you think about the vast differences between Abendsonne and Apocalyptic Painting? How much of their differences do you attribute to personal style and how much to changing political and military conditions in Europe? Can you even separate personal style FROM the artist’s context? (That question keeps me up at night). Let me know! And keep an eye out for the next post about the Berlinische Galerie. I’ll be highlighting works painted during the Great War.
Additionally, I am very curious about Ludwig van Hoffman and how his art may or may not have developed in the 20th century. I will likely head to the Met Library soon to do some research. Let me know if you have any books or articles about him you recommend.
Until next time!