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Ölgemälde | Max Pechstein | Sommer in den Duenen
Inspired by exotic landscapes even before he went to the South Sea islands: Max Pechtein's 'Summer in the dunes' (1911) Image: akg-images/picture alliance

How German expressionists embraced colonialism

Matthias Beckonert
January 6, 2022

In the early 20th century, artists like Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein searched for "primitive authenticity" in the German colonies. Here's what they found.


When the painter Max Pechstein boarded the luxury steamer Derfflinger in May 1914 to travel to one of the German colonies in the South Seas, he was at the height of his artistic career.

Within a few years he had made a name for himself in Berlin, and art critics celebrated his new, radically modern way of painting. The young Pechstein was seen as a remarkable artist of the newly born expressionist movement.

But why did Pechstein decide to leave exactly at that moment the cultural metropolis of Berlin to move to the Palau Islands in the Pacific, which were since 1899 under the colonial rule of the then German Empire?

The search for authenticity

There are several reasons for Max Pechstein's trip: After meeting the Dresden artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein joined their artists' group, Die Brücke (The Bridge), which, along with Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), is still renowned as Germany's most famous expressionist group.

Pechstein and his peers were against the narrow social and artistic rules of the empire and instead longed for "primitive authenticity."

They sought to depict the "unspoiled unity of nature and man" through their art, as Max Pechstein later put it in his autobiography. And the artists believed to find this idealized state of the world in the German colonies of the South Seas.

The primitivists profited from colonialism

The exhibition "Whose Expression? The Brücke Artists and Colonialism" at the Brücke-Museum in Berlin looks into how artists of the Brücke movement were fascinated by the various cultural assets that were brought from the colonies to the German Empire, such as the ornate roof beams of a "men's house," which were common on the Palau Islands. One such piece is now part of the Dresden Museum of Ethnology's collection.

A wood carved statue of a naked woman by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Without traveling to the German colonies, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was also inspired by the styleImage: Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam/Erik and Petra Hesmerg

According to the widespread Western views of the time, every society was to develop over the course of history from a wild, primitive state of nature into a civilized, cultured people.

While the colonial powers saw themselves at the forefront of civilization, they gave the colonized peoples the status of primitive people.

This supposedly primitive and therefore authentic approach was what fascinated the Brücke artists and incited them to study the colonized people's art and imitate their aesthetics in their own works of art. This is why their artistic style is also referred to as primitivism.

The Brücke artists did not reflect on the origins or the context of acquisition of the often stolen cultural assets in the museums originally; the recent concept of cultural appropriation was obviously not an issue in the colonial empire.

Two people in an exhibition looking at a wall filled with portraits.
A series of portraits made by Emil Nolde during his stay on a South Sea islandImage: Carsten Rehder/dpa/picture alliance

Paul Gauguin and the South Seas myth

But it wasn't just works exhibited in ethnological museums that motivated Max Pechstein or Emil Nolde — another Brücke artist who set out a few months before him — to live in the German colonies in the Pacific.

A few decades earlier, the French painter Paul Gauguin had moved from France to Tahiti, and later to the Marquesas island of Hiva Oa.

After his death in 1903, Gauguin's paintings from the South Seas were high in demand on the European art market. Gauguin's posthumous success was probably also due to the fact that his works reproduced a myth that had been circulating in Europe for over a century through 18th-century seafarers' travel reports: Islands like Tahiti were stylized as a utopian natural paradise where free and public love was practiced like a religion.

Allured by this myth, Gauguin left his wife and children in Marseille to live in the South Seas.

Gauguin ended up living there with a barely 13-year-old girl, which for a long time was downplayed as a simple love affair. But the painter did not find an untouched South Sea paradise on the colonized island. On the contrary, in his travel diary "Noa Noa," he wrote that he was "disgusted by all the European triviality" and "disappointed by things that were so far from what I wanted and above all imagined."

He however did not express this disappointment in his paintings, and the same story was to be repeated with the German Expressionists.

Omitting references to colonial structures

Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde were also confronted to the strong contrast between the idealized images they had of the islands and the on-site colonial reality.

The merchant ships and warships in the ports, the telegraph lines in the countryside or the Indigenous people who were forced to do labor did not fit in with their artistic search for unspoiled nature, so they were not depicted in their paintings either.

Paradoxically, it was precisely these colonial structures that made contact with the supposedly primitive people possible in the first place.

The Pechstein couple seemed to dismiss the fact that they were living in a colonial context in their daily lives. After their luxurious crossing on the cruise ship to the Palau Islands, Lotte Pechstein complained in her diary about the oppressive climate and her boredom. When the Japanese occupied the islands in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War, Lotte and Max Pechstein were surprised and disappointed that the Indigenous people did not side with the Germans.

Despite his ethnic-nationalist views and his general approval of colonialism, Emil Nolde was apparently more sensitive to colonial injustice.

After his return from the colonies, he wrote in his 1936 autobiography that colonialism is "a brutal affair," and that he had witnessed the Europeans' violent, "raw and radical" approach with the Indigenous people.

The painter also recognized that the distinction between primitive and civilized, which was so important to justify colonialism, was primarily maintained by keeping the Indigenous voiceless.

He also predicted this could one day change: "If a colonial history is ever written from the perspective of the natives, then we white Europeans will have to hide in caves in shame."

This article was originally written in German.

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