Modern Art in Berlin Pt. 2 (Berlinische Galerie- Berlin, Germany)

Hi everyone! I hope you enjoyed my previous post about modern German art at the Berlinische Galerie. As explained in my previous post, there is simply too much to say about this collection/topic to do it in one post. And so, I am analyzing key works from the collection in four increments. You can read Part 1 here.

Part 1 discussed the Berlin Secession and the Pre-War years. Today I am going to discuss a little-known work painted during World War I: Stürzender Engel, by Benno Berneis (1914). There is so little information about Berneis, we will have to use only our eyes and knowledge of historical context to make sense of this eerie painting.

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At the outbreak of war in 1914, the artist Benno Berneis painted Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel).

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For such an extraordinary painting, very little is known about its painter. Benno Berneis (1883-1916) was a German Jewish painter who served as a pilot in the First World War. He died in service in 1916. According to journalist Von Nicola Kuhn, from the German newspaper Tagesspiegel, Berneis’ work was exhibited with that of Lieberman and Matisse before the War. He was poised to follow in the footsteps of his fellow German Expressionists. Unfortunately, his death cut short what was sure to be an incredible career. Now we are left with a smaller collection, albeit a beautiful one. You can look at his other works on his website, which is run by his grandson, Michael Berneis. I have been struggling to find much academic information on the artist (in German OR English). Please let me know if you come across anything!

And so, in lieu of any academic information, we shall have to use our eyes and knowledge of historical context to sort through Stürzender Engel. Take another look at this beautiful painting:

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What stands out to you? The loveliness of the pastel color palette? The illusion of roundness on the canvas surface? The obfuscation of the figure’s face? The curious nature of the figure itself? How about the tree bending sideways- does your mind attempt to find the source of wind contorting its thin branches?

My mind tries first and foremost to make sense of the space. It is (relatively) clear to me that the tree stands on some sort of green hilltop. The curving nature of the earth next to the tree resembles rolling hills. Additionally, the green pigment coloring the hill becomes less saturated as it approaches the bottom of the canvas. Pinks and browns are introduced, and are blended with larger, swirling brushstrokes. Not sure what I mean? Here’s a detailed look at this part of the canvas:

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Note how the inch above the canvas is a wash of different colors, blended into an ambiguous mist. It is only as the eye rises up the canvas a couple inches that the brushstrokes fall into place and one can make out the appearance of a grassy mound. What results from Berneis’ manipulation of color and texture is the sensation of mist rising, clouding one’s view and understanding of the hilltop’s appearance. My extremely limited experience hiking has taught me that there is quite a lot of mist and fog at higher elevations. Atop the highest mountain in Arcadia National Park, I could see only a few feet in front of me due tot he immense amounts of fog. And so, decreased color saturation and the decreasing specificity of brushstrokes lead me to believe that this painting is situated at a very high altitude… and the drop-off from here is incredibly steep.

What sorts of things do you associate with being at a very high altitude? I think of Heaven, spirituality, isolation, pilgrimages, extreme weather, Mt. Everest and all the people who have died trying to climb it, Cloud Forest in Ecuador and my sister’s incredible experience there, and getting altitude sickness at Yellowstone National Park when I was 15. What all these associations have in common is a sense of otherness of which we are in awe. We look to the highest points on earth with a sense of amazement– for the people and creatures who inhabit them, and for their unique (and often dangerous) climates. For some, the way of life atop Earth’s highest points is so foreign that it accumulates otherworldly associations. Mountains in the sky become religious symbols. It is this angle that Benno Bernis took in painting Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel). The title immediately indicates a religious, or at least supernatural, perspective.

Because of our location atop a misty hilltop, close to the heavens, we are poised to watch the angel’s fall from grace right at the moment of its happening. Take a closer look at her exit from the clouds:

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The angel’s body is still touching the voluminous clouds from which she falls. What are we to make of her descent? Firstly, she is nude. Perhaps her stark nudity symbolizes the loss of her wings; without them, she is naked. She covers her head and face, as if in shame. Berneis has actually emphasized the hiding of her face by blurring the outlines of her forearms and her head until what remains is a mass of pink and yellow over the remnants of dark brown. I have to wonder if this signifies Berneis’ chastising of the angels’ actions, or the angel’s own anguish at her fall from grace.

I think it also bears noting that this angel’s fall is more of a graceful descent. She is not plummeting out of the empty sky. In fact, the cloud from which she is released bears likeness to a human hand. Its three-dimensionality, achieved through careful shading and use of light, provide the form a firmness not characteristic of vaporous clouds. It feels thick and soft to the viewer’s eye, like a human hand. If we take this to be true, whose hand is it? The hand of God? The hand of Fate? It is a kind hand, who carefully releases the angel, newly wingless, into the world.

It follow, then, to ask what the angel has done to merit her expulsion from Heaven. Here is where context plays an important role in visual analysis. Given the context of the years preceding WWI which I detailed in my previous post, and the fact that WWI erupted in 1914, it is impossible to separate this painting from the world in which it was born.

Angels are beings believed to be messengers of God. They are women of extraordinary virtue and moral conduct. For one to be expelled from Heaven, she would need to act in an immoral manner. In 1914, what would qualify as such? Perhaps the angel represents Berneis’ homeland, Germany, and her fall from grace, Germany’s descent into violence. Or perhaps the angel is Europe, in which case Berneis’ criticism of violence would incriminate all of the countries involved in the conflict.

I also wonder if Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel) could be making commentary on the effect of war on spirituality. If angels are God’s messengers, could it be that an angel’s fall represents the death of God’s ties with the human race? Had people finally reached a violence so evil that He no longer wished to communicate with them through His messengers? If this is the case, it would explain the delicate way in which the Hand releases the angel. Her fall is not a plummet; the effect of being thrown in disgust from Heaven. Her fall is a gentle, reluctant push, enacted by a remorseful hand. It seems that Benno Berneis wondered if mankind had reached a low so low that God no longer wished to have contact with people. And so, the angels were dismissed.

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I hope you enjoyed this analysis. It was exciting to dive headfirst into a work of art with no literature to bounce my ideas off of. This is a wonderful example of using visual analysis and historical context to understand a work of art. That is how accessible art is! All you need are your eyes. (And if you paid attention during history class, that is a tremendous plus…)

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

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Modern Art in Berlin Pt. 1 (Berlinische Galerie- Berlin, Germany)

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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Making Modern (Museum of Fine Arts- Boston)

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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤