By: Brenda Haroutunian
The form is the outer expression of the inner content – Wassily Kandinsky
LACMA’s “Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky” is exceptional in the way that it unravels rather than invents a myth, as museums are inclined to do with big entertaining shows. It showcases a cosmopolitan movement that embraced subjectivity, rather than a movement exclusive to the German state. Its insistence on personal experience is presented as a cross-cultural indictment of Impressionism and its culture of conformity.
The museum presents a movement of subjectivity that bounced back and forth across Europe; from France, to Germany, Russia and beyond. Color with its unpredictable power was unleashed across Europe, both representing and seeking a response. These flaming portraits of deeply personal experience filled the impersonal void that industrial society had left in its wake.
The title of the show speaks to the movement’s diversity. While Van Gogh was born in Holland and matured as an artist in France, Kandinsky was born in Moscow and relocated to Odessa, a port city in the Ukraine. Conspicuously absent among the headliners are German artists. Nevertheless, the exhibit examines a moment when German elites were fascinated with Van Gogh’s expressive colors and aggressive style.
A work becomes a work of art when one reevaluates the values of nature and adds one’s spirituality. — Emil Nolde
It also points to Van Gogh’s influence over a generation of young German artists, like Nolde, fed up with being ignored. For years, they had watched as one movement after another rolled across Berlin from Paris to great fanfare. In 1905, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and others, came together to form Die Brücke, a movement that aimed to stretch Germany’s history into the convulsive modern moment. In short, these artists incorporated what they liked about Van Gogh, and clarified subjectivity.
LACMA’s examination verifies what is too easy to overlook. The linking of Expressionism to the German state is artificial. In reality, the notion served to restore Germany’s image as an elite culture after the First and Second World Wars.
Furthermore, the notion of a homogeneous twentieth century German Expressionism glosses over a revolting instance of iconoclasm during the same era that it purports to represent. Of course, a few decades after the Expressionists bared their soul in reaction to the machine age, the Nazis rejected their work as gaudy evidence of moral and racial degeneration. Expressionist artists were chased out of the state, sued, and killed. Their art was declassified from museum collections and sold abroad or burned. The Nazis sought to obliterate Expressionist art from its history.
The museum has skillfully untangled the German from Expressionism. The movement is less about heritage, and more about innovation and cultural exchange. It examines art that was displayed in influential exhibitions of the day alongside the movement’s network of dealers, artists, collectors, and directors.
“From Van Gogh to Kandinsky,” departs from the too-familiar museum script that includes only those masterpieces that conform to its artificial narrative. Including those paintings exhibited during the moment of cultural exchange translated to an example of how art works in reality, the masterpiece juxtaposed to the mediocre. If the exhibit includes Van Gogh’s “Poplars at Saint-Remy,” the first of his paintings exhibited in Berlin, an impressive sampling of blazing masterpieces, it also includes unremarkable paintings by Maximilien Luce and Paul Baum. Van Gogh’s flaming “Pollard Willows at Sunset ” is not grand in scale as masterpieces often are, but rather a tiny 12 by 13 inches. Kandinsky’s painting is skillfully composed, yet it is not one of the artist’s mature masterpieces. Furthermore, it appears that not every painting by a great artist is a masterpiece. In fact, some are dreadfully mediocre.
The notion of German Expressionism is not helpful to art history in its struggle for credibility within an academic world that values objective reasoning. Yet, more than ever it is perpetuated by myth. The idea itself is an artificial category. Humankind didn’t first start making art as we define it today during “the stone age” followed by antiquity, up until the present moment, and whichever movements are now in vogue as a monolithic textbook would lead a reader to believe. Instead, it has looked to the past and chosen what conformed to its artificial idea of art history. Museums too often follow this model. If it helps us categorize and make sense of art across time, it nevertheless does not reflect reality. The exhibition is delightful with its flaming beauties and credibility.