Art Dictionary

Brücke

Otto Müller,

Otto Müller, "Two Negro Girls", 1928, detail

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On June 7, 1905, four young students from Dresden founded the artists´ group Die Brücke (The Bridge). Their goal was to discover new forms of visual expression, using bold strokes and ecstatic colors; this was the birth of German Expressionism.

»With faith in progress and in a new generation of creators and spectators we call together all youth. As youth, we carry the future and want to create for ourselves freedom of life and movement against long-established older forces. Everyone who reproduces that which drives him to creation with directness and authenticity belongs to us.« (From the program of Die Brücke, 1906)

One hundred years ago, on June 7, 1905, four architecture students—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976), Fritz Bleyl (1880–1966), and Erich Heckel (1883–1970)—founded an artists´ group in Dresden and named it Die Brücke (The Bridge). The metaphor, which they presumably borrowed from Nietzsche´s Zarathustra, heralded a quest for new, uncharted shores in art. Die Brücke, which would exert a significant influence on the development of art in the twentieth century, saw itself as the organ of a revolt among young artists against academic art and its inflexible, mannered poses and the bourgeois conservatism of the Wilhelminian period. It sought to enlist all revolutionary elements in the struggle to achieve creative freedom for the younger generation. By 1908, the artists had developed a characteristic style and, in doing so, raised German art to eye level with the international avant-garde.

Collaboration with other, like-minded artists was a fundamental principle of Die Brücke. In 1906, two prominent artists, Max Pechstein (1881–1955) and Emil Nolde (1867–1956), joined the group. Nolde left the group just several months later, however, followed by Fritz Bleyl in 1907. Pechstein stayed on until 1912 before moving over to the Berlin Secession. Other members included Otto Mueller (1874–1930) and such lesser-known painters as Cuno Amiet (1868–1961), Lambertus Zijl (1866–1947), Axel Gallén-Kallela (1865–1931), and Bohumil Kubista (1884–1918). Their involvement was limited to participation in occasional exhibitions. Though invited several times to join the group, Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch refused to become members.

The artists of Die Brücke opposed the dominant Impressionist movement with a highly expressive, emotional painting style. The painters found sources of inspiration in German medieval, Renaissance, and Jugendstil art. They greatly admired such artists as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat, whose work they had seen at exhibitions in Dresden. After returning from a stay in France, Pechstein spoke with enthusiasm of the Fauves and their storms of color. Kirchner found wooden figures from the South Pacific, carved beams from the Palau islands, and masks from the Bismarck Archipelago at the Museum of Ethnology in Dresden. Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein were later inspired by these discoveries to travel to the South Pacific.

The artists found essential means of expression in the magic of these »primitive« works, from which they developed a surface-oriented, dynamic, painting style characterized by vivid color contrasts. Yet they revolutionized not only painting but the graphic arts as well. The drawing, the sketch and especially the woodcut, which was used primarily in industrial and commercial graphic art at the time, played an important role in the art of Die Brücke.

In an age in which Emperor Wilhelm II criticized the work of modern artists as nothing more than »gutter art,« the rebels of Die Brücke boldly questioned established art forms and old-fashioned concepts of morality. Their aim was to achieve a new unity of art and life that would serve as an expression of the inner life of the world and the subjective sensibilities of the individual artist. They developed a spontaneous, impulsive painting style, separating color from the model of nature, radically simplifying form, dispensing for the most part with academic proportions and traditional perspectives, emphasizing the flat surface, and distorting pictorial space.

They found their motifs in the countryside around Dresden. The nude—originally a symbol of uncivilized and therefore untainted nature—was the foundation of all visual art in the eyes of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the other members of Die Brücke. From the very beginning, they drew so-called »fifteen-minute nudes,« in which they attempted to capture the essence of their models spontaneously. Kirchner and Heckel spent considerable time with their models at the Moritzburg ponds between 1909 und 1911, bathing in the nude, drawing their models in natural, mobile poses, and practicing an uninhibited lifestyle. It was here that they realized their concepts of a harmonious unity of art and life in nature and unfettered naturalness in their nude studies. The products of these refreshing artistic summer excursions were sketches and paintings of bathers as well as landscape paintings. The nude remained important to these artists even in the years following the dissolution of Die Brücke. In the wake of the horrors of the First World War, it became a symbol of a lost Arcadia and a humane image of mankind. Other important motifs included portraits and studio, street, and variété scenes.

Despite their bohemian lifestyles and artistic ideals, Die Brücke artists were clearly success-oriented and managed their joint marketing program with a great deal of imagination. While their first exhibition in 1905 attracted little attention, the second show in 1906 raised a scandal. Critics focused especially on Kichner´s paintings, with their nervous, aggressive brushwork and erotic motifs. The inner circle of the group was supported by passive members who provided capital in the form of annual dues. In return, Die Brücke offered a portfolio of prints featuring woodcuts, etchings, and lithographs which illustrated the most important new developments and stylistic elements. And thus the group attracted the attention of collectors as early as 1907–08. By 1910, Die Brücke had sixty-eight passive members, several of whom, like Rosa Schapire, were art historians. As a means of advertising their own work, Die Brücke artists organized a total of ninety exhibitions in Germany and abroad. One of their most effective advertising tools was the recently rediscovered woodcut, which was used for posters, membership cards, and invitations and thus became a hallmark of the group.

Pechstein moved to Berlin in 1908 and founded the Neue Secession in 1910. At first, Die Brücke joined en bloc. Kirchner, Heckel, and Schmidt-Rottluff also moved to the German capital in 1911. Although the artists continued to work on their nude and nature studies on the Baltic Sea coast, in such towns as Fehmarn, Nidden, and Rowe, their style began to change under the influence of the life in the metropolis and their exposure to Cubism and Futurism. The first sign of a rift appeared in 1912, when Pechstein left the group, complaining that he felt restricted in his freedom to exhibit when and where he wished. The final dispute came in 1913 and was triggered by Kirchner´s texts for the Die Brücke chronicle, which were intended to document the history of the artists´ group. The other members rejected them as too subjective. By that time, however, the members of Die Brücke had long since outgrown the group and developed independent artistic personalities of their own.

Die Brücke artists remained a part of the controversial avant-garde during the early years of the Weimar Republic. Although influential museum directors, publicists, and politicians spoke out on their behalf, substantial portions of the population and the political community were staunchly opposed to modern art. During the Third Reich, many Expressionist works were destroyed or confiscated and deliberately exposed to public ridicule at the infamous »Degenerate Art« exhibition in Munich in 1937. These works did not gain recognition as icons of modern art until after World War II.

16.08.2005 Monika Wolz

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