BMA exhibit explores German Expressionism

Dresden was the place for artistic jolts in 1905.

Operagoers were treated to the sight of a severed head, formerly attached to John the Baptist, being handed up from a cistern to a salivating Salome. Thick harmonies and bold splashes of tone color poured from the orchestra to underline the gruesome scene. It was the startling sound of music breaking with tradition.


The same year that Richard Strauss' opera "Salome" premiered in Dresden, the German city saw the birth of "Die Brucke" ("The Bridge"), a group of artists that included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Rough brush strokes and daring bursts of color characterized their work. It was the sign of art breaking with tradition.

These creators sought a new, more emphatic style of capturing the often anxious and crude world around them. They saw themselves as a bridge to the future. They were called Expressionists.


Another group of artists, most strongly associated with Wassily Kandinsky, was formed in 1911 in Munich. They were equally determined to start down different roads, embracing an intense spirituality and often moving in the direction of the abstract.

These artists came together under the name "Der Blaue Reiter" ("The Blue Rider"). They were classified as Expressionists, too.

About three dozen items — paintings, prints, watercolors, sculpture — from this fascinating period have been brought together in a new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, "German Expressionism: A Revolutionary Spirit."

Drawn from the museum's holdings and a few loans from private collections, the two-gallery show offers a strong taste of the Expressionist movement, with examples from Die Brucke and, to a lesser extent, Der Blaue Reiter.

It's impossible to miss the daring behind each, or the impact these artists made on the history and direction of art.

The exhibit was organized by Oliver Shell, the BMA's associate curator of European painting and sculpture. He describes the Expressionists as "hippies of the day, interested in nature, nudism, primitive cultures, spirituality."

"It was a great time to be an artist like this," he says.

Similar challenges to convention were going on elsewhere in Europe, with Henri Matisse and others labeled "Les Fauves" ("The Wild Beasts") experimenting with color and form in Paris and the Futurists stirring things up in Milan. The German Expressionists were aware of, and influenced by, such movements, but they carved decidedly individualistic paths, which can be neatly traced in the BMA show.


This seems to be the winter for Expressionists, who will also have a prominent spot in the exhibit "Modern German Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, opening Feb. 23.

The "revolutionary spirit" of the artists of Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter jumps out from many of the pieces hanging in the BMA.

Kirchner's "Flower Beds in the Dresden Gardens," a painting from about 1910, is a confident riot of color, from the rich pink sky to the yellow pathways below. It's at once rough and refined, lyrical and intensely exuberant.

All of the Kirchner items on display merit lingering over. "Women at an Outdoor Cafe" is a gem of quick strokes in graphite that produce a remarkably vibrant vignette. The color woodcut "Fir Trees" seems to have its own energy field.

There's power, too, in a woodcut Kirchner did as an advertisement for a new art school he tried to launch. The hand-carved letters provide a striking design element, complementing the sensual image of a woman. (As the exhibit label points out, only two students showed up — a fate that will irreverently remind "Mary Tyler Moore Show" fans of the episode when news anchor Ted Baxter opened a school for broadcasters.)

Kandinsky is represented by "The Archer," a nearly abstract scene that meshes shapes and colors to electric effect. (Given the affinities between Kandinsky and other Expressionists with the path-breaking music of their time, it would be cool if the BMA could present concerts of works by composer Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples right alongside the art.)


The exhibit, which includes works from 1907 to the late 1930s and the fading of Expressionism, offers its share of light, playful moods. A prominent example is "Still Life with Large Shell," Max Beckmann's droll, Matisse-inspired portrait of his wife, who has to compete for attention with the ever-so-suggestive object that looms in the foreground.

Beckmann's somber, deeper side is here, too, revealing how World War I affected him and his sensibilities. His 1922 drypoint "In the Street Car" brilliantly captures the war's lingering toll. It's there in the downcast eyes of a woman who seems to hold lost dreams in her hands; a bandaged figure who is surely a still-scarred veteran; and a strange, dapperly dressed man sucking his thumb. Anxiety, neurosis, despair, all riding the No. 18 tram.

This piece and several other war-related works give the exhibit extra weight — actual weight in the case of Lovis Corinth's "The Black Hussar," a huge, heavy 1917 portrait in oil of a fierce-looking Prussian captain. Corinth seems to have attacked the canvas with paint, unconcerned about nuance, yet creating all sorts of subtle layers beneath the almost harsh, smeary surface.

The painting has not been on display for some years in the museum. "When it was on display, they used to get letters complaining about it," Shell says. "It is scary. But it's a perfect precursor to [Willem] de Kooning."

A fitting answer to the haughty Prussian who stares from the canvas with a mix of pride and uncertainty is a small, eerie etching by Otto Dix from 1924, "Sappers Have to Keep Up Firing at Night." This is a view from the trenches, with moonlight falling on corpses that surround two soldiers aiming their guns at the enemy.

Whether facing killing fields or urban streets and nightspots, the Expressionists had a compelling way of getting up close and personal with their subjects, looking for answers, for truth. The BMA exhibit provides a rewarding reminder of what, and how, they saw.


If you go

"German Expressionism: A Revolutionary Spirit" runs through Sept. 14 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free admission. Call 443-573-1700, or go to