February 27, 2009 / 3:08 PM / 10 years ago

Exhibit highlights Brucke and birth of expressionism

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - For a patriotic Germany sounding the trumpet of nationalism in the run-up to World War One a group of artists known as Brucke were out of tune.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's 1908-1919 painting, "Street, Dresden" is displayed during a preview of the "Brucke: The Birth of Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin, 1905-1913" exhibition at the Neue Galerie in New York February 25, 2009. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

But an exhibition of their work, which opened at the Neue Galerie this week, shows how they acted as trailblazers of expressionism and influenced the development of modern art.

“Their style and subjects were scandalous in the context of the Germany of the time,” said Reinhold Heller, the curator of the exhibition.

Founded in 1905 in Dresden, the artists chose the name Brucke, or bridge in German, because “they saw their movement as the bridge to a utopian future,” according to Heller.

They envisioned a utopia with communal work, leafy cities and nudist retreats, as a tonic to the frenzy of urban life.

Challenging Prussian pride in burgeoning Berlin, they depicted the capital of the newly unified German Empire as plagued by industrial grime and stressed dwellers.

They were also at odds with the Kaiser’s championing of patriotic art, often of battle scenes, depicting heroic young men, Heller said.

Instead, Brucke usually portrayed youths as young girls, seen as embodying free spirits.

Organizers of the Neue Galerie show, which is housed in a New York mansion owned by Ronald Lauder, heir of the cosmetic company Estee Lauder, say Brucke’s indictment of Berliners’ life was heightened with the use of non-naturalistic colors.

The backdrop of “Berlin Street Scene” by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is drenched in pinkish red. The portrait of urban alienation displays well-dressed Berliners on promenade, each avoiding the others’ gaze. Faces are elongated and angular, influenced by African art, Heller said.

A utopian urban view dominates Erich Heckel’s “Landscape in Dresden.” Amid greenery, inviting pink parkways converge into lush foliage. Relegated to a corner are homes in subdued yellows, the uneven outlines recall child’s drawings.

“The painting juxtaposes a vision of nature intruding into the city,” Heller said. “The Brucke saw retreats into nature as a way to bring back health into city life.”

At its start, Brucke’s painters shared studio space and their regular models were girls in their early teens or younger.

“They saw girls as spirit in flesh,” said Heller.

Kirchner’s “Marzella (Franzi)” shows a girl, legs crossed as if a lady at a soiree. Her gaze coolly appraises viewers.

“What you have is a child posed in traditional erotic pose,” Heller said. “This sort of representation of children as not innocent beings is something that the Brucke explored.”

Slideshow (3 Images)

Karl Schmidt-Rotluff’s “Corner of a Park” is a portrait of nature overwhelming the senses. Arcs in greens, reds, yellows, blues and reds jostle under a pink-dominated sky.

Brucke dissolved on the eve of World War One. Postwar expressionists joined leftist parties and peace movements.

In the 1930s, Brucke fell out of favor with the Nazis, who removed thousands of Expressionist works from museums on grounds they were “degenerate,” Heller said.

Reporting by Walker Simon; editing by Patricia Reaney

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