At a time when Berlin is celebrated internationally for its vibrant contemporary art scene and creative economy, the city’s National Gallery has found inspiration not by looking forward, but by looking back a century to the birth of its own Modern collection. “ImEx, Impressionism-Expressionism, Art at a Turning Point,” which opened Friday and runs through Sept. 20th, is the first show at a major museum in many years to juxtapose these two movements.
While art historians have preferred a linear view of European Modernism, with the Impressionists paving the way for the Expressionists, the exhibition approaches the two movements as near contemporaries at a time of societal upheaval, exploring their common themes of urbanism, leisure time and nature and the relationship between the sexes, influenced by newfound female independence.
“What is really new and sensational about this exhibition is that never before have both styles been placed in direct confrontation with one another, in such a way as to amplify the differences, as well as the similarities,” said Michael Eissenhauer, director of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the German capital’s main art foundation, which oversees the National Gallery, founded in 1876.
The National Gallery’s claim of being the first museum to acquire and exhibit French Impressionist works is a point of pride for the institution, ever conscious of the dark role the German capital played in culling hundreds of mostly Modernist works by artists reviled by the Nazis.
Patrick Legant, an art adviser in London who specializes in German and Austrian Expressionism and who attended the opening last week, said he was impressed by the wealth of the National Gallery’s permanent collection, which makes up about two-thirds of the exhibition at the museum’s Alte Nationalgalerie building on Museum Island. The idea of hanging a Renoir next to a Nolde made clear how the German Expressionists “had grown up around the Impressionists and were totally aware of those French paintings,” he added. The exhibition recalls a time around the turn of the previous century, when Berlin took over from Paris as the capital of modernism until the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. The capital would later move on to New York, said Philipp Demandt, director of the Alte Nationalgalerie.
It was an era in which the world’s avant-garde artists and writers gathered in Berlin and galleries there were filled with works by the leading French Impressionists, including Monet and Manet, both of whom feature prominently in the exhibition, along with the German Impressionists Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth. In the show, their works are grouped largely chronologically according to theme alongside leading Expressionists, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and Emil Nolde.
“Today, at a time when Berlin is undergoing a transformation, when it is growing together and attracting many artists and creative people, this exhibition is a chance to remember the last time that it played such a role,” Mr. Demandt said.
For Angelika Wesenberg, who curated the exhibition, the aim was to recall the famous display of the National Gallery’s first Modernist acquisitions in Berlin’s Kronprinzenpalais from 1918 until the 1930s while challenging the show’s assumption, common at the time, of the opposition between Impressionism and Expressionism. (Alfred H. Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, cited the Modernist exhibition as an inspiration in developing that institution.)
While the Kronprinzenpalais divided the works between levels, with the Impressionists on the ground floor and the Expressionists a flight above them, “ImEx” presents the works from the two movements beside one another in some galleries, or at opposing corners of the exhibition space in others.
Ms. Wesenberg used the different-size galleries within the museum to group together works focused on 12 different themes. In the opening section, called “Bathers. Dreams of Paradise,” Max Liebermann’s “Bathing Boys” from 1902 hangs inches away from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Bathers at the Shore,” from 1913, confronting visitors with the parallel subject matter of people depicted splashing in waves, and the stark differences of the rendering of the seashore and the figures. While Kirchner’s undulating waves fill the canvas, and more abstract figures speak to a freedom of movement, Lieberman’s stark horizon and more linear figures create the stiff “appearance of a sports class,” Ms. Wesenberg said.
Although the curator moved away from the original idea of grouping all of the paintings in pairs, several key sets are sprinkled throughout the other sections, stressing the opportunity to compare and contrast. Another example is the pairing of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s lush 1881 painting “Chestnut Tree in Bloom,” with the green of the riverbank melting into the motion of the river, with Erich Heckel’s “Canal in Winter” from 1913-14, depicting the heavy, dark lines of the trees arching, standing in snow-covered banks in Berlin’s Tiergarten.
Special attention was given to women, both as artists and subjects, said Ms. Wesenberg, who included works by lesser-known female Impressionists, such as a picture of a Parisian courtyard, “Houses in Montmartre” by Maria Slavona, and a portrait of a woman standing before a mirror in “The Cheval Glass” by Berthe Morisot.
Throughout the sections, the motif of the self-confident, urban woman as she moves through the city and sits by herself appears frequently in the renderings of the Impressionists, as well as the Expressionists. Ms. Wesenberg noted how the woman featured in Manet’s “In the Conservatory,” from 1878-79, with her detached gaze and umbrella pointed toward her husband, was considered scandalous at the time.
“Every form of art is contemporary in its own time,” said Mr. Demandt. “We need to remember that and perhaps this exhibition serves as a gentle reminder that some pieces that seem opaque or strange today, will be seen very differently in 10 or 15 years.”
Katarina Johannsen contributed reporting.
Source: The New York Times