Oh, That Weltschmerz! German Expressionism About Dark, Not Light

Artists, critics, art collectors and curators for whom the delights of French painting remain a standard of modern pictorial achievement are often troubled-if not, indeed, repelled-by the very different character of modern German art. Instead of the subtleties and graces to be found in French painting, German art, more often than not, confronts the viewer with a surfeit of discord, aggression and malaise-as I’ve lately been reminded by the exhibition German Expressionist Graphics: The Bradford Collection at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

These differences in style and spirit are anything but superficial. They derive from a profound disjunction in the history of European cultural life-a disjunction that early on separated the sensibility of Mediterranean classicism from the starker, more astringent aesthetic interests of the North.

It was a German critic, Julius Meier-Graefe, a brilliant connoisseur of both traditions, who gave us the most persuasive explanation we have of the roots of this deep divide. In his great two-volume history, Modern Art , published at the beginning of the 20th century, Meier-Graefe wrote: “German art has never freed itself from the Gothic tradition. Its dearest, most characteristic qualities remained Gothic, even after the Gothic form disappeared; in other words, the Germans produced their effects by outline and not by planes. For this reason they show to great advantage in wood-engraving …. The linear convention persists … and in its progress it manifests qualities of design, but never in painting.”

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, especially in the work of Adolph von Menzel, Lovis Corinth and Max Beckmann. What’s not in doubt is that this Gothic tradition disposed German artists to excel in the graphic arts, and when this disposition was ignited in modern times by successive waves of what the Germans call Weltschmerz (romantic pessimism) in response to the upheavals of war and revolution, the result was a movement-Expressionism-that further removed German art from the spirit of luxe, calme et volupté that we associate with the Mediterranean tradition. So deeply entrenched is this division in European thought that when the Pompidou Center opened in Paris in 1977, its principal survey of modern painting did not include a single work by a German artist.

In the United States, however, many German artists-and the German Expressionists, in particular-have long been accorded serious attention and support. In fact, during the long nightmare of the Nazi regime in Germany, when all of modernist art, German and non-German, was condemned as “degenerate,” many German art dealers, art collectors and art historians took refuge in New York, which became, in effect, a second home to the Expressionist movement. Two of the movement’s greatest talents-Max Beckmann and George Grosz-also emigrated to the United States, establishing themselves in America as influential teachers and greatly admired artists.

Much of this attention was initially owed to the inspired leadership of Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, who was well acquainted with the German avant-garde from his travels in Europe and who made it possible for German modernism to be well represented in MoMA’s program of acquisitions and exhibitions.

Another factor in the widespread acceptance of German Expressionism in the United States was the tremendous vogue that Freudian psychoanalysis enjoyed in this country in the aftermath of World War II, when a great many American artists and intellectuals abandoned the Marxist ideologies which flourished in the 1930’s in favor of a Freudian view of the human condition. The very title of Freud’s masterwork, Civilization and Its Discontents , could easily serve as an alternative title for the Portland Museum’s German ExpressionistGraphics -in Freud’s writings, too, we find a record of human discord, aggression and malaise.

It’s of considerable interest that the current exhibition in Portland is entirely derived from the private collection of David and Eva Bradford, both professional psychologists. As the Bradfords acknowledge in an essay for the catalog of the show: “Our interest in human experience probably accounts for both our professional and artistic choices. German Expressionism attempts to get below the surface reality, ‘under the skin,’ to portray some of the deeper feelings and issues with which people struggle.”

The Bradfords have already donated some 50 prints to the Portland Museum’s permanent collection, and the remainder of their collection, numbering more that 150 prints, will eventually go to the museum as well. In the current exhibition, all of the principal artists associated with German Expressionism-among them, Max Beckmann, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde, George Grosz, Otto Dix and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff-are well represented, and the show’s catalog serves as an excellent introduction to the works on view.

German Expressionist Graphics: The Bradford Collection can be seen at the Portland Museum of Art through Oct. 24.