Today’s trip to Leicester was astonishing. New Walk Museum and Art Gallery has an extensive collection of German Expressionism, but I didn’t expect anything on this scale. The walls are filled with oil paintings, lithographs, etchings, and watercolours, statues are dotted around and there is even a soundscape, video and light show as well.
There were six standout pieces that really appealed for different reasons.
The Red Woman by Franz Marc
Painted in 1912, this was one of the final figure paintings that Marc made. In it, he uses colour as symbol and reveals a humanist response to the traumas civilisation was heaping on mankind.
The notes for this painting described the figure as ” a ‘primative’ woman, untouched by the corruption of civilisation” Although the colours were symbolic: red for matter, brutal and heavy; opposed by the blue meaning severe and spiritual and yellow representing gentle, happy and sensual, what really stood out was the way the colours appreared ‘soft’, blending into each other sending out a gentle message. The body’s curves were reflective of this gentility and it was beautiful to look upon.
Apocalyptic Vision by Ludwig Meidner 1912
Meidner’s almost prophetic telling of the devastation that was to engulf Europe in two years time may be a little far-fetched but Meidner’s work was a wonder. In it, the earth is tearing apart, vegetation is dead and dying and the bodies lie amongst the wreckage of the landscape. It is hard not to link it to what was to occur, especially when you notice the smoking volcano in the top right-hand corner. This destruction of humanity, the pain of the contorted figures, and the palette of black, green and cream come together in a show of what Meidner could see through his studies of the Book of Revelations.
Zusammenbruch (breakdown) by Ludwig von Hoffman
Originally this oil was called The Levelling. The composition of this deminded me of David Bomberg’s ‘The Vision of Ezekiel’, especially this study.
Research has shown that von Hoffman may well have painted this around 1918. It does seem symbolic of destruction of war and the figures’s despair against this terrifying rockface was quite heartbreaking. The terror and desperation seen in each figure could represent the emotion and turmoil of the men who fought in this ‘war to end all wars’. The palette of muted flesh tones made this more representational than Meidner’s work.
The Suicide Machine by Max Slevogt
This was the most harrowing of all the pieces. On the surface it looks quite innocuous; almost like it should appear in a newspaper as an illustration, until you realise what the vending machine is dispensing.
Slevgot was a war artist,but instead of creating the usual pieces of propaganda, he took an anti-war approach. The notes for this is worth quoting in full: “The transformation of the Great War into a brutal mechanised slaughter is given a surreal and ironic twist. Civilians terrified by the prospect of war can line up in a tree-lined boulevard, pay a coin into a vending machine and suddenly be shot dead, just like a real battle. Death makes no distinction of class, the trenchcoat-wearing man in the foreground seconds away from the fate of the well-dressed man a few yards beyond.”
This lithograph brings home the terror for civilians and certainly gives a different slant to traditional depictions of war.
Behind The Church or The Square by Lyonal Feininger
Feininger was associated with a number of expressionist groups. His brush with cubism led him to his distilation of buildings into their component shapes. Again, I was reminded of another artist, Wyndham Lewis and his geometric early work. After the trauma of the previous pieces, there was something soothing and comforting about this work.
Messiah by Ernst Neuschul
This was the most striking work in the room …obviously. Neuschul seems like an interesting character and this self portrait was challenging. His pose and the way he stares out at the viewer with an air of arrogance is in compete consptrast to the background which seemed almost ‘heavenly’. The notes stated that “Ernst Neuschul was a painter of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or ‘New Objectivity movement, which arose in post WW1 Germany. Prior to this between 1919-1926 his interests included Freudian psychoanalysis, sexual liberation, spiritualism and yoga. During this period his paintings featured nudes, dancers or self-absorbed figures either in dark interiors, or dreamlike landscapes.”
With this knowledge, the painting makes more sense and was a wonderful study in the glory of the individual.
For more on the other artists in this collection: http://www.germanexpressionismleicester.org/leicesters-collection/artists-and-artworks/lyonel-feininger/behind-the-church/