ImEx: Impressionism / Expressionism

In 1882 Carl Bernstein, a wealthy lawyer from Berlin, and his wife Felicie travelled to Paris. On the advice of Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of Carl’s and one of the the first European buyers of netsuke (and a hero of “The Hare with Amber Eyes”), they bought a selection of modern French paintings. Back home they proudly presented Manet, Monet, Degas and Sisley to German artist friends, but the reaction was one of incomprehension rather than admiration. Some contemporaries found the paintings “appalling”. Adolph Menzel, who was later seen as one of the forerunners of Impressionism, asked Felicie if she had seriously spent money on this “dreck”. The paintings were atrocious, he lamented.

However, one guest at the Bernsteins’ salon took a more positive view. Indeed Hugo von Tschudi was so impressed by the new French painting style that when he became director of Berlin’s National Gallery (now the Old National Gallery in the eastern part of the city) 14 years later, he went on a shopping spree in Paris. He initially bought works by Manet and Cézanne; pieces by Monet, Degas, van Gogh, Gaugin, Rodin and Renoir followed. Soon Berlin’s National Gallery was the world’s most important museum for French Impressionist art.

In 1918 Tschudi’s successor, Ludwig Justi, acquired a spectacular collection of works by German Expressionist artists, which were put in a new annexe of the gallery that had once been the Kronprinzenpalais (Crown Prince’s palace). For many years, works by Impressionists and Expressionists shared the same roof, though they were never actually put on the same floor. The movements were seen as too contradictory. Nonetheless, the collections’ proximity did allow Justi to start developing the concept of comparative viewing, a concept that ImEx, a spectacular exhibition that opened at the Old National Gallery last week, has taken to its logical conclusion.

Berthe Morisot's "The Cheval Glass" (1876) and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's "Girl Before a Mirror" (1915)
Berthe Morisot’s “The Cheval Glass” (1876) and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s “Girl Before a Mirror” (1915)

The Expressionists have generally been described as abandoning the naturalism of Impressionism in favour of a more raw focus on colour and movement. But this juxtaposition—the first time Impressionists and Expressionsts have been exhibited side by side in a big show—reveals surprising similarities and shared influences. Indeed, Angelika Wesenburg, the show’s curator, says the “dialogue of paintings”, should also be seen as a dialogue between the arts of France and Germany.

Artists from both groups were mesmerised by the dynamics of growing cities—Paris, London and Berlin—at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Camille Pissarro’s Impressionist “Boulevard Montmartre at Night” and “Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning”, both painted in 1897, express his love for the French capital. Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner was similarly intrigued by the street life of Berlin. Opposite Kirchner’s Expressionistic “Potsdamer Platz” (1914), an eerie scene of Berlin’s obscure night life at the eve of the first world war, Hans Herrmann’s Impressionistic “Potsdamer Platz in 1894” depicts the same square as a jolly market place on a bright summer’s day.

Both groups of artists enjoyed painting en plein air, capturing the transformative 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 would also depict their own sentiments and emotions. Other areas of common interest included cafés, bars and dancers, bridges, country homes and interiors, leisure time and nature, of which Max Liebermann’s Impressionist “Bathing Boys” (1902) and Kirchner’s “Bathers at the Shore (Fehrmarn)”, painted 11 years later, are beautiful examples.

Around half of the 160 works on display belong to the gallery; the rest are loans from museums in other parts of Germany, as well as Paris, London, Madrid and New York. By pairing works, the selection reveals what the two movements had in common, despite differences in style and forms of expression, and gives visitors the chance to look afresh at familiar works. It should not be missed.

“ImEx – Impressionism and Expressionism. Art at a Turning Point” at Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin until September 20th 2015.

Source: The Economist.

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