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  • Christian Hain

Bröhan’s Eleven: The “Association of the XI” at Bröhan Museum, Starring Max Liebermann

(Berlin.) “Travel and copy” is one of the best-proven recipes for success: Go abroad, take a look at what’s happening and if you think, it could work at home too, well: There’s your business idea. It’s a very popular strategy in Europe, employed in many different industries from energy drinks to everything web and not even limited to the business world in strictest sense. More than a century ago, a couple of German painters who had previously sojourned in Paris where they may or may not have met – sources are contradictory, started a movement in Berlin with the outspoken aim to emulate Parisian modernism, namely Impressionism and Symbolism. This happened in 1892, years before the eventual rise of Expressionism as the official German response to the “hereditary enemy’s” artistic revolutions.

Now, there is a popular saying, “whenever three Germans meet, they’ll form a club” which might have been coined in the mid-19th Century already, when sport clubs started to see the light of day just about everywhere, but in art it was still something new, and revolutionary.

The Association of the XI counted some big names among its members, the first and foremost being without a doubt Max Liebermann, and in German ears Max Klinger rings a bell too, if only because there’s hardly a village without a street or square named for him; others have fallen more into obscurity since. The group’s name referred to the number of members that remained consistent in spite of changes on the individual level (Max Klinger, Dora Hitz and Martin Brandenburg subbing in for Konrad Alexander Müller-Kurzwelly, Hugo Vogel and Hans Herrmann) until 1898, when most of these artists would continue in another, bigger, movement, the Berlin Secession (no artistic civil war ensued). They consciously opposed official art, not least in opening “the exhibition season” before the annual Academy Exhibition, and to each of their eight shows in two Berlin galleries everyone contributed five or six works, the total output having thus been rather high for a group.

Today, Bröhan Museum continues its endeavours to rediscover unjustly forgotten artists by hosting the first retrospective about the XI ever. In a refreshing mix of solo and group presentations allowing for comparison, Max Lieberman, who will forever be known as THE German impressionist, the one with the most unique, individual, style among the XI too, obviously gets a room on his own: he’s the poster boy to attract visitors after all. Talking about “comparisons”, those are even more called for in respect to what the artists had seen - and liked - in Paris. For each and every one of them, you easily identify one or several Parisian counterparts who inspired his style. Monet, Pissaro, Sisley, Degas,... they are all present, in proxy.

There’s George Musson and Hugo Vogel cop-: paying homage to Renoir, there’s Ludwig von Hofmann – in one of his styles, we’ll come to the second shortly - channelling Gustave Moureau and Symbolism (also Alfons Mucha and art nouveau), there’s Hans Balluschek having a crush on Maurice Utrillo, and ever so forth. Franz Skarbina might be considered the most polyvalent of the bunch, capable of mastering a lot of different styles from (once again) Renoir to Sisley, even Toulouse-Lautrec, and – for a change – with a woman screaming “(Pre-)Expressionism” he honoured Edvard Munch who had recently caused his own scandal in Berlin (he had spent some time in modernist Paris as well). She standing not on a bridge but on a deserted village road, there’s some drama going on in the background, a man in an open doorway cursing at the screamer, it could be a scene from some Strindberg-/Ibsen-ish drama. To add: Munch’s The Scream in its earliest version dates from 1893, the Skarbina painting from 1895 - he didn't lag far behind at least.

Let’s not discuss all eleven (+ 3 substitutes makes 14) artists in detail, but try and limit it to some: Apart from the influences they all shared, Walter Leistikow did some tremendously contemporary work, contemporary as in “like today”: With its poisonous neon green-yellow waters, The Port (1895) could hang in a Berlin gallery of the third millennium and nobody would notice (not on first sight at least). The same artist did something unheard of, even scandalous - but what wasn’t back then, you might ask -, when executing his Berlin lake scenes in different techniques to present them alongside each other; also when obstructing a view on Schlachtensee (a popular lake to swim in still, and the season starts again soon, once the catfish are done mating – and biting! – for the year) by choosing his perspective behind some trees. There’s the sun setting in the centre to provide a counterweight and to balance out the trunks, which reminds me: the same artist’s Evening on the North Sea (1887) cannot count for anything else than a more or less well-made copy of Impression. Soleil levant, Monet’s legendary work that started it all.

Apropos “scandalous”, Ludwig von Hoffmann is... special. If you’re into (the late) Hans Bellmer, and Nabokov, you’ll certainly appreciate him. Naked children in abundance, and not treated for just another topic as is the case with Max Liebermann whose bathing boys appear merely like a natural observation of everyday scenes; no, with von Hoffmann, you get a very different vibe indeed. He might have identified with that randy stag in one painting’s background, peeping at three girls. Let’s just say, if you’re a collector putting this on your walls, you could reap some concerned looks, and justly so. Seen as artworks, very well done though!

Hans Herrmann’s a little Toulouse-Lautrec-esque Flower Corso at Bois de Boulogne, 1894, came under attack for the mingling of blue and green tones; thinking in the context of the time, there might be an allusion to absinth lurking. Adding crafts to an exhibition as Friedrich Stahl once did, met with more applause, although a critic is quoted saying: “But those pots rather don’t belong here, right?” Stahl’s paintings feature some – still! – rather unusual perspectives.

The only(!) genuine sculpture ever shown by the XI, Klinger’s Cassandra, was another success, it is still counted for one of the artist’s major achievements and seems to owe more to antiquity than to Rodin.

Of course it was an important, and honourable, mission to make the German public acquainted with Modernism in Art, but on the other hand.... there’s always a danger linked to “globalism”, as the world unites, slowly replacing diversity with homogeneity. An anecdote: On the occasion of the opening, a museum representative made mention of Edgar Munch, and pronounced him “correctly”: “Munk” as in “monk”, not as in “munch-ing”. That might be – most definitely is – the Norwegian pronunciation, and it’s the custom today to pronounce everything “correctly”, not least in sports reporting. What they forget: the diversity of names and languages in the world, Matthew, Matthias, Matthieu, Matteo, &ct exists only thanks to mutual misunderstandings, focusing on one’s own as distinct from “the other". Just saying.

Scandal! Myth! Modernism! The Association of the XI, 30 May-15 September 2019, Bröhan Museum

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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