The German Print Portfolio 1890-1930: Serials for a Priva
Radical change marked the decades between 1890 and 1930 -- nations witnessed the onset of industrialization, the rise of the middle classes, the mechanization of war, innovation in the arts and sciences, and individual, social and psychological alienation. The effects of these changes on society and on the human spirit are explored in "The German Print Portfolio 1890-1930: Serials for a Private Sphere," the Smart Museum of Art's current exhibition.
The thematically and technically diverse works of the exhibition are represented in 10 print portfolios -- unbound pages of interrelated prints -- each of which follows a specific theme. Presented chronologically, the exhibition takes the viewer from the 1887 work of Max Klinger, who was the first to fully explore the print portfolio as an artistic medium, through the Kuenstlergruppe Bruecke and Otto Dix portfolios and their reactions to turn-of-the-century changes and World War I, to the optimistic postwar work of Lovis Corinth and Ernst Barlach.
Many of the technical and thematic innovations Klinger introduced to the print portfolio medium are represented in his series "Eine Liebe (Opus X)." Klinger worked in a realistic style, using etching, engraving and the acid-based wash of aquatinting to create poetic figures and settings. Fascinated by musical motifs, Klinger structured "Eine Liebe" ("A Love") to reflect a lyrical score, matching his cover page to an overture and his sequence of images to variations on a theme.
More significantly, though, Klinger was one of the first artists to infuse psychological commentary into realism. Looming within the natural setting of Klinger's prints, socially moralistic demons comment on the characters' behavior. The tension Klinger creates between social convention and human nature marks the beginning of artists' interest in visually expressing internal conflict.
Although Klinger paved the way for future portfolio artists, popular interest in the medium did not materialize until nearly 20 years later. The next prominent generation of printmakers, the artists of Kuenstlergruppe Bruecke (Bridge Artists' Group), worked in a communal setting, sharing resources and collectively exploring artistic styles. Two Bruecke artists, Max Pechstein and Erich Heckel, created the Smart exhibition's only example of a collaborative print portfolio, "Bruecke VI" ("Bridge VI," 1911).
Mounted in the room following "Eine Liebe," "Bruecke VI" reflects the intellectual progress the arts made in the years between Klinger and Pechstein and Heckel. By 1911, expressionism had established itself as the primary visual art form of the avant-garde.
"Klinger's idea of using a print medium to abstract psychological or intellectual ideas is clearly continued in Bruecke," said Stephanie D'Alessandro, Associate Curator of the Smart Museum. "The difference is that Bruecke artists take the level of expression a step further, infusing their work with emotion in addition to intellectual commentary.
"The jagged edge, the stark colors, the use of the woodcut, had a lot to do with dealing with a subjective reality," D'Alessandro continued. "Pechstein and Heckel were two artists who moved away from the art establishment and created a world of their own. They were influenced by 'primitive' art and its freedom from formal academic tenets of what art should look like. They explored the art of the 'insane,' which distorts a common reality into psychological, personal expression. They infused their work with personal sensations, which is the essence of expressionism."
For Otto Dix, the print portfolio also provided a method for working through his emotional responses to experience, but rather than abstract his images, he presented them realistically. Like Klinger, Dix was a master of intaglio print processes. His portfolio "Der Krieg" ("The War," 1924) depicts graphic details of World War I in lyrical, sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque imagery. The largest series in the Smart Museum's show, the portfolio includes five sets of 10 images each in the central room of the exhibition.
"Dix had real interest in factual recording," D'Alessandro said, "but he did not create his series to be anti-war. Rather, he saw his work as exorcism, a psychological outpouring."
Not all the artists in "The German Print Portfolio" describe psychological alienation or the tension between social convention and human nature. "Yes, there were some serious sociological, political and economic problems that occurred in the first decades of the century," D'Alessandro said, "but that period was also a kind of renaissance. As much as Germany was faced with problems, incredible things were happening technologically, cinematically, scientifically and culturally. I hope our exhibition balances the critical and dismal with hopeful, positive statements."
One serial that strikes such a note is Lovis Corinth's "Martin Luther" (1920), a pre-publication amalgam of images -- including duplicate subjects in different media -- laid out in a mass grouping near the end of the exhibition. The portfolio is ostensibly about Martin Luther, but according to D'Alessandro it has more to do with national pride and patriotism than it does with the leader of the Protestant Reformation. "Corinth wanted to take the opportunity to encourage people to feel good about being German after the devastation of World War I," she said. "He celebrates Germany's cultural icons and his country's rich heritage, thereby reaffirming his own and others' faith in their homeland."
The exhibition concludes with a portfolio that recalls Klinger's interest in music and provides a final life-affirming tribute to humanity. "Schiller, An die Freude" ("Schiller, Ode to Joy," 1927) was created by Ernst Barlach after he had convinced a stranger not to commit suicide and was able to raise money and find a job for the desperate man. Based on Friedrich von Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy," the portfolio celebrates salvation through the simple, straightforward woodcut technique, widely considered among artists of the time to be the best mode of expressing the essence of German character.
Displayed in an undulating pattern across the wall to reflect the images' cadence, Barlach's portfolio evokes both poetic and musical dynamics. "Like Klinger, Barlach attempted to take something visual and make it the translation of something else," D'Alessandro said. "His work is hopeful and energetic. It provides one last striking image to close the exhibition and underscore the incredibly rich period in which the German print portfolio flourished."
To complement the main exhibition, which will be on view though Sunday, Dec. 12, the Smart Museum is offering several programs exploring various aspects of German culture. A companion exhibition, "The Tradition and Influence of the German Woodcut," will be on view at the museum through Sunday, Dec. 5. A free eight-week lecture series, "Kultur/Kommerz/Kommunikation," continues through Monday, Dec. 13, and a 10-week film series, "New Public Spheres: Aesthetics and Activism in Early German Cinema," continues through Wednesday, Dec. 8. For more information, call 702-0200.
-- Carmen Marti