LACMA's 'Expressionism in Germany and France' an edifying mix

 LACMA's 'Expressionism in Germany and France' an edifying mix
The LACMA show includes “The Eagle’s Beak, La Ciotat” by little-known French artist Othon Friesz. (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

When German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared in 1882 that "Gott ist tot" — God is dead — he could not have known that he was codifying a social and cultural transformation that a generation later would manifest itself in astounding developments in painting, sculpture and the graphic arts.

The age of objective science was booming. Established moral structures of the church were losing their age-old defining authority. Within a generation, an art of deeply personal subjectivity would come to fill a yawning void.


Expressionism, the movement came to be called. Today, subjectivity as a driving motivation for art is pretty much a given.

The artistic impulse flourished in the decade before the collapse of Europe into the brutal chaos of World War I. Perhaps no 20th century art is more closely identified with a single nation than Expressionist art is with Germany.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, that relationship is now being put under a microscope. Is the connection between the art and the nationality sound? Or is it misleading?

And if the tight bond between this art and one nation is found to be, if not exactly false or at least not the full story, how did it come to be?

The show's title gives a clue. Timothy O. Benson, curator at the Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies at LACMA, has called it "Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky." That certainly mixes things up.

France is not Germany, although the border between them has changed more times than Sean Combs' name. Nor were the show's headliners German.

Vincent van Gogh was from a small town in provincial Holland while his paintings didn't fully mature until he was working in southern Europe near the Mediterranean coast. Wassily Kandinsky, who transformed Expressionism from a figurative genre into an abstract one, was born in Moscow and grew up in Ukraine, in the Black Sea port of Odessa.

Even the term "Expressionism" was first used by an eminent British critic. Roger Fry was writing in reference to a 1910 London exhibition about the influence of Edouard Manet on French Post-Impressionist painters at the 19th century's end.

France, Holland, Russia, Britain — German Expressionism plainly emerged within a cosmopolitan stew that was bubbling far beyond Dresden, Berlin and Munich.

LACMA's exhibition includes 81 paintings and dozens of works on paper (drawings, prints, books and some photographs). It asks two basic questions. First, where did Expressionism come from? And second, how did it relate to national boundaries?

The answer is that Expressionism emerged in the widespread engagement with — and often reaction against — French Impressionism of the 1870s and 1880s. Where once Impressionism had been the leading edge of European avant-garde painting, by the dawn of the new century it had come to define art's status quo.

Monet, still at work, was the establishment. Manet, dead for nearly a generation, was a virtual Old Master.

Artists unleashed

Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism — wave after wave of artistic ideas from Paris broke on Berlin's shores. The show opens with Modern French paintings acquired by collectors and museums in Germany. German artists, understandably tired of not being given the time of day, finally had enough. It's a story familiar to locales outside any powerful center for the production and distribution of important new art.

In 1905, Fritz Bleyl (1880-1966), Erich Heckel (1883-1970), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976) formed Die Brucke — the Bridge — as a Dresden avant-garde painters group with a mission. Emil Nolde (1867–1956) and Max Pechstein (1881–1955) joined soon after.

Except for Nolde they were all kids, the oldest barely 25.

To oversimplify a bit, these young German painters kept the French feeling for color and threw away the rest. Color's irrational, unruly powers, which they felt were being restrained by stuffy, bourgeois proprieties, were unleashed.

The "bridge" they meant their art to build stretched from past to present — from the anguished bodily distortions of medieval Gothic sculpture to the stylish, pleasure-seeking denizens of urban boulevards; from the great German tradition of carved woodcut prints to the emotional tensions of convulsive modern experience.

The female nude, sometimes adolescent, became a common pictorial muse, representing the hoped-for birth of a secular spirituality and a more open, less straight-laced society. As in an almost primitive vision of an awkward young girl surrounded by fresh-cut flowers in voluptuous vases, painted by Paula Modersohn-Becker around 1907, their bridge faced the future.

Visitors who come to LACMA attracted by the title's celebrity names might be in for disappointment. For every Van Gogh there is a Paul Baum, for every Kandinsky an Adolf Erbsloh. This is a scholarly show, not a blockbuster entertainment. The minor accompanies the major, including sometimes minor work by major artists.

Don't get me wrong: The flat planes of intense color in Kandinsky's landscapes show him working toward an important study for a critical series of abstract paintings, while Van Gogh's landscape of bare willows at sunset is a blazing marvel. Yet the Kandinsky paintings stop short of his greatest artistic adventures in Expressionist abstraction, while the gorgeous Van Gogh is small (barely a foot square).

Plus, there are wonderful surprises, like the Modersohn-Becker. A street bathed in early morning light by Schmidt-Rottluff, a perennially under-recognized painter, trembles on the brink of total abstraction. Thick, aggressive stabs of paint give body to the fleeting dappled light within Christian Rohlf's "Birch Forest," while Othon Friesz, little known in the United States, transforms a grove of trees by the water into a rainbow grid that seems an unlikely marriage of Cezanne and Matisse. The piercing tones of opera are carried by a composition aflame with color in a magnificent portrait of a singer by Dutch-born Kees van Dongen.

Most specific works were chosen for the good reason that they were among those seen and displayed in influential exhibitions or made in response to them. Van Gogh's fine 1889 "Poplars at Saint-Remy" (one of four paintings and an ink drawing) was in his first Berlin gallery show. Edouard Vuillard's big, Symbolist garden landscape was in a prominent private collection in Germany's Ruhr Valley.

It can be disconcerting to encounter something like a prominent, rather pedestrian canvas of dock workers by the relatively obscure anarchist artist Maximilien Luce while, tucked around a corner, Paul Cezanne's monumentalizing "Peasant in a Blue Smock" is a knockout. But the effect is salutary: This is an exhibition about the way art actually works, incrementally moving along, rather than a grand-standing masterpiece display.

LACMA has a stellar track record in shows exploring Modern German art. This one was organized by the museum with the Kunsthaus Zürich and in collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where it travels next.

The catalog, which will be of interest primarily to scholars, suggests that the devastating legacy of German nationalism in the First and, especially, Second World Wars is a prime reason that we now see Expressionist art as intimately bound up with the state — even though National Socialism regarded Modern art as degenerate. The case for artists' embrace of international cosmopolitanism as pivotal to Expressionism's emergence is well made.


Masterpiece 'Entry'


Coincidentally, that point is further underscored by "The Scandalous Art of James Ensor," a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The show is built around the Belgian painter's claustrophobic, dissonant, raucously monumental picture of a street carnival — a painting that predicts the entry of Christ into Brussels a year into the future.

Talk about a "bridge." Not only is this the most important Modern painting in Los Angeles and one of the greatest works in the Getty's collection, Ensor's Belgian "Entry" is arguably the first Expressionist masterpiece.

Painted in 1888, its parade of masked grotesques ushering the Savior into the city amid boisterous scenes of wild depravity is a subjective howl in the face of conformist complacency. It predates what emerged in Germany by more than 15 years.

The Getty show features 34 paintings plus 80 drawings, prints and photographs. Among them are "Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise" (1887) and "The Fall of the Rebel Angels" (1889) — great, apocalyptic smears and scrapes of color that are shockingly close to being total abstractions. They up the ante on J.M.W. Turner's light-blasted paintings of torrential rain and locomotive steam.

A third startling work, this one a small 1891 panel-painting, is revealing. "Man of Sorrows" merges traditional bloody pictures of a tortured Jesus with the beastly masks of Japanese Noh dramas and the laughing demons in Katsushika Hokusai's prints. On a paint-scratched panel, a cross-cultural self-portrait of a suffering artist blares from the brutalized face.

"Gott ist tot" — Nietszche's utterance from just a few years before takes on a grim significance. "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889" twists Georges Seurat's sunny French promenade, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," from a celebration of middle-class vivacity into a stark indictment. Ensor assumes the role of artist as sacrificial lamb and martyr, his subjectivity a painterly juggernaut.

Twitter: @KnightLAT