Neue Gallery Offers Fresh Expressionism

New York - The air of perversion, with its prostitutes, piggish industrialists, tortured souls and general depravity, is why the German Expressionist show at Neue Galerie is so appealing.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social network are eager to view this important exhibition.

Reacting against the horrors of World War I in their work, most of the artists were deemed degenerate by the Nazis.

Ablaze with raucous color, the first gallery addresses the countryside, the city, the artist’s studio, the circus and cabaret in the works of the founding German Expressionist groups Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter.

It leads with two vibrant, early Vasily Kandinsky streetscapes, a pair of electric-striped bathers by Erich Heckel and Max Pechstein’s erotic “Young Woman with Red Fan," shown here.

In the next room, focusing on Germany’s dark side, are masturbating nude burlesque dancers by Christian Schad, fat cats by Georg Scholz and a commanding, bulging self-portrait by Max Beckmann, who looks as if he might explode.

A magnificent gallery devoted to the Bauhaus includes paintings, furniture, glassware, graphic and industrial design. A sleek tubular-steel armchair and footstool here once belonged to architect Philip Johnson.

Amid the emotive exaggerations and deformities beloved of the Expressionists are the understated abstract masterworks of Paul Klee.

His oil and tempera painting “Town Castle” resembles a finely woven carpet or an inlaid grid of jewels. Its uneven surface, undulating like sand dunes, evokes a twinkling wonderland -- a desert mirage.

Klee’s tempera painting, “Portrait of an Expressionist,” of a crazed, flying man-beast -- chased as if by his own fiery tail -- adds knowing levity and strikes a balance between this show’s debauchery and poise.

Historical Background

Herwald Walden used the term ‘Expressionism’ in his polemic magazine Der Sturm in 1912, but it was not referred to as a movement until it had almost died out.

What is now referenced ‘German Expressionism’ is probably Germany’s most original and important artistic mode since the Middle Ages. The heterogeneity of its artistic and stylistic means, its varied intellectual sources and its social and political agendas, make it inherently difficult to define.

Politically, German Expressionism is usually equated with communism, but the expressionist ideology fed in to a multitude of political standpoints. While the largely Jewish ethnicity of Expressionist artists, for example Carl Einstein, Georg Kaiser, Gunther and Schultze-Naumburg, set it in opposition with the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, the expressionist ideal was no more left wing than National Socialism.

In fact, the Expressionist tendency to the extreme, and the desire for a new society, a new goal, and new man, is something the Expressionists had in common with the National Socialism that we now consider right wing.

Expressionist playwrights Arnolt Brionnen and Hans Johnst, and poet Gottfried Benn (a close friend of Carl Einstein!), became Nazis.

Expressionist work was marked by aesthetic intensity, a willful divergence from prior modes of thinking, a tendency to short forms as a way of concentrating and condensing, and an acute self consciousness about the limits of language and, the converse, the expressive potential of language.

This ‘language’ could be visual or linguistic. Indeed, the notion of visual art as a language was to be further developed towards the end of the Expressionist movement by Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris and Carl Einstein in the avant-garde art journal Documents.

German Industrialization

In Spring 1914, united Germany seemed stable under Kaiser Wilhelm. It was a time of massive development and change.

Industrialization brought a huge population increase and Germany had the most powerful steel, chemical and electrical industries in Europe. With a huge navy and was decidedly imperialist ideals, Germany pursued its colonial ambitions with an aggression that resulted in its isolation by the other powers.

Young intellectuals felt excluded and classless in a complacent, materialistic Germany.

Expressionism began as a turn away industrialization, mechanization, and from patriarchy in the broader sense.

The German Expressionists moved towards ‘primitive art’ as a model of abstraction, or non representational, non-academic, non-bourgeois art of existential immediacy.

“German Expressionism 1900-1930: Masterpieces from the Neue Galerie Collection” runs through Apr. 22 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 5th Ave.