Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow until August 25th
In the beginning was the woodcut. So said art historian Gustav Hartlaub in his Die neue Deutsche Grafik volume in 1920. It’s a suitably dramatic epithet immortalised at the start of this major retrospective of an era-defining burst of energy that captured the disaffected and ever so slightly lost spirit of a defeated Germany following the First World War and the failed revolution of 1918-19. The products of the cultural coup it prompted and gathered here are the result.
With multiple editions now possible beyond painting, the more democratised artform of woodcuts and lithographs were disseminated with the last-gasp urgency of something subversive being passed around in the after-hours shadows of the short-lived Weimar republic.
Gathered together largely from the Hunterian’s own collection, it’s a black and white world that is occupied here behind the monumental headings of each section. ‘LOVE AND ANXIETY’; ‘A BRIDGE TO UTOPIA’; ‘CONFLICT AND DESPAIR. The stakes are high, the drama intense.
The only brighter colours come in two works by Austrian painter Marie-Louise von Motesiczky that predate her tutelage under one of expressionism’s unwilling figureheads, Max Beckmann, and an exhibition poster by Gabriele Munter. Even these seem pale and washed-out by the societal sickness that rumbles throughout much of the work on show by the likes of Beckmann and Otto Dix.
Any exhibition of expressionism wouldn’t be a show without Munch, and there are other familiar names, including Picasso, Goya and Gauguin. There is even a fleeting appearance by an on-the-make Egon Schiele.
A stark sombreness pervades throughout. Figures are all angles, their faces blank or else pinched and flint-eyed, their body language contorted, so razor-sharp elbows jut out like weapons hiding in plain sight. It’s as if survivors of the Great War had come stumbling onto the streets, shell-shocked after the blast, but the damage already done in a world set to explode once more in a fervour of political, moral and sexual taboo-busting.
In their messy immediacy, some of the publications archived here are almost punk in execution, as, finally, we get straight to ‘HELL’, Beckmann’s twelve-print cycle of ‘impressively grim’ images of the collective fallout.
As darkly incendiary as this mix of emotional nihilism, existential dread and oppositionist provocation might have been, like all revolutions, it was never going to last. Soon the soul-baring howls would be silenced, and much here would be deemed degenerate. The storm clouds may have already been gathering, but for a fleeting moment, the expressionist revolution could vent its spleen beneath them.
Scottish Art News, May 2019.