Until the 1970s and 80s, French museums showed little interest in Die Brücke, a group of artists formed in Dresden, Germany, in 1905. They made the mistake of surfacing at the same time as Fauvism in Paris.
This led to comparisons that patriotically concluded that Matisse and Derain were better than Kirchner and Heckel. The argument was always the same: the French had a sense of harmony and balance, the Germans were brutal and exalted – in a word, expressionists.
Only in 1992, with the remarkable Figures du Moderne exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, did things started to change. But slowly. Matisse has had four shows at the Pompidou Centre since 1977, whereas neither Kirchner nor any other Die Brücke artist has ever had a look-in.
Since 1992 the only attempt to remedy this omission has been the Emil Nolde retrospective at the Grand Palais in 2008. Otherwise works have been loaned by German museums to Strasbourg or the Musée Marmottan in Paris. So the current exhibition in Grenoble (until 17 June) is all the more valuable. The Brücke-Museum in Berlin has loaned a substantial part of its collection, with more than 120 paintings, drawings and woodcuts, from the beginning of the movement till 1914. That it should have happened at all is gratifying, but the exhibition is well designed too, bringing out the common ground among the artists.
Kirchner, Heckel, Pechstein and Schmidt-Rottluff did not only agree on aesthetic issues. All four were born in the early 1880s and grew up to reject the world as they found it. They did not want its principles or its mores, nor its art. The form of impressionism that was then spreading through Germany seemed emblematic of a bourgeois society ruled by money and Christian morality. In opposition they advocated bodily freedom, life in the wild, communion with the elements. They spent the summer painting in the countryside, setting up temporary communes. Their shows were collective too and it is hard to distinguish a Heckel from a Pechstein, a Pechstein woodcut from one by Nolde, who joined the group in 1908.
Their unity of style reflected their common aspirations. They painted nudes, landscapes and nudes in landscapes. The intensity of the colours bore out the force of their desires and pleasure. The models were very youthful, shameless and mocking. Forms were defined by just a few lines, interspersed with red or yellow patches worthy of Van Gogh and Munch. Outlines hardened when the group started taking an interest in art from Africa and Oceania examples of which they saw in the ethnographic museums of Dresden and Berlin.
To satisfy their curiosity they travelled abroad. In 1913 Pechstein sailed to the Palauan archipelago in Micronesia; the same year Nolde visited New Guinea where he was horrified by the effects of colonisation. Later, in 1917, Kirchner retired to a chalet in the Swiss Alps, where he sculpted wooden effigies of women and encouraged his female friends to dance naked, as a distraction from Europe and modern warfare.
Today, when society is beset by doubts about what science and technology have done to the world, Die Brücke seems to have been one of the 20th century’s earliest movements of revolt, advocating and practising revolt by art and in art. The anger and provocation that inspired its founders has lost nothing of its force. Perhaps it is because the artists still scare some people that their work is shown so little.
This article originally appeared in Le Monde
Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig (1880 – 1938), was a German Expressionist painter who was an original member of the Brücke. From 1917 Kirchner lived in Switzerland suffering from tuberculosis until his eventual suicide in 1938. Many of his pictures were confiscated by the Nazis, but the best collection is now in Stuttgart. He also made a large number of woodcuts and some sculpture. Kirchner formulated the programme for the Brücke in 1906 and wrote its obituary in 1913, although his close friend Heckel was the most enterprising member.
It’s said that Kirchner occasionally deliberately dated some of pictures too early in order to claim priority. There are works by him in Edinburgh and New York and other American museums as well as those in Germany.
Taken from Dictionary of Art and Artists, by Peter and Linda Murray, 1959