The Bruecke Museum is a treasure trove of German Expressionist art, with the movement's artists having helped redefine the craft in the early 20th century. Now on show is a retrospective of paintings by Erich Heckel.
"Two Girls by the Water" by Erich Heckel
The largest collection of works from the German Expressionist group Die Bruecke ("The Bridge") is housed in a modest, one-story building on the outskirts of Berlin.
The Bruecke collective was founded in Dresden in 1905 by four university students, who abandoned their studies to devote themselves to art.
The founders - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Beyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff - were obsessed with the desire to create a new type of art that, in their words, was "immediate and pure."
"Their goal was to revolutionize art, and they did revolutionize German art because they wanted to portray inner emotions and their subjective perceptions and that was something very new at the time," art academic Kathy Stoike told Deutsche Welle.
The way the artists depicted objects and people was very new, and not understood at the time, Stoike pointed out.
"You see a storm of colors, and you have to imagine that the people in 1905 didn't have any color photography, any movies, and the neon lights you have today, they didn't exist," she said. "It was all a bit darker, and black and white."
From the heart to the canvas
This painting, "Roman Stilllife," by Erich Heckel was stolen from the Bruecke Musuem in 2002
Bruecke artists strove to capture their inner perception on canvas - not what they saw, but what they felt.
Painted by Schmitt-Rottluff, a sailboat seascape becomes a kaleidoscope of swirling colors, which evoke the joy and magic of a summer day at sea. A reclining nude by Kirchner, painted with bold, impulsive strokes of bright red, the shadows of her curves in blue and green, is striking and sensual, comforting and warm.
The artists rejected not only the established conventions and aesthetics of classical art, but also its techniques, devising their own painting methods as they went along.
Though in terms of creative expression their techniques were very effective, they were also impractical, Bruecke Museum Director Magdalena Moeller explained.
"The artists were self-taught," she remarked. "They studied architecture, not art, and didn't know how to prepare canvases or work with oil paint."
The artists simply applied the paint right from the tube to the canvas. "This was a completely unorthodox way to work with oil paints," she said. "And this is also why their paintings are so fragile; the paint is not stabile on the canvas, and why today these works must be transported with such care."
Bruecke at its climax
"Farn in the Marsch" by Emil Nolde, one of the great 20th-century water color painters
Up until 1910, the group had developed a distinct collective style, taking as their subjects the natural beauty of landscapes and the human form. Each artist had his own individual technique, yet their works as a whole from this period possess simplicity of depiction, vibrant use of color and exquisite compositional harmony. This period is seen as the climax of the Bruecke's artistic achievements.
The Bruecke artists moved to Berlin in 1911, where big city life greatly influenced their work. Sharp angles, edgy, brittle brushwork and a subdued color palette became their defining stylistic elements. They focused on street scenes and austere portraits.
In 1913, personal and professional differences caused the group to disband, but the artists continued to work separately, with each gaining individual recognition by the 1920s.
"Of course in the '30s with the National Socialists, they were all defamed as 'degenerate' artists," Stoike said. "They were re-established after the Second World War, but figurative art was no longer favored then since it had been exploited by the Nazis for propaganda reasons."
The art of the Bruecke, although expressionistic, proved too figurative for the times and fell out of fashion. Tastes for more abstract art were developing, with artists like Wassily Kandinsky grabbing attention on the world art stage.
Still, over time, the Bruecke became synonymous with the German Expressionist movement, and took its rightful place within the international avant-garde.
Renewed Bruecke popularity
City life influenced their work, like Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene"
These days, the Bruecke is enjoying a new surge of international popularity, claims museum director Moeller. Her museum has recently had an increase in requests for loans of up to 150 works from renowned art institutions around the world, such as Moscow's Pushkin Museum, London's Royal Academy and New York's Museum of Modern Art, to name a few.
Even the French are acquiring a taste for early German Expressionists, with the first Bruecke exhibition ever to take place in France next year.
Moeller said it was the simplicity and straight-forwardness of Bruecke art that made it so appealing today. "It's not abstract or complicated or burdened with problems the viewer has to interpret; nor is Bruecke art a conceptual art so that you need additional knowledge to understand," she pointed out.
Viewers can just sit back, relax and take in the vibrant colors and clear, simple lines. The unorthodox approach to art created back then was a stroke of fate, Stoike explained.
"It was a movement against the bourgeoisie society," Stoike said. "The artists loved to work outside, close to nature and inspired by it. I like to think of them as the first hippies, long before those of the 1960s."
Author: Leah McDonnell (als)
Editor: Kate Bowen
The latest exhibition at the Bruecke Museum is a retrospective of paintings by Erich Heckel, combining works from its own collection as well as those on loan from the United States, England and Europe. The show runs through January 16, 2011.