Shell-Shocked: Expressionism after the Great War: Selections from the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies

By Alspaugh, Leann Davis | New Criterion, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Shell-Shocked: Expressionism after the Great War: Selections from the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies


Alspaugh, Leann Davis, New Criterion


"Shell-Shocked: Expressionism After the Great War: Selections from the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies." Los Angeles County Museum of Art November 9, 2008-April 19, 2009

In his war diary, Otto Dix wrote, "Lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, grenades, bombs, holes, bodies, blood, schnapps, mice, cats, gas, guns, dirt, bullets, mortars, fire, steel: this is war! This is the work of the Devil!" He later translated those impressions to the Der Krieg cycle, five portfolios of etchings produced in the 1920s. Rather than the predictable pacifist stance, Dix viewed his front-line experiences with the Expressionists' Neue Sachlichkeit, or new objectivity, insisting that real courage lay in seeing conflict as an inevitable and "natural phenomenon" of human life.

Graphic art has long been the medium of choice for artists chronicling the horrors of war. Unlike Callot or Goya, however, Dix focuses on the "tremendous" in wartime scenes. The bemused naturalism of his etchings--the stiff legs of a decaying horse, light and shadow playing on a shell crater, a botched skin graft--document a war that fascinated him even as it terrified him.

"Shell-Shocked: Expressionism After the Great War" draws on works from LACMA's Robert Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies to present a snapshot of graphic arts before and after World War I. The picture is a complex one, ranging from social realism and war commentaries, to satire, dada, and primitivism, even to a newfound reverence for biblical metaphor. "Shell-Shocked" consists of only about sixty objects--posters, prints, illustrated books and journals, and a clip from Fritz Lang's Metropolis--but its compactness provides a vibrant introduction to a period that defies easy categorization.

Influenced by Gauguin, Vallotton, and Munch, the Expressionists almost single-handedly revived the long-neglected German tradition of printmaking. Artists such as Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, Oskar Kokoschka, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff rediscovered the frank, highly personal idiom of prints and, in particular, the woodcut. Of course, they also had the advantage of absorbing an artistic tradition in which wood-carving and printmaking had been mastered by predecessors such as Riemenschneider and Durer.

United in their enthusiasm for printmaking, the Expressionists varied in their responses to avant-garde influences. Die Brucke artists favored Romanticism until contact with the Cubists and Futurists at Berlin's Der Sturm gallery introduced them to urban speed and intensity. In Munich, the Blaue Reiter artists explored abstraction and primitivism. Others like George Grosz demanded "Clarity that hurts!" while Kathe Kollwitz asserted "I have as an artist the right to extract emotional content out of everything, to let things work on me, and then give them outward form."

The German Expressionist movement owed its advancement to the popularity of print collecting in early twentieth-century Germany. This trend coincided with improvements in printing technology and the appearance of the subscription portfolio. At the same time, Germany experienced a literary flowering that expanded commissions for illustrations in books and journals. Not surprisingly, the volume of prints available and the growing number of collectors also led to critical outcry against the "Auch"--Sammler, or the wannabe collector who bought merely because others were doing so.

"Shell-Shocked" contains the merest fraction of works from the Rifkind Center collection, the single largest holding of German Expressionist graphic art in the world.

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