Van Gogh and his in­flu­ence on Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ism

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Will Stone

The first artists to em­brace Van Gogh’s rad­i­cal­ism and ges­ture fra­ter­nally were those who made up the Brücke group, founded in 1905 in Dres­den by Ernst Lud­wig Kirch­ner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Sch­midtRot­tluf. Their heady re­la­tion­ship with Van Gogh was ig­nited by a se­ries of ex­hi­bi­tions of his works in Ger­many in 1905 and 1908. A fe­ro­cious frontal as­sault in terms of colour and tech­nique em­ployed by the mav­er­ick Dutch­man left them reel­ing and each mem­ber of the group was to a lesser or greater ex­tent in­fected. The imag­i­na­tively pow­er­ful and un­com­pro­mis­ing works of these artists are rife with ref­er­ences to Van Gogh, some ob­vi­ous, oth­ers less so. The Blaue Reiter, ac­tive from 1911 to 1914, wit­nessed Van Gogh’s revo­lu­tion­ary works in Paris. Re­turn­ing to their base in Mu­nich, artists such as Wass­ily Kandin­sky, Au­guste Macke and Franz Marc showed signs of ab­sorb­ing his rich palette and emo­tional ex­pres­sive­ness. Van Gogh reached the ex­hi­bi­tion halls of Vi­enna in 1903 and 1906, shock­ing lo­cal artists with his dar­ing in­no­va­tion. Land­scapes and self-por­traits by the likes of Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka par­tic­u­larly, ex­ude the in­tense psy­chol­ogy and emo­tive dis­in­hi­bi­tion of Van Gogh.

But how was it that Van Gogh, the man out of time, the tor­tured soli­tary of leg­end be­came, along with Nor­we­gian ‘ex­ile’ Ed­vard Munch, an icon for a whole gen­er­a­tion of Ger­man artists? Partly, per­haps, be­cause Dutch na­tive tra­di­tions sat more com­fort­ably along­side the self-prob­ing Ger­man soul than that of the more ob­jec­tive im­pres­sion­is­tic French painters. Also, as the Ger­man poet Ernst Blass stated; Van Gogh’s art, like the writ­ings of Ni­et­zsche, stood for ‘ex­pres­sion and ex­pe­ri­ence as op­posed to im­pres­sion and nat­u­ral­ism. Blaz­ing con­cen­tra­tion, youth­ful sin­cer­ity, im­me­di­acy, depth, ex­hi­bi­tion and hal­lu­ci­na­tion’. Van Gogh’s art clearly echoed the Ger­man psy­che more than the French, though the artist him­self would never have sus­pected this, be­ing so closely af­fil­i­ated

to the nat­u­ral­ist ideal of mak­ing an im­pres­sion of ob­served na­ture in paint. The Ex­pres­sion­ists, bear­ing the ide­al­is­tic torch of No­valis and Hölder­lin, were highly sub­jec­tive artists, unswerv­ingly neo-ro­man­tic yet sat­u­rated with mod­ern angst. Their hero in paint was Matthias Grünewald whose Christ hangs in the Issen­heim monastery at Col­mar in Al­sace. Grünewald’s grue­some cal­varies were re­dis­cov­ered by the Sym­bol­ist gen­er­a­tion, who avidly ab­sorbed Huys­man’s fa­mous es­say on the Issen­heim paint­ing, but their Ex­pres­sion­ist de­scen­dants found even more to ex­cite them in the lurid no holes barred graphic de­pic­tion of Christ cru­ci­fied, so at odds with the con­ven­tional ide­alised im­ages of the cru­ci­fix­ion, both be­fore it and since. In this hideously con­torted, overly mus­cu­lar body of a sickly pu­tres­cent green, riven with sup­pu­rat­ing wounds, bristling with splin­ters and thorns from the scourg­ing, the Ex­pres­sion­ists saw the ge­nius of a rad­i­cal mas­ter sig­nalling all the more pow­er­fully for be­ing ma­rooned on an ice floe of his­tory.

In their bid to dis­til emo­tion through paint, the Ex­pres­sion­ists felt com­pelled to con­cre­tise feel­ings and fears in the most ex­plicit man­ner. They were not afraid to dis­tort what had gone be­fore, to dis­rupt the ac­cepted and ex­pected chan­nels be­tween ob­server and can­vas. Not only their ex­u­ber­ant paint ap­pli­ca­tion, the un­con­ven­tional use of colours, but also the skewed lines, the elon­gated heads and gi­ant an­gu­lar raw hands be­came the trade mark sign of the re­quire­ment to ex­tend re­al­ity in or­der to ex­press anx­i­ety. Their po­liter coun­ter­parts, the French Fau­vists were ob­sessed by the nu­ances of colour and light. They too were in­flu­enced by Van Gogh, but prin­ci­pally in terms of tech­nique, whilst the Ex­pres­sion­ists – mainly Ger­man, but a few no­table French and Bel­gium artists too – drew on a much deeper psy­cho­log­i­cal source in Van Gogh’s art. But it was not only painters who seized on Van Gogh and saw in him a kin­dred spirit. Po­ets of the Ex­pres­sion­ist pe­riod such as Ge­org Heym or Got­tfried Benn and most no­tably the play­wright Carl Stern­heim, were se­duced by Van Gogh’s ascetic, darkly ro­man­tic ex­is­tence, the un­re­strained hon­esty in the an­guished self-por­traits. As they strug­gled to por­tray the feral re­al­i­ties un­der­ly­ing the civilised mod­ern me­trop­o­lis, of­ten through a stylis­ti­cally mor­bid lan­guage, they saw in Van Gogh their own com­mit­ment to truth be­ing flu­ently ex­er­cised upon can­vas.

Their painterly con­tem­po­raries in­ter­preted the new po­etry, in turn tak­ing their cue from Van Gogh. Works by Kirch­ner such as Nol­len­dorf­platz of 1912, show­ing the tram-choked streets of Berlin as com­pressed, Pi­rane­sian labyrinths of hu­man anx­i­ety and in­dig­nity, clearly echo the un­flinch­ingly apoc­a­lyp­tic Demons of the Cities po­ems of Heym pub­lished the same year.

Berlin gallery owner Paul Cas­sirer was piv­otal in bring­ing Van Gogh to the at­ten­tion of the Brücke group. He or­gan­ised no less than ten shows around Van Gogh in the cap­i­tal, as well as a trav­el­ling ex­hi­bi­tion which reached Dres­den in 1905. These shows cul­mi­nated in the im­por­tant 1912 ex­hi­bi­tion in Cologne where Van Gogh took cen­tre stage. Along with the surge in in­ter­est in Van Gogh’s art came the fas­ci­na­tion with his haz­ardous ex­is­tence. The re­jec­tion of the city and move to the south, the tem­pes­tu­ous re­la­tion­ship with Gau­guin in Ar­les, the self-de­struc­tive episodes, the even­tual sui­ci­dal at­tempt, the lonely exit from a lethal self-wound­ing, all con­vinced the next gen­er­a­tion of artists that this man was the epit­ome of the un­com­pro­mis­ing anti-bour­geois hero. They hailed Van Gogh as the thorn that, at first un­de­tected, had fa­tally in­fected the es­tab­lished or­ders of nat­u­ral­ism and im­pres­sion­ism – and as the lone vi­sion­ary who had mar­tyred him­self for the truth of feel­ing in art.

This iconic sta­tus was un­der­pinned by two key pub­li­ca­tions. Firstly, the re­veal­ing and richly il­lus­trated let­ters of the artist which found their way by swift trans­la­tion into the hands of sym­pa­thetic artists all over Europe from 1914 on­wards. Re­sponses to the let­ters were over­whelm­ing in their praise. The Art His­to­rian Werner Haupt­mann en­thused that here was a man ‘for­ever on the brink of the abyss, court­ing dis­as­ter’ and praised his ‘self-de­struc­tive ven­ture’, which sought to ‘es­tab­lish a new re­la­tion be­tween man and ob­ject through in­ner ten­sion’. The se­cond in­gre­di­ent was the sem­i­nal bi­og­ra­phy by art critic and Van Gogh col­lec­tor Julius Meier-Graefe, which did more than any other pub­li­ca­tion to pop­u­larise the leg­end of Van Gogh. MeierGraefe who had hung out at the no­to­ri­ous ‘Black Piglet’ café in Berlin with es­tranged north­ern va­grants Munch and Strind­berg, was per­fectly placed to usher Van Gogh in as high priest to the new Eu­ro­pean artis­tic fer­ment. The two vol­ume edi­tion of Meier-Graefe’s Van Gogh bi­og­ra­phy, which

ap­peared in 1921, in­formed a whole gen­er­a­tion of artists and writ­ers and set the frame­work for the global adu­la­tion of Van Gogh.

Ini­tially it was the fren­zied brush­work of Van Gogh that ap­pealed to the Brücke artists. Later the in­ten­sity of colour took over. But above all it was the wounded hu­man­ism, un­flinch­ing truth and grav­ity of pur­pose in Van Gogh’s vi­sion that fired these artists. They saw him as a blaz­ing comet all too soon ex­pired, a sud­den in­fu­sion of blood in the dry corpse of tra­di­tion, a chisel to the aca­demic crust that had formed around paint­ing, the an­ti­dote to all they de­spised. In Heckel’s Con­va­les­cent Woman (1912), for ex­am­ple, one sees the artist’s re­ac­tion to the hec­tic and pul­veris­ing life of metropoli­tan Berlin. The sickly woman is off­set by a vase of sun­flow­ers just like those of Van Gogh, which seem to send out a mes­sage of warmth and hope, re­plen­ish­ment to the spirit from a to­ken im­mer­sion in na­ture. Heckel’s works take Van Gogh’s tech­nique and push it to ex­tremes, caus­ing con­tours to shud­der and drift with an en­ergy that lit­er­ally pulses from the thickly ap­plied colours. Max Pech­stein, an­other key Brücke fig­ure, also re­sponds to Van Gogh with his im­pos­ing Young Woman with a Red Fan of 1910. Red is the dom­i­nant force here, over­whelm­ing the sit­ter’s hands, her cheeks and lips. Colour slips the traces of its con­tain­ment within strict lines, mov­ing freely across the can­vas to im­bue the paint­ing with an ex­pres­sive life.

Of the Brücke group it was surely Kirch­ner though who most clearly iden­ti­fied with Van Gogh, both emo­tion­ally and in his some­times dis­turb­ing sub­ject mat­ter. This is most em­phat­i­cally dis­played in Self-Por­trait as a Sol­dier from 1915, which one can com­pare with Van Gogh’s fa­mous Self Por­trait with Ban­daged Ear (1889) and also of course Munch’s Self Por­trait with Skele­ton Arm (1895). Here, Kirch­ner por­trays him­self in his sol­dier’s uni­form after be­ing dis­charged from the army with ner­vous ex­haus­tion, but with a neat blood­ied stump in place of a right hand - an imag­ined am­pu­ta­tion that echoes the very real ear wound of Van Gogh and ju­di­ciously salutes the mas­ter. The com­po­si­tion of the pic­ture is also rem­i­nis­cent of Van Gogh, as are the jaun­diced shades of yel­low and faded ochre. Like other artist vic­tims pass­ing through the in­dis­crim­i­nat­ing abat­toir of mod­ern war­fare,

Kirch­ner some­how sur­vived in body, but was ul­ti­mately psy­cho­log­i­cally frac­tured. The ex­pe­ri­ence of de­hu­man­i­sa­tion so ex­plic­itly pro­vided by the con­flict was to de­ter­mine the re­main­der of Kirch­ner’s work. He again clearly refers to Van Gogh in a se­ries of prints from 1915 fea­tur­ing the fig­ure of Peter Sch­lemihl, a char­ac­ter from a tra­di­tional story who sells his shadow to the devil. The Van Gogh donor is The Painter on the Road to Taras­con from 1888, now sadly lost. Here the painter is the sub­ject, fac­ing him­self as in a mir­ror on a sun-bleached high­way in ru­ral Provence. Bot­tom right his shadow stands like a sin­is­ter dop­pel­gänger, primed to dis­en­gage com­pletely from the soli­tary artist trudg­ing up the road with his cane and ruck­sack. A feel­ing of alien­ation is height­ened by the va­cant ex­panse of scorch­ing wheat fields and trees, which, caught in the fur­nace of mid­day, cast no re­liev­ing shadow. Kirch­ner’s Sch­lemihl prints show Peter as he tries in vain to grasp his flee­ing shadow, a drama that res­onates with the Van Gogh com­po­si­tion, but which leaves a sin­is­ter af­ter­taste and a la­tent sense of de­range­ment.

The artists of the Blauer Reiter, who de­vel­oped into a truly in­ter­na­tional group, sought a the­ory of ‘spir­i­tual art’ and in­creas­ingly moved to­wards ab­strac­tion, most fa­mously ex­em­pli­fied by the work of Kandin­sky. The lesser-known Alexj Von Jawlen­sky how­ever looked to Van Gogh for a unique ‘hal­lu­ci­na­tory psy­chic in­ten­sity’ through colour. Por­traits like The Olive Grove of 1907, clearly shout Van Gogh, but it is in the un­set­tling Por­tait of Marie Cas­tel from 1906 that this artist shows the most ex­plicit in­flu­ence. The colours which make up the face seem as if on the point of col­lapse but hold on just enough to com­mu­ni­cate the in­ner life of the sit­ter. With streaks of oil roug­ing her cheeks and the heavy stripe ef­fect of the brush­work giv­ing her skin the ap­pear­ance of fur, she ap­pears with the twin points of her bon­net ei­ther side of her head like fe­line ears, a bizarre fu­sion of cat and hu­man.

Kandin­sky gen­er­ally es­chews the or­gias­tic, pre­fer­ring a cooler ap­proach more re­moved from Van Gogh’s ha­bit­ual fevered in­ten­sity. How­ever, Kandin­sky’s early work clearly owes a debt to Van Gogh, though one senses Munch to be a bolder pres­ence. Works like Mur­nau Street with Women (1908) and Mur­nau Street with Horse­drawn Car­riage (1909)

show a spir­ited break­ing free from con­ven­tion. Here, as in the Pech­stein just dis­cussed and the work of Nolde and Marc, colours breach the the con­tours of their ob­jects cre­at­ing a blur­ring and shift­ing that is also rem­i­nis­cent of the dream in­fused works of Odilon Re­don. Au­guste Macke too has clearly been im­mersed in Van Gogh. The de­cep­tively bland ti­tle of Veg­etable Fields from 1911 be­lies an un­canny skewed land­scape where, in Macke’s hands, two roads be­come bold pink ar­ter­ies bi­sect­ing fields of colour-in­fected crops. Haystacks shin­ing with hal­lu­ci­na­tory in­tent seem a mys­te­ri­ous pre­his­toric or alien man­i­fes­ta­tion. An­other Blauer Reiter artist, Franz Marc, seek­ing an ab­so­lute truth from na­ture, also found in­spi­ra­tion in Van Gogh. To him the rare dis­cov­ery of the pulse of a tree or of the mus­cle tre­mor of an an­i­mal was paramount. A ma­jor break­through came with Cats on a Red Cloth in 1910. It’s not so much the cats them­selves but the choppy corkscrew brush­strokes in the fram­ing gar­den bor­der above them that re­veals Van Gogh’s in­flu­ence. Marc un­der­stood that Van Gogh had tried to ex­press the ‘ter­ri­ble pas­sions of hu­man­ity’ through his colours (for ex­am­ple the reds and greens of the fa­mous Night Café in Ar­les), and he knew that ex­pres­sion was far more im­por­tant for a mod­ern artist than mere rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Like Berlin, Vi­enna re­ceived the shock of Van Gogh early in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. Vi­enna nur­tured an emerg­ing avant-garde, draw­ing in mu­si­cians, artists and writ­ers fired by the work of Munch, Cézanne and Van Gogh. And as across the bor­der in Ger­many, it was the life of Van Gogh re­vealed through his bi­og­ra­phy and let­ters that seized the imag­i­na­tion of a gen­er­a­tion. Oskar Kokoschka and Richard Ger­stl are two painters whose self-por­traits show best the ex­pres­sive hall­marks of Van Gogh. Kokoschka con­sid­ered Van Gogh a buf­fer against what he saw as ‘the dan­gers of ab­strac­tion’, a link to hu­man­ism and a coax­ing of truth through in­tense scru­tiny of the sub­ject. His with­er­ing por­traits such as Hirsch as an Old Man and Peter Al­tenberg from 1909 are un­com­pro­mis­ing in their de­ter­mi­na­tion to se­cure the in­ner life of the sit­ter as felt by the artist. Hirsch is an un­flat­ter­ing semi-corpse, al­ready on the way to decay but the flesh burn­ing red as if the skin is roar­ing back de­fi­antly against en­su­ing ex­tinc­tion. The hands show the an­gu­lar skele­tal form favoured by Kokoschka’s con­tem­po­rary

Egon Schiele. The eyes are sunk in suc­ces­sive craters of socket, the up­per row of teeth pro­trude in a hideous skull grin be­neath a mous­tache like a mouldy sheaf of corn. (The war-de­formed crip­ples of Dix and Grosz are not far be­hind.) This is not a hor­ror show for shock ef­fect, but a feast of ex­pres­sive pos­si­bil­ity, a de­sire to not let mod­ern man off the hook, to show his post-Ni­et­zschean de­for­mity. Tak­ing his cue from Schöneberg’s mu­si­cal in­no­va­tions, Ger­stl favoured an ex­treme dis­so­lu­tion of form to ex­press his in­ner vi­sion. The first Vi­en­nese artist to ab­sorb Van Gogh’s work, he was close to his mas­ter in life and death – a vul­ner­a­ble poète mau­dit fig­ure who com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1908 aged twenty-five and was soon dubbed ‘the Aus­trian Van Gogh’. But even more than Ger­stl, Schiele iden­ti­fied with the myth and dra­matic episodes in the life of Van Gogh. Schiele was born in the year of Van Gogh’s death and his own work ap­peared in an ex­hi­bi­tion along­side that of Van Gogh in 1909. Schiele de­voured the let­ters and bi­og­ra­phy of the artist and felt a deep fra­ter­nal bond through­out his life.

Un­like many other painters, Schiele was drawn to Van Gogh’s rad­i­cally ex­pres­sive lines and con­tours rather than the use of colour. His im­pul­sive and ruth­lessly hon­est self-por­traits ex­ude a pro­found sense of alien­ation and con­fine­ment. For ex­am­ple, Bed­room in Neu­leng­bach from 1911 clearly echoes the more fa­mous Van Gogh bed­room in Au­vers of 1889. Here though the lines are starker and per­spec­tive more warped, fu­ne­real black and crim­son colours stand out bru­tally over a grubby cream. There is deep sense of fore­bod­ing for the un­for­tu­nate ten­ant of this cramped cham­ber or cell. It is in­ter­est­ing to ob­serve the con­trast with the sunny, buoy­ant, and hope­ful Van Gogh room. But nowhere does Schiele suc­ceed more ex­plic­itly in pay­ing trib­ute to Van Gogh than in his ele­giac and ma­jes­ti­cally mourn­ful de­pic­tion of de­cay­ing sun­flow­ers in Au­tumn Sun, 1914, a paint­ing only mirac­u­lously re-dis­cov­ered in re­cent years. This work, which could just be Schiele’s true mas­ter­piece, is the foil to Van Gogh’s fa­mous Sun­flow­ers beam­ing and writhing with life af­fir­ma­tion from their plump rus­tic vase. Here Schiele sums up with elo­quent poignancy the dev­as­ta­tion and folly of the war that has barely be­gun. Res­onat­ing with the po­etry of his Aus­trian poet con­tem­po­rary Ge­org Trakl, the waxen au­tumn sun bleeds shame­fully into the dirty ban­dage of the sky. A car­pet of tiny blood red blooms speckle

the field be­neath the tow­er­ing stalks of weary, dole­ful, given up seed heads, their list­less cen­tral eye star­ing out ac­cus­ingly. The warm rus­sets and browns of au­tumn are fee­bly back­lit by the pale sun to pro­duce a scene of al­most un­bear­able melan­choly beauty.

It is no sur­prise to find a queue of acolytes for Van Gogh’s fa­mous fi­nal paint­ing Wheat­field with Crows from 1890. Lud­wig Mei­d­ner’s Apoc­a­lyp­tic Land­scape from 1913 shows a wildly con­torted land­scape rent asun­der by con­flict and plunged into hu­man chaos and mad­ness. In the cen­tre a lone fig­ure in sil­hou­ette crouches im­po­tent on the ground as bizarrely elon­gated dwellings twist and shrink back from omi­nous dis­tant ex­plo­sions. These in­fer­nos eas­ily re­call those from Brueghel’s The Tri­umph of Death (1562). Chaos is in the as­cen­dant and a sin­is­ter alien sun burns crim­son with ter­ri­ble per­sis­tence in the aloof­ness of the blue-black fir­ma­ment. Otto Dix also re-in­ter­prets Van Gogh’s wheat field to echo the con­fla­gra­tion loom­ing over Europe in his Sun­rise of 1913. Here, a lonely snowy land­scape fringed by pines re­places the wheat field of sum­mer. In the cen­tre a low sun bursts over the land­scape like an ex­plod­ing shell or flare. Black, yel­low and blue brush­strokes veer into a nim­bus cloud mass roil­ing about the sun’s vi­tal ex­plo­sion as if to neu­tralise it. In the lower fore­ground a flock of black crows head ei­ther away from or to­wards the ris­ing sun. The sym­bol­ism is thick with por­tents of the car­rion to come. The forms of the weighty, sated birds echo the clot­ted grey white fur­rows of the field. All labours to­gether, fat­tened for an un­cer­tain fu­ture dawn, Dix seems to be say­ing. His paint­ing is a coura­geous, rev­er­en­tial and sat­is­fy­ing ex­ten­sion of Van Gogh’s work.

In 1912 at the ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion hall of Cologne where Van Gogh took cen­tre stage, he was in­tro­duced to vis­i­tors as ‘The fa­ther of us all’; a sur­ro­gate Ger­manic artist. Just a few years be­fore, his Self Por­trait with Ban­daged Ear had been mock­ingly de­rided by crit­ics in a Berlin gallery. Gen­er­a­tions of artists have in­ter­preted Van Gogh’s work in the light of their own con­cerns, but few have been as rad­i­cally and or­gan­i­cally in­flu­enced as the Ex­pres­sion­ist gen­er­a­tion, who in the years when hu­man catas­tro­phe as­sumed epic form so dy­nam­i­cally ab­sorbed his vi­sion.

(The works dis­cussed in this es­say can be viewed in the book Van Gogh and Ex­pres­sion­ism by Jill Lloyd, 2007)

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