The German Expressionists created striking images of the city during the inter-war period. Alongside this, however, they championed nature, landscapes, and the nude – channelling a rousing escapist impulse into their work. The city represented repression; from the early twentieth century, the Cult of Nature was celebrated as an escape from all this – from decadence, from conformity and from stultifying city-life.
Kirchner’s woodcut signet for the group’s founding manifesto announced their turn to nature. Shortly after, Fritz Bleyl’s poster for the first Brücke show foregrounded the centrality of the nude as the embodiement of this turn. The poster is a testament to the group’s fascination with the nude, which would abound in their work. Image after image consecrated their commitment to natural ease – of body and locale.
The woodcut medium is itself a mark of the group’s primitive impulse. Scenes of tribal figures and open landscapes complement a form already redolent of exoticism. It must be remembered, too, that Albrecht Dürer had revolutionized the use of this form. It is to the Old Masters, then, that the Brücke looked, as much as to nature and rural settings like the Moritzburg lakes and Davos.
Nolde’s vibrant Tänzerin embodies the freedom and ease for which the Brücke longed. Mary Wigman was famed for her innovative dance techniques that took inspiration from the German Expressionists.
Photographs of her dancers testify to the centrality of the natural landscape as a platform for open, expressive movement. The Brücke group wanted to bridge the Cult of Nature with a primitivism opposing institutional restraint.
The soft charcoal of Kirchner’s Frau im Tub has a gentle texture adding further intimacy to the tender scene. Like Nolde’s Kniendes Mädchen (1907) etching, these images have a sensitivity often unobtainable in the woodcut. The rarity of many of these works, moreover, came to the fore in this exhibition. Pechstein’s Badende IV, for example, exists in only seven or eight hand-coloured states. Heckel’s Stehendes Kind (1910) is a particularly iconic image, brilliantly depicting Franzi – the model recurring in Expressionist works. This early woodcut was from a small edition issued to a limited number of patrons; this particular impression is in exceptional condition.
With the bombing of Schmidt-Rottluff’s studio in the War, his works are already difficult to obtain. In addition to two woodcuts, we exhibited at Frieze Masters a unique watercolour from 1913 (the same year that Kirchner wrote the conclusive Chronik der Brücke). The bright orange and pink inject an exotic flavour into the impressively-sized work, celebrating woman, the nude and the primitive. It is emblematic of the classic features of the finest major Brücke-period pictures.
View prints at Simon Theobald (IFPDA) here.