The Long Dark Night: German Expressionism 1914-1945

Germany between WWI and WWII was a country under the shadow of revolution and radicalism. From the cultural sophistication of the Weimar Republic to the rise of Nazism, early 20th century Germany experienced unprecedented rises and falls. With its political and social climate undergoing constant upheaval, the artistic climate gave rise to a period known as Expressionism.

Gippsland Art Gallery, in association with Olsen Irwin Gallery, Sydney, presents ‘The Long Dark Night: German Expressionism 1914-1945’. Curated by Brett Stone and Simon Gregg, the exhibition features original works by Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Conrad Felixmüller, George Grosz, Erich Heckel, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Their works reveal the dramatic reality of life in Germany during the extraordinary period of history between the Wars, exploring key themes of self-portraiture and scenes of everyday life.

From Beckmann to Grosz, artists associated with German Expressionism in the early 20th century depicted the decay of German society in an attempt to play a central role in aesthetic and social renewal. Heavy lines, bold/flat patterns, and expressive geometric forms and pronounced angularity captured the frustration, anxiety, disgust, discontent, and violence of the time. The works generally have a frenetic intensity of feeling in response to the ugliness, the crude banality, and the possibilities and contradictions discerned in modern life. The exhibition’s co-curator, Simon Gregg states these works “resonate with us today because of their primitive and primal subject matter, which delves into the very fabric of humanity.”

Käthe Kollwitz, was greatly affected by the loss of her son on the battlefield in WWI, her prolonged depression evident in her works that depict an expressive and often intense account of the human condition, and the tragedy of war. According to Gregg, her “art was invested with passion, emotion and an extraordinary depth of feeling from the outset. She directed her refined drawing skills to the service of heartfelt renderings of human introspection, fear and longing”. Kollowitz’s harsh textures and preponderance of rich blacks enhance her typically depressive themes through singular images of isolated figures, sometimes accompanied by the shadowy presence of death.

Kollwitz’s Selbstbildnis von vorn (Self Portrait from the Front) (1922-23) confronts the viewer with its direct gaze. Kollwitz’s sense of empathy, and what Gregg calls “her willingness to peer beyond the thin veil of reality”, the portrait offers a glimpse into the artist’s inner thoughts and emotions and the strain they impose on her outer manifestation. “Vicious scrapes from the woodblock produce a face that is haggard but still determined, unflinching and uncompromising. The portraits uncover an accumulation of experiences that leave the face weathered and wizened”, says Gregg. Kollwitz employs hard, sweeping lines to pull the form of her wrinkled, aged forehead around her brow ridge and down through the strong darkness. Her weary eyes give the drawing its strongest area of contrast, which draws the viewer into her beleaguered expression.

“As the German Expressionists demonstrate”, says Gregg, “it is sometimes the art made under the most hostile and difficult conditions that produces the most timeless and evocative statements on the human condition.” ‘The Long Dark Night’ is a collective narrative of the German Expressionist zeitgeist at the time.

Gippsland Art Gallery
20 February to 8 May, 2016