Magazine article The Spectator

In Venice for Pleasure

Magazine article The Spectator

In Venice for Pleasure

Article excerpt

German Expressionism

(Palazzo Grassi, Venice,

till 11 January 1998)

Venezia da Stato a Mito

(Giorgio Cini Foundation, till 30 November)

Palazzo Grassi is a rather ungainly building on the Grand Canal created about 1740-60 in a Venetian version of banker's baroque. To get there, try to take the public traghetto from S. Barnaba (700 lire), which bobs across the canal to arrive at the little campo of S. Samuele, the intimate scale of which moderates the overblown architecture of the Palazzo alongside.

Fiat bought the palace in 1984 and poured money into restoring it. The series of huge international exhibitions which Fiat started there in 1986 has often featured unusual themes. The Celts, for example, in 1991, followed one given to the Phoenicians in 1988. Last year saw The Western Greeks. Such blockbuster shows have firmly established Palazzo Grassi at the heart of Venetian life, not just culturally but, more important in a city still dedicated to dolce far niente socially. Despite many triumphs, however, the Grassi touch with exhibitions is not always sure. Some of the international curators are given to wanton philosophising, as in the impenetrable exhibition earlier this year of 20th-century Dutch and Flemish painting. The last place to make any kind of theoretical point is an art exhibition, although that is precisely what modernists, especially, so often attempt.

Rightly or wrongly, I associate many of these bad exhibition habits with Germany. How refreshing, therefore, to be able to report that the present show is delightfully old-fashioned, and lucid from the first room to the last. It simply sets out the works, pleasingly hung, and leaves the visitor to draw his own conclusions.

The opening rooms of the exhibition space are too pokey ever to work, and once again at the start of the whole show there is a rather tentative selection on view. It is a group of unprepossessing self-portraits, by the likes of Oskar Kokoschka, who every passing year reveals was never the exciting artist he was cracked up to be - not so much modern as modish.

Portraiture, and the portrayal of real people is, indeed, one of the big weaknesses of German Expressionism. The recurring vein of hysteria, over-statement and exaggeration produces an art that teeters for ever on the brink of caricature, and which frequently falls into the abyss. As we discover later on in this show, it is a fatal flaw in the work, in oils at least, of the much-vaunted Otto Dix, where a lack of objectivity and discipline dissipates the impact of the very real emotions that the artist evidently intended to convey.

But if Dix the oil-painter is the biggest fish to float belly-up, he is surrounded by plenty of dead minnows whom the art history machine has made every effort to turn into 'significant' figures. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, recently the subject of a slavish retrospective in Germany, fails to survive beside the many masterpieces on view, notably those by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Irredeemably minor figures such as Felixmuller, Wollheim, Kupper (seriously bad) and Walter Jacob prove to have been quite incapable of creating a rhetoric adequate to the horrors of the first world war with which they attempted to deal (most of them are represented by pictures of c.1919). Max Pechstein, however, can take this kind of exposure, and so, easily, can Alexej Jawlensky: thoughtful, restrained but never dull (`Meditating Woman', 1913, from Bern). Erich Heckel, in contrast, looks too uneven, though there are some good graphics by him and a couple of outstanding landscapes, notably `Lake in a Park' (1914).

In fact, as early as the third room out of the exhibition's 25, definitive, massive machines by Franz Marc (`The Shepherds', 1912) and Kirchner (`Striding into the Sea', 1912, `Three Bathers', 1913) give the small fry little chance. …

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