Sunday, March 22, 2009

The garish and provocative Brücke

  When then 15-year-old teen idol Miley Cyrus, of Hannah Montana fame, posed semi-nude for Vanity Fair, in 2008, young fans and parents were in an uproar.

Her Disney Channel avatar of a regular school girl by day and a pop star by night took a beating, leading to apologies by the young performer.

When I saw the painting "Marzella (Fränzi)," 1909-10, left, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) of a naked 9-year-old girl at the Neue Galerie exhibition of Brücke: The Birth of Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin 1905-1913, I wondered what some conservative and even more liberal Germans at the beginning of the 20th century thought when they saw the picture. Although Fränzi crosses her legs and modestly covers her private parts, the big, white, innocent bow in her hair seems to accentuate the absence of her attire. Is this pornography, exploitation of a young girl or an artist pushing convention by presenting without judgment a vision of pre-nubility in a female youth?

The question is as relevant today as it must have been then. What do we think of as acceptable in aesthetics or taste and why do these ideas change or stay the same?

The small group of communally-living German artists in the Brücke, which means bridge in German, wanted to create art that would serve as a link from the art of the past to the art of the future. "Drawing on diverse sources, ranging from medieval woodcuts to African and Oceanic art, the artists fused these influences into a highly distinctive style," the press material says. "Through their art, they sought to restore a sense of value and unity in a fragmenting world." They become the predecessors of German Expressionism, an art exploring pure emotional expression.

What is so interesting about the the Brücke and the many other artists in Europe and America working in the early 20th century--following on the work of post-Impressionists--is how they forever revolutionized Western art. A Renaissance-based view of reality in art would now become only one of alternative means of depiction. For example, the wild beast Fauves in France, inspired by Van Gogh, used brush strokes of pure colors to shape forms, with a minimal attempt at blending, similar to the Brücke artists. Arthur Dove in America was painting pure abstraction.

Also like the Brücke, contemporary cubists in France were paying homage to images of beauty from other cultures, such as Africa. Pablo Picasso's "Demoisselles D'Avignon," 1907, was inspired by African masks, El Greco and Iberian art. Demoisselles also confronted middle class values of propriety, by portraying prostitutes and sexuality, at least from a male artist's perspective.

The Neue Galerie exhibition, the first major showing of Brücke artists in the United States, divides the 100 or so works mainly into street, nature and studio-based imagery. Many of the paintings use psychedelically bright colors together, such as red and green, or pinks and yellows, that have absolutely no place in nature, in reality. The distorted houses and chaotic street scenes, see right, Kirchner, "Berlin Street Scene" (Berliner Strassenszene), 1913-14 Oil on canvas, Neue Galerie New York and Private Collection, are not urbane and sophisticated but humanity pushing, scraping and rushing up against each other in crowded environments. The faces of people in the portraits peer directly at the viewer, not in a posed or calm manner. Even a pink lighthouse in a rural enviroment does not seem to provide solace from a possible storm.

The images are disturbing. They are challenging. They are provocative. They are garish. The fervency of the time is quite apparent. The confrontation of international and socioceonomic cultures, uncertainty about the future, an attempt to create new identities, and the resulting angst are omnipresent in these paintings. The resulting feelings, we a hundred years later, can certainly relate to.

(Images courtesy the Neue Galerie, "Marzella (Fränzi)," from Moderna Museet, Stockholm.)

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