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