by David M. Roth
Not long before his death, the eminent curator and art historian, Peter Selz, speaking before an audience at this museum, declared Max Beckman “the greatest artist of the 20th century.” Partisans of Georg Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, Oskar Kokoschka, Otto Dix, Emil Nolde and their peers might differ. A Graphic Art: German Expressionist Prints from the McNay Art Museum and the Bronston Collection, a selection of 33 mostly small-scale works on paper by 14 artists, while offering too little to bolster or disprove Selz’s claim, provides a worthy glimpse into what leading German artists were thinking before WWI and in the years after when the Nazis forced most of them into exile and the world into yet another war.
Their differences, ascribed to various movements – Die Brücke (The Bridge), Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), Die Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) – while once defining, seem, at this remove, to revolve mainly around the degree of directness with which artists addressed the nation’s malaise. As such, the show, culled from the McNay Art Museum and the Bronston Collection, operates on a sliding scale, with factual realism on one end, emotive expressivity at the other, and a lot in between devoted to representing lives seemingly unaffected by the problems facing Germany between the wars.
Highlights? Kathe Kollwitz’s works, which depict the privations Germans suffered during those years, hit hardest. Brot! (Bread), a 1924 lithograph, shows a mother with two bawling kids denying food to one while secretly slipping a crust behind her back to another. With bold black-and-white stripes, Die Eltern (1923), a woodcut of two parents mourning a lost child, tears at the heart with a graphic force equal to the grief summoned.
At the opposite end of the spectrum – the grotesque – a 1919 woodcut by Ernst Barlach titled Bettlermajestät (Beggar King) stands out for its rendering of a blind man shepherding a deformed beggar onstage before a crowd awaiting a speech: a portrait of madness and mass adulation operating in lockstep. Equally memorable, but for different reasons, is Georg Grosz’s Encounter in the Street (1927), a watercolor. It shows a fur-clad prostitute meeting a plump, pink-faced businessman in a scene worthy of Cabaret or The Blue Angel.
Roughly half the exhibition consists of pictures that have little to do with Germany’s troubles. Two woodcuts from Karl Schmidt-Rottluff – Katzen (Cats, 1915) and Die Heiligen drei Könige (The Three Magi), 1917 — stand out for their utilization of African tribal iconography — the same sort Picasso used in cubist paintings from around that same time. Cathedral (1919), a woodcut by Lyonel Feininger, carries historical weight: The image became the cover of the Bauhaus manifesto that same year, representing, with its star-dotted spires, the institution’s hopeful unification of painting, sculpture and architecture. Of Beckman, we see too little, and what we do see largely bypasses the scathing social critique for which he’s justly famous. And of Otto Dix, another leading figure, we see nothing. Still, it’s hard to quibble with the single Beckman self-portrait on hand or with his near-caricature of a female nude, Crawling Woman, shown in a position best described as anatomically challenging. It was one of the artist’s last works, made in 1946 after he immigrated to the U.S.
Missing elements notwithstanding, there’s much to be gleaned from even a cursory sampling of German Expressionism, an amalgam of micro-movements that documented one of the most fraught periods of the 20th century.
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“A Graphic Art: German Expressionist Prints from the McNay Art Museum and the Bronston Collection” @ Crocker Art Museum through May 7, 2023.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.