Storm of Progress: German Expressionism at the St. Louis Art Museum
In the Beginning
The Germans have not always been the Germans. In fact, the modern state of Germany was not established until 1871, and even after the birth of this independent nation, Germany’s conflict, revolution, and progress would forever alter its geography and all of those who resided within its shifting borders. The St. Louis Art Museum is now providing a glimpse into that world, through the artwork of German artists who have been creating works over the last 200 years. I entered the exhibition through the trees of the Black Forest and witnessed the stretches of sea along the Baltic coasts, all through the eyes of artists such as Georg Baselitz and Caspar David Friedrich. As I stood on the precipice of Germany’s industrialization and the early manifestations of a fierce nationalism that would come to both destroy and strengthen a country, I could see naturescapes melt into bright colorful shapes of expressionism. With each room I passed through, I observed as the colors bled out of the bleak works created during WWII, and then once again I witnessed the artwork find stability in the modern age. Not only does artwork give us a lesson in history, it provides us with a perspective of those who lived it. By the time I exited the exhibit, I felt a deeper understanding of a people I’m connected to both historically and genealogically.
In Response to Industrialization
Artwork from the early 19th Century was under the influence of the German Romanticism of the time. The artists often painted landscapes which were meant to capture their perception of nature as well as their response to it. In a time when much of the country was undergoing rapid changes brought on by the industrial revolution, many sought nature as a way to get back to their roots. Painting natural scenes allowed artists to get back to a simpler time, as we can see in Caspar David Friedrich’s, Sunburst in the Riesengebirge. Friedrich’s painting depicts the heavy clouds and steep hills of the Riesengebirge Mountains, also known as the Giant Mountains, which stretch from Czechia into southern Germany.
During this time period, German’s began to face turmoil as the question arose, what did it mean to be a German? Residents of the empire struggled to find their unique voice in an environment that was demanding national identity. Revolutions broke out where work and food became scarce, which also led to many groups fleeing, many of which settling in places such as Missouri. This drive for identity and change led to a transformation in the ethos of German artwork. From this unrest, Neue Kunst (New Art) was born.
Birth of Nationalism
The exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum takes its viewers on a tour through German history. Once through the first room, where the masters of German Romanticism reside, colors become brighter, and forms become flatter. Expressionism had not yet been established by the early 20th century; however, these bold and colorful works slowly began to appear in the German art scene. One example being Lyonel Feininger’s, Woman’s Head with Green Eyes.
During an art exhibition in 1911, it was noted that the German artwork had begun to reject their earlier natural subjects and were applying exaggerated colors and flatness that challenged the establishment of the time. Although called Neue Kunst, it would later be known as German Expressionism.
The World Wars
Although most people are familiar with the atrocities of both WWI and WWII, especially when discussing Germany’s role in both, there are many perspectives left unexplored. As discussed earlier, artwork can provide us with a tale we may never have heard, and this story was apparent to me as I entered a more dull and lurid section of the exhibit. For many living in Germany during the world wars, it meant starvation and desolation, as we can see in Carl Hoeckner’s, The Homecoming of 1918, 1919. This striking and startling piece stretched across an entire wall, at six feet wide. The bodies that seem to walk towards the viewer, or maybe away from something we cannot see, tell us a different story of war. Artists such as Hoeckner show us the devastation many people faced after the world wars, due to economic and political strife.
Over the years leading up to and during WWII, many of the expressionist pieces were denounced by the Nazi party, including many works by the well-known artist Max Beckmann. Entartete Kunst (degenerate art), was both a term used by the Nazi party to describe any artwork they felt didn’t carry the German message and the name of an exhibition held in Munich, in 1937. This exhibition was held at the same time as the Great German Art Exhibition, in order to show examples of what was considered “pure” German art as well as “degenerate” art. One of the pieces on display at the Entartete Kunst exhibit was Max Beckmann’s, Christ and the Sinner, which later would ironically be applauded around the world as a stunning example of German Expressionism.
After the end of World War II, stories of the horror that occurred during the Holocaust made their way around the globe, and those living within Germany struggled to look upon the destruction brought on by their own country. This attempt to reckon with the acts of the Nazi party is reflected in many pieces of the time. A.R. Penck calls upon his fellow Germans to look at their past and to take responsibility for their actions in his piece Tulb, which depicts the iconic black eagle, a symbol of Germany’s nationalism, flying over the word blut (blood) spelled backwards.
Capitalist Realism and the Economic Miracle
The last stretch of the exhibit takes on a theme unlike the rooms I previously passed through. As West Germany quickly recovered economically, the art that sprung from the post war years detailed the ambivalence felt towards capitalism and its politics. German artists adopted some of the trends of the Pop art movement that was occurring in the United States and Britain. Most works appeared dark, almost skeptical, and often criticized the materialistic attitude developing in recovering West Germany.
Once I exited the exhibit, I reflected on the ever-changing styles and techniques of the German artists of the last two centuries. It is apparent through their artwork that they resided in a world that was constantly changing. As their borders and politics shifted, so did their mediums. As tumultuous as the storm, Germany’s history has forever been imprinted in the art that followed. If we wish to better understand this segment of our world’s history, we can gain a new perspective that is often overlooked. German artwork, as seen in the exhibit, Storm of Progress, is filled with the hopes, fears, and stories of those who lived it.