Lines of Modernism an Exhibition of Drawings by German Artists Comes to the Art Museum

Article excerpt

FIFTY YEARS ago was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. The Soviet army had broken through the Eastern Front, and by the end of January 1945, the Russians were at the Oder River, about 50 miles from Berlin. The capture of Silesia, where Germany got most of its coal after the bombing of the Ruhr, prompted Albert Speer, Hitler's architect of war production, to predict that the Third Reich was done for.

By spring, when the war in Europe ended, Germany would be a shambles and its cosmopolitan capital, Berlin, a ruin.

Now, go back another 50 years before this devastation. Turn-of-the-century Germany was mighty, and so was its art. German artists had dived emphatically into the mainstream of European modernism, bringing with them their own particular introspective spiritualism, their expressionism and its melancholy vocabularies.

By 1899, the Secessionist art movement had challenged artistic convention in Germany. And then, in the early 1900s, a New Secession revolted against the old one. World War I, rather than burying new German art in its trenches, seemed to sharpen or invigorate it. The liberalism of the short-lived postwar Weimar Republic allowed modern German art to blossom. Berlin was the republic's Paris.

An exhibition of German artists' drawings from the late 19th century and the first half of this century opened last week at the St. Louis Art Museum. Everything in the show is from the museum's collection, and the drawings represent work by many of the great modern German masters.

Along with the drawings are four sculptures that relate to the drawings, as well as a painting based on one of the drawings.

Barbara Butts, the museum's curator of prints, drawings and photographs, organized the show and wrote the handsome bulletin that accompanies it. The exhibition is small, easily digested, and satisfying.

The show reveals various currents from the late 19th century that would change profoundly with the years, as well as prevailing attitudes about what mattered in a work of art.

Marvelous drawings by Max Klinger (with Klinger prints and a sculpture as further illumination of his work) open the exhibition. In the last century and in the early 1900s, Klinger was sought-after and praised. But Butts' catalog notes that by the time of his death in 1920, a critic wrote that the only way to honor him was to bury him.

The neo-classicism of Klinger and the contemporary realism of artists such as Max Liebermann (represented in the show by a rather sentimental 1894 drawing of a peasant farmer) would give way shortly to considerably more radical and less representationalist styles, to experiments with pure abstractionism, and to works of art that made social or political references.

In this show, you move from the work of Klinger and Liebermann to Erich Heckel, who was a one of the founding members of Die Brucke (The Bridge), an association of artists that came together in 1905. The group's aim was to be "the bridge" for all artists who wished to move away from the past and into modernism.

Although it can be argued that modernism had taken hold before Die Brucke was organized, the group brought together avant-garde artists and new, revolutionary ideas. Even though the alliance proved to be fragile, it represented a first in organization.

The Heckel drawing in the show - a sketchy, lyrical scene of bathers - is restated in a painting that is also in the museum's collection, and is included in this exhibition.

Both testify to Heckel's and Die Brucke's interest in freedom (expressed in the nudity of the figures) and so-called ethnic art, whose pared down, urgent forms influenced the work of German artists at this time, as well as prominent artists elsewhere - notably Picasso.

Ethnic art, based as much on intuition and emotion as on any strict formal values, fed handily into the German tendency toward expressionism. …