Friday, November 22, 2019

Great Realism & Great Abstraction

Städel Museum
13 November 2019 to 16 February 2020

"Great realism, great abstraction" – the approximately 1,800, twentieth-century German drawings in the collection of the Städel Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings occupy a realm between these two poles. In the winter of 2019/2020, the museum will show a representative selection of some 100 works mirroring the emphases of the collection that have taken shape over the course of its long history.

The exhibition opens with masterful drawings by Max Beckmann (1884–1950) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), which also provide comprehensive insight into the draughtsmanship of the two artists. This is followed by works by members of the artist group “Die Brücke”, including Erich Heckel (1883–1970), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976) and Emil Nolde (1867–1956). Following on from Expressionism and its abstracting tendencies, drawings by Rolf Nesch (1893–1975), Werner Gilles (1894–1961) and Ernst Wilhelm Nay (1902–1968) are presented, as are watercolours by Paul Klee (1879–1940), whose works oscillate between a closeness to the subject and abstraction. Also in divided Germany during the post-war period, this preoccupation with the representational and the non-representational was characteristic for many artists. This can be seen in works of the Art Informel movement, as well as in neo-expressionist tendencies and Pop Art, as exemplified by the works of Karl Otto Götz (1914–2017), Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), Gerhard Richter (*1932), Georg Baselitz (*1938), A. R. Penck (1939–2017), Sigmar Polke (1941–2010) and Anselm Kiefer (*1945). The exhibition brings together works by a total of roughly forty artists.

The Exhibition
The roughly one hundred works on view from the twentieth century, supplemented by two paintings, are examined on the basis of various aspects, such as how the artists dealt with reality, how they questioned, further developed or undermined traditional pictorial ideas conveyed at the academies, and last but not least the fundamental significance of drawing within their respective oeuvres. The pencil sketches, brilliantly colourful pastels and aquarelles, and the monumental collages exhibited here also reveal the technical diversity of the medium of drawing, the specific characteristics of which the artists exploited, each in their own way. The drawings are loosely assigned

chronological groups which shed light in different ways on the relationship between closeness to the subject and abstract detachment from the model of nature.
The Expressionists already used drawing as an autonomous art form, but at the same time it remained a medium of experimentation. Both are reflected in the first chapters of the exhibition dedicated to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann. Shaken by the events of the First World War, Beckmann came to Frankfurt am Main in 1915 and initially withdrew to his private surroundings. He produced studies of the local environment as well as numerous portraits, including an intensive and personal pencil drawing of his close lady friend Fridel Battenberg (1880–1965) from 1916 and a painterly pastel portrait of Marie Swarzenski (1889–1967) from circa 1927. Marie Swarzenski was the wife of Georg Swarzenski (1876–1957), the then director of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, whom Beckmann captured shortly before his death in an impressive portrait, a charcoal drawing on blue paper, which can also be seen in the exhibition. These and other works illustrate Beckmann’s keen instinct for his vis-à-vis and the individual use of drawing utensils, and also document Beckmann’s changing formal language. The pre-war compositions are characterised by rounded lines and soft contours. The composition then became stricter, the motifs sharply outlined, revealing angular forms.
For Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, drawing was the “key to his art”. With over 120 drawings by Kirchner, the Städel Museum boasts one of the most important collections of the artist’s drawings in Germany, which is largely due to the donation of works on paper from the estate of the Frankfurt patron of the arts Carl Hagemann (1867–1940) in 1948. One of the masterpieces is the pastel drawing B_e_r_l_i_n_e_r_ _S_t_r_a_ße_n_s_z_e_n_e_ _(Street Scene in Berlin) from 1914. The hasty glances of the two prostitutes depicted, their quick steps and those of the passers-by, define the image: Kirchner was fascinated by people in motion, by the hectic mood of the aspiring metropolis of Berlin, which he translated into striking lines. The reality of people’s lives was the source of his art. He abstracted what he saw by reducing natural forms to the essential.
The close connection between man and nature linked Kirchner and Emil Nolde with each other, even after their time together in the artist group “Die Brücke” (1905–1913). The closeness to nature becomes particularly visible in Nolde’s watercolours, such as V_i_e_r_w_a_l_d_s_t_a_̈t_t_e_r_ _S_e_e_ _(Lake Lucerne) from circa 1930. Here, Nolde transformed the nature he had experienced into a composition of planes with bright, contrasting colours. Control and chance both played a decisive role in the creative process – it was precisely this combination that made the drawing a mirror of the forces acting between man and nature.
the beginning of the twentieth century, August Macke (1887–1914) was also searching for adequate forms of expression for the “tremendous life” that swept over him. In the study Zwei Mädchen (Two Girls) from 1913, which is closely related to the painting of the same name, two young girls are depicted in an urban setting. The lines translate rhythmic impulses, light effects and the ambient sound of the big city into an abstract structure of forms and lend the drawing a dynamic effect. In the 1920s and 1930s, a number of artists developed a strongly abstracted formal vocabulary, often following on from Expressionism. They also turned away from traditional compositional principles taught at the academies and initially tested new means of representation on paper. They abandoned naturalistic depictions and transformed what they had seen and experienced into fundamental pictorial elements such as line and surface, colour and form. Rolf Nesch, Werner Gilles and Ernst Wilhelm Nay worked with two-dimensional colour forms, striking lines and geometric figural depictions and dispensed with an illusionistic representation of depth. These formal tendencies can also be observed in Willi Baumeister’s (1889–1955) Sportler in Ruhe (Athletes Resting) from 1929. Baumeister, however, distinguished himself from Expressionist models and cultivated a more objective means of expression. Nevertheless, the immediate visual experience was the starting point for all of their works, regardless of the artists’ different modes of representation. Their artistic goal was to depict the primal forces of nature, which they perceived as expressions of life and translated into their pictorial compositions – such as Nay into rushing colour gradients, Gilles into clear colours seemingly flooded with sunlight, or Baumeister into relief-like surface structures reminiscent of rock formations.
Two drawings by Paul Klee, who had travelled to Tunisia with August Macke and had been inspired by his impressions on this journey to increasingly abstract compositions, reflect his virtuosity and joy of experimentation in drawing. For Fruchtbares geregelt (Fertile Well-Ordered) from 1933, the artist used a brush and a stamp to press the paint onto the paper. For the late drawing alea jacta from 1940, Klee applied a blend of pigment and glue to a rough paper clearly marked by the signs of the times. He combined abstract signs and expressive field of colour – enigmatic ciphers reminiscent of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s ‘hieroglyphics’ – with a gestural application of paint that already points to the intuitive painting and drawing style of Art Informel.
Drawing served the artists as a means of immediate expression, whether in the trenches of World War I, the boulevards of the awakening metropolis of Berlin or in the midst of the emerging world of consumption and commodities. In this medium, they constructed idealistic life plans, rebelled against established traditions in politics and society, or reflected on decisive events in German history. Because it was the respective context that determined the technique, the works on view will range from simple pencil sketches and miniature-like chalk drawings to vivid pastels and watercolours and even monumental collages.

Max Beckmann’s “Transcendental Objectivity”

Max Beckmann (1884‒1950) was one of the many artists who were deeply affected by the cruelties of World War I. In 1915, certified unfit for military service owing to a physical and mental breakdown, he did not return to his family in Berlin but settled in Frankfurt. In an abrupt departure from his previous artistic work, he developed a new style that is first evident in his drawings. He now sought to capture his motifs directly, without regard for spatial or anatomical correctness. Even the types of lines he drew changed, becoming harder and more prominent. He wanted to reproduce not only what was outwardly visible, but also tensions and forces lying concealed beneath the surface. In his attempt to verbalize his new pictorial language he arrived at the term “transcendental objectivity”.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner From Nature Impression to “Hieroglyph”

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) engaged in drawing on a daily basis. Whether he was on the street, in the cinema, at a concert or variety show, studying nudes in the studio or the outdoors, he always had his drawing utensils with him so as to capture what he experienced directly. As he worked in this medium, he reduced natural forms to simple signs conveying their essence – so-called “hieroglyphs”. Yet even if these abstract forms consist of just a few distinct lines, they always retain a certain closeness to reality. To quote the artist himself, his pictures were “not illustrations of certain things or beings, but independent organisms of line, surface and colour that contain the natural forms only to the extent necessary to serve as a key to comprehension”.

German Expressionism – Colour-Form Events

In the years around 1900, a spirit of optimism and new departure prevailed – also in art. In the search for artistic renewal, a great number of often very different avant-gardist currents emerged simultaneously. Young artists joined in associations such as the Brücke or Blauer Reiter and sought adequate means of expressing what August Macke called the “stupendous life” rushing in on them. They turned away from the traditional conceptions of art taught at the academies and, initially on paper, experimented with new modes of depiction. Rejecting naturalistic representation, they translated what they saw and experienced into basic visual elements such as line, surface, colour and form. They no longer modelled bodies to look three-dimensional but worked instead with bold contours and two-dimensional, monochrome zones of colour from palettes that departed from the natural appearance of things. What is more, the artists emphasized the material qualities of their crayons, charcoals, opaque body colours and delicate watercolours and integrated chance into their compositions and application of the paint. In their watercolours, for example, they allowed the paints to spread across the paper uncontrolled, bringing about lively interplays between colour and form: colour-form events.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition will be the first ever to investigate the Städel Museum’s collection of twentieth-century German drawings on the basis of selected examples.