Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 14, 2015
Timothy O. Benson, ed. Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky Exh. cat. Los Angeles and New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Prestel, 2014. 296 pp.; 228 color ills.; 13 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9783791353401)
Exhibition schedule: Kunsthaus Zürich (under the title Expressionism in Germany and France: From Matisse to the Blue Rider), Zürich, February 7–May 11, 2014; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, June 8–September 14, 2014; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, October 6, 2014–January 25, 2015
Wassily Kandinsky. Sketch I for Painting with White Border (1913). Oil on canvas. 39 3/8″ x 30 11/16″. The Phillips Collection. © 2014 Wassily Kandinsky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo © The Phillips Collection. Gift from the estate of Katherine S. Dreier.

Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky examines the connections between the avant-garde art worlds in France and Germany in the years between the last decades of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War II, considering the influence of artists like Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri Matisse on German artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Franz Marc. To that end, the network of cultural exchange—exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues, visits by German artists to France and vice versa, dealers and critics who served to link the two art worlds—is a key focus of the exhibition and catalogue. As the exhibition’s curator Timothy O. Benson writes in the title essay, “The history of Expressionism . . . must be seen as part of a wider discourse, including exhibition reviews, proclamations, public disputes, and exhibitions staged as narratives” (48–49).

This exhibition was not staged as a narrative, so much as a snapshot of the avant-garde art world in both countries during this brief period. Indeed, Expressionism in Germany and France is remarkable for the quality of the works included and the number of artists and institutions represented. Forty-two artists are featured in the exhibition, including such well-known and influential works as Cézanne’s Three Bathers (1879–82), Georges Braque’s Violin and Palette (1909), Franz Marc’s Stables (1913), Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Girl with Flower Vases (ca. 1907), Édouard Vuillard’s Woman in a Striped Dress (1895), and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street Berlin (1913). Less well-known artists, such as George Tappert, Kees van Dongen, and Adolf Erbslöh, are also included. Not only are a wide range of artists represented, the artworks themselves, mostly paintings and prints, come from an surprising number of institutions, both large and small, including U.S. museums (the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the San Diego Museum of Art) and a number of foreign collections like the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, the Museum Folkwang in Essen, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. Several of the paintings and prints are drawn from private collections as well. Displayed alongside the artworks are key publications that elucidate the themes of discourse and exchange, including exhibition catalogues, monographs on artists, and other historical surveys and critical texts. These publications are arranged with the works of art in the exhibition, in rough chronological order and in thematic groups (e.g., Berlin, Paris, Brücke and Fauves, Blaue Reiter, Cubism, World War I). The gallery walls are painted to indicate artworks that appeared together in the same exhibitions. The result is quite a comprehensive overview of avant-garde art production and exchange during this relatively brief thirty-year period.

In focusing on mutual exchange, the exhibition’s organizers undertake the important work of examining the historiography of Expressionism, attempting to move beyond a discussion rooted in national traditions. In some ways, this point is an obvious one. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the effects of industrialization influenced not only the content but also the production and exchange of artworks and ideas about art. While railways made it easier to transport people and art objects across national borders, mechanized printing processes facilitated the production and distribution of art criticism and art histories. Using the framework of national identity or tradition alone to analyze artworks of this period seems incredibly limiting. Yet, despite the many reasons for taking a comparative, international approach to Expressionism, this method has been applied in exhibitions and in literature on the subject relatively infrequently. The term “Expressionism” continues to be associated primarily with Germany, although, as Benson notes, it was first coined in 1910 by Roger Fry in reference to an exhibition titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists (47).

Insights as to why Expressionism has been linked with a single national tradition can be found in the exhibition catalogue. Several essays, including those by Benson, Laird M. Easton, Peter Kropmanns, and Katherine Kuenzli, explore the critical discourse around avant-garde art in this period and reveal two overriding impulses within it: a desire to tell a “cosmopolitan,” pan-European history of modern art and an opposing effort to define style in nationalist terms. More than one author notes that the critic Julius Meier-Graefe, in his Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst (The developmental history of modern art, 1904), attempted to trace a history of Expressionism that avoided the German-French polarity. As Kropmanns argues, “The concept of a national art history was alien” to Meier-Graefe and many of his colleagues (167); yet, as Kropmanns also notes, Meier-Graefe’s analysis of modern art from “a European perspective (rather than a national one) was judged severely” (177). Indeed, other critics and historians were more interested in determining what was uniquely German or French in the work of various modern artists. For example, in “Harry Graf Kessler’s Path to Expressionism,” Easton explains that Kessler saw Expressionism as “a specifically Nordic, or German form” rather than French and “a revival of the northern, Gothic style” (146). In other instances, the interest in a pan-European narrative coexisted with an interest in nationalist histories. The critic Paul Fechter, as Benson notes, sought a “synthesis” of German and French traditions in writing the first history of Expressionism in 1914, but also judged Van Gogh to be “Germanic” (57). The members of the Blaue Reiter group in their almanac wanted to break from nationalistic histories but also from style-based histories, like Meier-Graefe’s. As Kuenzli’s explains in her essay, “Expanding the Boundaries of Modern Art: The Blaue Reiter, Parisian Modernism, and Henri Rousseau,” Kandinsky, Marc, and their colleagues did so by focusing in their almanac “less on modern art’s formal qualities and more on underlying spiritual affinities that they believed united artworks from all cultures and historical ages” (251).

By the 1910s, however, it was the nationalist approach that increasingly took hold. And, while at times relatively benign, the desire to outline essential qualities of modern art that were linked to nation-specific traditions was clearly an outgrowth of the overall enmity between France and Germany in these years. For example, Claudine Grammont, in an essay exploring the influence of the Académie Matisse, explains that Henri Matisse was the target of “violent, xenophobic attacks” by French journalists who charged him with betraying his national heritage by “exporting his talent” to the German and Scandinavian students who filled his academy (158, 159). As these authors’ discussions clearly reveal, the clashes within cultural discourse in this period were closely tied to the political clashes between France and Germany that would soon lead to war.

A historiographical analysis is particularly appropriate for this topic. The discourse these authors describe around modernism and its various iterations—Impressionism, Expressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism—was unfolding at the same time that art history was emerging as a discipline. In writing histories of art, many critics, historians, and collectors, such as Meier-Graefe, Kessler, as well as Paul Fechter, Hugo von Tschudi, and Wilhelm Uhde, sought to create grand narratives that established straight and clear lines of progressive artistic development and influence. Reading the essays in the exhibition catalogue, it becomes clear to the reader that what is important is not to define modern movements precisely, but to investigate how various critics, artists, dealers, and historians of the early twentieth century defined terms such as Expressionism and Impressionism and to what ends.

Ultimately, the theme of “intercultural exchange” and the insights it yields are more evident in the catalogue than in the exhibition itself. Perhaps more could have been done within the exhibition to communicate which paintings were seen by which artists, for example, beyond the boxes of color painted on the walls. Nonetheless, Expressionism in Germany and France not only begins to chart a history of avant-garde art production of this period, exposing the fault lines of national identity and tradition on the eve of World War I, but also highlights the close connections between these identities and traditions. In addition, the exhibition provides a kind of introduction to modern art history that visitors to the exhibition seemed particularly eager to take in. I heard several visitors exclaim enthusiastically upon seeing a painting or paintings they particularly enjoyed or were excited to see. That this exhibition should serve as an introduction is particularly fitting; in many cases, the works shown served as German artists’ first exposure to the modern art of their own time.

Emily Pugh
Digital Humanities Specialist, The Getty Research Institute

Please send comments about this review to