Impressionism is usually seen as the antithesis of Expressionism, but while we were in Berlin we queued for over an hour to see a stunning exhibition at the the Alte Nationalgalerie, on Museum Island – snappily titled on the banners, ImEx – which brings together a lavish helping of paintings from both movements, presenting them in such a way as to emphasise the similarities as well as the differences between them. Near contemporaries at a time of social upheaval, the exhibition explores common concerns: urban life, cafes, cabaret and dancers, the countryside and nature, and new relationships between the sexes.

Queueing for Im-Ex
Queueing for ImEx outside the Alte Nationalgalerie

What is unusual about this exhibition is the way in which paintings from both styles been placed in direct confrontation with one another, with the curators often pairing an impressionist work with one by an expressionist artist in order to show the same subject treated in different styles.

There’s a Paris-Berlin thing going on here, too, with the exhibition recalling a time, early in the 20th century, when Berlin took over from Paris as the capital of modernism – until that was all snuffed out by the Nazis in the 1930s.

It was a time when the world’s avant-garde artists and writers gathered in Berlin, and its galleries were filled with works by the leading French Impressionists, such as Monet and Manet, both of whom feature prominently in the exhibition. German Impressionism – whose leading lights included Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, and Max Slevogt – developed in the 1890s as a response to the movement in France. But then came a fierce backlash with the advent of Expressionism, spearheaded by German painters such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and Emil Nolde.

Banners outside the National Gallery, Berlin
ImEx banners outside the National Gallery, Berlin

The Alte Nationalgalerie where we saw this exhibition has close connections to the history of artists working in both styles. It’s a story that begins in 1882, when Carl Bernstein, a wealthy lawyer from Berlin and a cousin of Charles Ephrussi (the netsuke collector in The Hare with Amber Eyes), travelled to Paris and brought back a selection of modern French paintings by Manet, Monet, Degas and Sisley. Many of his  German artist friends found the paintings appalling. However, one friend, Hugo von Tschudi, was so impressed by the new French painting style that when he became director in 1896, Berlin’s National Gallery became the first museum in the world to acquire Impressionist paintings and soon became the go-to place to see Impressionist art.

Tschudi’s successor, Ludwig Justi, on the other hand, amassed a spectacular collection of Expressionist works after 1918 for the new wing of the National Gallery. For many years, impressive collections of works by Impressionists and Expressionists were found under the same roof, though they were never exhibited together.

Despite the stark contrast that would later be made between the two styles, this exhibition demonstrates that Impressionism and early Expressionism shared  many characteristics. Both movements represented a rejection of the current art conventions of academic art: artists often painted outdoors, constructed their pictures from freely brushed colours that took precedence over lines and contours, portrayed immediate experiences of light and colour, and focussed on scenes from life in the modern city.

The Expressionists are often described as having abandoned the naturalism of Impressionism in favour of a more raw focus on colour and movement to express deep and sometimes troubled emotional states. But this juxtaposition – the first time Impressionists and Expressionists have been exhibited side by side in a big show – reveals surprising similarities and shared influences.

Impressionists such as Monet and Renoir made their break with academic art by using loose brush strokes to create subtle depictions of light. A generation later, expressionists like Kirchner and Nolde used stronger colours and firm brush strokes, also breaking with tradition – including that of the impressionists themselves.

ImEx groups works together in twelve rooms, each focussing on a different theme, such as ‘Bathers and Dreams of Paradise’; ‘City, Suburb, Pedestrians’; ‘Diversions: Cafés, Dancers, and Cabaret Life’; and ‘Out of Doors: The Creation of Leisure’

Both movements were fascinated by contemporary urban life, with scenes in bars, restaurants or cabarets. At the same time they also had a longing for nature and enjoyed painting outdoors, capturing effects of light and colour. Both found new ways of looking; but whereas Impressionists tended to focus on the process of seeing itself, the Expressionists were committed to art that expressed feelings and emotions. Other areas of common interest to which the curators draw attention included cafés, bars and dancers, country homes and interiors, leisure time and nature – and the city.

Gallery: City, Suburb, Pedestrians

Impressionism and Expressionism both exploded from urban cultures, both fascinated by the energy and movement of the fast-growing cities of their time: their busy streets, glittering lights, broad boulevards and bustling squares became key motifs for artists. In 1863, Charles Baudelaire described a painter wandering through the city as a flâneur, ‘looking for that something which you must permit me to call modernity.’ From the 1860s, Claude Monet and his fellow Impressionists were inspired by Paris, while from 1900, the Expressionists focused mainly on Berlin.

Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre at Night shows a brightly illuminated avenue in Paris – the city lights turned into dabs of oil paint. Hung next to the French impressionist’s 1897 work is Nollendorfplatz, painted by German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 1912, its restless, jagged brush-strokes depicting the busy Berlin junction just round the corner from the boarding house at Nollendorfstrasse 17 where Christopher Isherwood rented a room for three years and observed Hitler’s rise to power.

Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge, an 1899 London scene, is paired with Kirchner’s Rhine River Bridge in Cologne, from 1914, while Camille Pissarro’s impressionist Boulevard Montmartre at Night, depicting the busy Parisian street at night in 1897, is echoed by two Berlin nightscapes by German impressionist Lesser Ury, and Max Beckmann’s expressionist Street at Night from 1913. (In 1919, in the portfolio Hell, Max Beckmann would depict the streets of Berlin in a different light: ten lithographs would present an unflinching look at social disintegration and civil violence in the capital after the catastrophe of the First World War.)

Perhaps the most vivid contrast offered by the curators is the placing of Kirchner’s expressionistic Potsdamer Platz – a fevered image of slashing strokes, jarring colours and heavy slabs of paint made on the eve of the First World War – opposite Hans Herrmann’s impressionistic Potsdamer Platz in 1894 which depicts the same square as an almost tranquil scene with horse-drawn carriages, flower sellers, and a baby in a perambulator on a bright summer’s day.

Gallery: Bathers

ImEx actually begins with a section called Bathers: Dreams of Paradise, where we find Cezanne’s Seven Bathers from 1900. Which is appropriate, given that Cezanne’s work formed the bridge between Impressionism and Expressionism (and several more artistic currents in the new century).

Bathers became a significant motif in the paintings of late Impressionism and Expressionism as Cézanne’s images of naked men or women by the water became a much-replicated ideal for artists from both movements. German impressionist Max Liebermann’s Bathing Boys from 1902 hangs alongside Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Bathers at the Shore, from 1913 – same subject and almost the same viewpoint, but starkly different in their rendering of the seashore and the figures. Kirchner’s more abstract figures, swirling waves and dramatic colouring express a greater sense of freedom than Lieberman’s more stiffly-posed figures.

If paintings of bathers on the beaches of the North Sea or the Baltic – as in Kirchner’s painting, or Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s Three Nudes (Dune Picture from Nidden) – evoked a dream of harmony with nature far from the stifling rules of the bourgeois world, some artists looked further afield for true natural ‘primitiveness’ in the South Seas, among the natives of Tahiti or Papua New Guinea, as represented by Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Fisherwomen and Emil Nolde’s Papuan Youths.

Gallery: Out of Doors

The period during which these artist made their work was one in which the idea of leisure time as a break from the all-consuming world of work spread beyond the bourgeoisie to the working class. The railway allowed both working class and middle class to travel to the city’s outskirts and into the countryside, away from the noise and crowded streets of the metropolis.

Both Impressionists and Expressionists were observers of these developments, and painted en plein air, depicting scenes on river banks, and in meadows. Often their subject would be the people who gathered to relax in gardens, public parks, zoos, and outdoor cafes (Eduard Manet’s masterpiece At Père Lathuille´s being a classic example of the latter).

One pairing points up contrasts between the two schools: Renoir’s 1881 impressionist masterpiece Chestnut Tree in Bloom depicts a lush and idyllic landscape, while Canal in Winter by Erich Heckel, a founding member of  the Die Brücke group of Expressionist painters, is dark and dense with thick brush strokes that depict dark trees arched above the canal whose equally black water reflects them back. It’s more an expression of the artist’s state of mind, perhaps, than a realistic depiction of the scene.

Gallery: Country Homes

A section devoted to Country Homes reflects an artistic fascination in this period with gardens and houses surrounded by trees, with examples from
Monet and Manet, Max Liebermann, Max Slevogt, as well as Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

Gallery: Diversions: Cafés, Dancers, and Cabaret Life

In Diversions, the curators have grouped together paintings of scenes observed in the cafes, bars, circuses and night clubs of the turn-of-century city. Song and dance interludes offered by restaurants and known as ‘café-concerts’ were especially popular: at such venues the female clown Cha-U-Kao would perform (as depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec), while  can-can dancers were the stars of vaudeville theatres such as the Moulin Rouge or the dance hall at the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre (as paintings here by Van Gogh, Degas and Kirchner confirm).

Artists such as Kirchner and Nolde recorded their experiences
exploring Berlin’s night-life, but for me the real opener in this room was Auguste Chabaud’s arresting scene outside a Montmartre night club (or is it a brothel?), Girl With Red Tie, painted in 1907, but looking as if it might have been finished yesterday.

Gallery: Couples and relationships

The late 19th century was a time when the traditional roles of men and women began to shift in response to the social and economic changes of the time. This was a period in which popular magazines and novels were filled with such themes as failed marriages, romantic affairs, and personal tragedies. While writers created challenging psychological portraits of failed marriages in works such as Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Hedda Gabler, French and German Impressionism and early Expressionism produced a remarkable number of pictures of couples and families, many of which do not reflect a family idyll.

Instead, these paintings often emphasized the specific character of the individual rather than a couple’s togetherness or a family’s sense of belonging. Those painted are often turning or looking in different directions. Manet’s work (represented here by In the Conservatory) for example, is characterized by the vacant gaze of some of his subjects. Thus, in various ways, these pictures reflect the shifting gender dynamic of the late nineteenth century. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bleakest works here are both by Edvard Munch.

Gallery: Premonitions of War,1913

I must admit I began to zone out in the rooms devoted to portraits of artists and their patrons, scenes ‘behind closed doors’ and animals. Few of the  paintings in these sections matched the excitements of the earlier rooms. It was only in the final room that my interest was reawakened. In Premonitions of War: 1913, the curators have grouped works that reflect Georg Heym’s sense that – as the German Empire became deeply divided between nationalists and social revolutionaries, and Nietzsche questioned his contemporaries’ belief in progress – the ‘end of days’ had arrived.

Although the avant-garde flourished in this period, Expressionist painters created images in 1913 that seem like premonitions of the approaching war. Otto Dix’s pale-yellow Sunrise with black crows settling on a snow-covered field as the sun rises like a bursting bomb-shell in a turbulent sky projects a nightmarish atmosphere, while Emil Nolde’s Battlefield with its rearing, screaming horse seems to foretell the suffering of the impending war.

I had never seen Ferdinand Hodler’s The Orator before, but this massive work (it’s eight feet tall) that depicts a gesturing agitator chillingly predicts the decades to come in which demagogues of both left and right would fight an ideological battle, manipulating public opinion and devastating Europe.

The exhibition brings you face to face, finally, with a wood-carving by Ernst Barlach, whose Hovering Angel was a high point of the British Museum’s Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition recently. The Abandoned Ones is a similar work, deeply moving, carved in walnut.

Barlach had begun to carve in wood in 1907, drawing mainly on the simplicity and strength of expression found in Romanesque and Gothic sculpture of northern Europe. His work, usually only of single figures,  depicts human loneliness, fear, and suffering, and is comparable to that of his friend Kathe Köllwitz.

Although he is probably situated in this show as a representative of Expressionism, Barlach was never affiliated with the expressionist movement, and like Kathe Köllwitz he remained unaffiliated to any avant-garde movement or style.

But Barlach shared Köllwitz’s hatred of the suffering and chaos brought about by war, and these feelings are expressed profoundly in The Abandoned Ones. Like so many of the Expressionist artists whose paintings are displayed in this exhibition, Barlach’s work was declared ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, who removed nearly 400 of his works from museums and churches, destroying many. Weakened by Nazi persecution, he died in 1938.

Die Brucke 001
The entrance to the Brucke Museum

Berlin is the place to see works by Expressionists, of course, and a couple of days earlier we had begun a walk through the Grunewald Forest in the western suburb of Dahlem at the Brucke Museum which, though small, houses the world’s largest collection of works by Die Brücke (‘The Bridge’), the seminal movement of German Expressionist artists, formed in 1905.

Die Brucke 1
Schoolkids enjoying Expressionist art at the Brucke Museum

The group was founded by four in Dresden by four young artists – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel – and had a decisive impact on the development of 20th century art. Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde joined in 1906 and Otto Mueller in 1910. The Brücke´s pictorial language and critical attitude towards traditional academic painting fostered the movement that later came to be called Expressionism.

The museum opened in 1967, the core of its collection being a generous donations by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel, subsequently enlarged by further acquisitions. Today the Brücke Museum owns around 400 paintings and sculptures as well as several thousand drawings, watercolours and prints by all of the Brücke artists.

Die Brucke 2
Part of the Schmidt-Rottluff display at the Brucke Museum

Unfortunately, because the museum is so small, it lacks the space to exhibit more than a small fraction of the collection, choosing instead to mount exhibitions that showcase the work of one artist. When we visited we found that, apart from a small display of work by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, the main event was an exhibition of work by Otto Mueller which consisted primarily of paintings of naked young girls depicted in pairs or threes in woodland settings, and portraits of Romani women and family groups.

Personally, I found most of these paintings over-stylised and faintly disturbing in their voyeuristic obsession with naked girls and his somewhat condescending portrayal of Romani people. This may represent a calumny of Mueller on my part, since the museum guide states that:

Mueller was one of the most lyrical of German expressionist painters. The main topic of Mueller’s works is the unity of humans and nature; his paintings emphasize a harmonious simplification of form, colour and contours.

Referring to the ‘gypsy portfolio’, the guide states:

Since 1924 Otto Mueller visited the south-east of Europe several times. He was very interested in the ethnic groups of the Sinti and the Roma. He portrayed them in their private environment and with their families. These lithographs as well as the other exhibited works demonstrate how Mueller was intensely engaged in the possibility of an authentic and general depiction of human being and nature.

However, I did appreciate a Forest Landscape from 1924 (minus nude girls) and a portrait of Mueller made in 1930 by Erich Heckel – which included a small – and no doubt symbolically significant detail of a pair of sparrows; I liked that because it seemed to me that Berlin was a city of sparrows, their chirping waking us at dawn outside our hotel window, and their presence everywhere in the city.

In 1937 the Nazis seized 357 of Mueller’s works from German museums, since the pictures were considered to be degenerate art.

Gallery: Otto Mueller works

Leaving the Museum, and before setting out on our forest walk, we discovered next door the Kunsthaus Dahlem, housed in the former Nazi-built studio of the sculptor Arno Breker.

The Kunsthaus Dahlem
The Kunsthaus Dahlem

The building was constructed between 1939 and 1942 on Hitler’s orders as a workshop for Arno Breker, Hitler’s favourite and one of the busiest sculptors of the Third Reich. From 1937, Breker produced ornamental sculptures for Albert Speer’s monumental building projects.

Kunsthaus Dahlem 3
The Kunsthaus Dahlem

The building is actually very pleasing, its simple, functional lines harmonizing with the woodland setting. When it was built it was
outfitted with the latest technical equipment such as a crane and a hydraulic freight lift with basement access. However, Breker only used the workshop occasionally as increased Allied bombing made using the place too dangerous. Instead, his main workplace became a manor house that Hitler had given him on his fortieth birthday in 1940.

After the end of the war, the place was first used by the American occupying forces, then became property of the East German government, which used it as studio space for visiting artists. Today, the Kunsthaus Dahlem is opening as the first museum focused exclusively on German art made between the end of the war and the fall of the Wall.

Waldemar Grzimek, Artists 1, 1951
Waldemar Grzimek, Artists 1, 1951

Inside, it’s a high-ceilinged, airy space that currently houses a selection of sculptures, including Waldemar Grzimek’s striking Artists 1, made 1951 and glimpsed from the doorway in my photo. Work still seemed to be going on, making the venue ready for the public.

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