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Im or Ex, pressing for -isms at Nationalgalerie Berlin

(Berlin.) You certainly know IMAX, the supersized movie format invented by a Canadian company that offers expressively impressive experiences in equally supersized cinema halls. So does Alte Nationalgalerie, one of the hotspots on Berlin’s Museumsinsel (museum island). Unperturbed by all lawsuits McKebab and co. have lost in the past, the state employed eminences on top of the institution shamelessly stole the label’s brand value for an exhibition called IMEX. Thug Life.

The acronym is supposed to stand for IMpressionism&EXpressionism, and what would be more suited for an institution catering first and foremost to tourists than Impressionist and Expressionist painting, pretty pictures that pose the perfect background for a selfie or two? We certainly don’t doubt the painters in question, not their genius, the importance and quality of their styles; and yet, how shall we put it, with time they have become something like Beethoven’s 9th, or Chopin, or Walt Disney, FC Barcelona - you get the idea. Inoffensive and adorable to everyone, impossible to criticize for any human being. In other terms, truly democratic art.

Don’t be taken aback by the inscription on Alte Nationalgalerie’s roof: “Der Deutschen Kunst” [(dedicated) “To German Art”], times have changed, thanks god, and whilst they do take care to present German styles - that’s where Expressionism comes into play – the museum is not less open to the world. There is also a “New National Gallery”, in spite of this, the “Alte”/Old, one, having been built not earlier than from 1867 to 1876. On the outside, it’s misleadingly marked “MDCCCLXXI” which our many careful calculations translated into “1871”. We’ll come to this shortly. Spending an hour sunbathing in the queue, we had time to remember the line “Dem Deutschen Volk” (“To the German People”) on top of the parliament building, the “Reichstag”, built in 1894. There seems to be a pattern. For all we know, there might be imperial sanitary installations dedicated “To the German Egesta”.

Entering the exhibition, visitors are taught the basics of painting’s most popular currents. The one a French invention of the mid 19th Century, the other a German reaction initiated about five decades later. Contemporaries needed time to appreciate the revolution, but eventually harsh criticism gave way to a new establishment. Etc. To truly understand the duality, one has to remember the countries' history from the common cradle in Charlemagne’s times to a centuries enduring enmity. The 1870/71 war saw the Prussians in Paris where Impressionism’s birth certificate had been issued at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. (Monet’s Impression. Soleil Levant ultimately set the name in 1872.) In Versailles, the victors established for the first time in history a united “Reich” to replace the former EU like multitude of sovereign “German” microstates. One might say that 1871, and the patriotism it invented, was the launch pad for all bad things that followed. One of these the world has commemorated last year as the centennial of World War One, an event many expressionist artists witnessed from within the trenches.

Today, Germany and France are ruling Europe hand-in-hand, and you should think there are no animosities left, least of all in art. On this background it is a surprise, and even kind of disquieting, to discover that hardly any works in the large and important show are borrowed from French institutions. The Monets, Pissaros, Manets, Gauguins, Renoirs, etc. habitually hang in German museums, in London, Madrid or on the other side of the Atlantic, but there’s only one from the rather unimportant museum of Lyon, and one(!) from the Orsay’s massive collections. The Marmottan gave nothing. Besides, the catalogue exists in German and French (no English!) version, the latter being 33,33%, or ten Euros, more expensive. Some ressentiments might still be alive – or, more probably, the people in charge have visited costly Paris and decided to make French visitors for once feel at home in Berlin.

The art front was not as strictly delimited as the political, there have been German artists like Max Liebermann and Max Slevogt sticking with Impressionism (rather not because both already had an “x” in their names), and French artists inspired Expressionism long before its explicitly French version of Fauvism (that is missing from the show). Ironically, the Impressionist programme could be reduced to two famous quotes of German national poet Goethe: “When thus I hail the Moment flying: Ah, still delay—thou art so fair!”, and his last: “More light”.

Alte Nationalgalerie lists the styles’ common points as “anti-academic” - what they mean is the French painters literally rejected the Parisian Academy that had de facto ruled French art for centuries, while the German expressionist did not like conservative institutionalism, think Nietzsche vs. the “University philosophers” - , a penchant for open air painting, the immediate experience of light and colour and a focus on the concretely experienced environment. Individuality and subjectivity also counted much for both. The main ideas were capturing an impression (a positive one mostly) vs. the expression of feeling and inner stress. The (post)impressionist van Gogh obviously is a case apart, the one who linked both styles in expressing a madman’s impressions.

The exhibition is divided iin different rooms according to what is painted, for instance “Bathers”. The works hung side by side, we are invited to compare and to detect the differences, and even to wonder where they belong indeed. The labels never tell “impressionist” or “expressionist”, and the uninitiated will sometimes struggle, which we take as a wished for effect. It starts off easy: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Exp.) is paired with Max Liebermann (Imp.) while the joined forces of Karl Schmidt-Rodluff (Exp.) and Max Pechstein (Exp.) meet a Renoir (Imp.). Here, it’s quite simple to distinguish the styles, the blurry, unconcrete, softness of Impressionism vs. the tough and rough assault of Expression; the immediacy of a fleeing moment against an angry outcry. To the most uneducated eye, the differences in colour and form are evident, and you quickly realize how much still today, Impressionism suits best the walls of a “maison particulière” (if not “close”) in the noble 16th arrondissement of Paris, whereas an expressionist painting conveys something of the stereotypically “wild” Berlin (yet in fact hanging in Düsseldorf or Munich villas). Two exotic sets of “noble savages” from expressionist Emil Nolde and postimpressionist Paul Gauguin are harder to judge because much more similar to each other. With other works, the art historian sees more influences and interdependencies, expressionist Otto Mueller’s Judgement of Paris for instance owes a lot to the Nabis (Pierre Bonnard).

A room with dancers and drinkers, euphemistically termed “Entertainment” has Kirchner and Degas, but also a very sane and tame van Gogh of 1886 (Le Moulin de la Galette) that looks more like a Maurice Utrillo (ok, Utrillo was not exactly sane either, but it showed less). Then, there are artists who are not usually counted to either current, but who painted somewhere in between, such Auguste Chabaud (Girl with Red Tie). Much simplified, there is a path leading from Impressionism via Expressionism, Cubism and Matisse to abstraction. But all classification in art is difficult, and every style varies. No labels can ever be a hundred per cent precise, and the individual artist is always at least equally important. How much apart are Toulouse Lautrec’s (Imp. – and imp) cartoon figures with sharp contours and large colour fields from Lesser Uri’s (Imp.) greater violence that may at times become photorealist. Or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Exp.) and August Macke (Exp.), both on the verge to cubism, compared to Edvard Munch (Exp.) whose portrait of Kate and Hugo Perls touches on the Impressionist (there’s also his symbolist Begier from the Lebensfries mural).

The “Animals” room sadly lacks Thomas Herbst’s impressionist cattle but has Slevogt, Liebermann and Berthe Morisot’s The Cage instead. We're repeating ourselves, but styles are cages too, the “Interiors” section once more proves the difficulties in detail: Morisot, Renoir and Macke definitely appear as three distinct styles, and not only two. Another chapter is called “Artists”, and this is fascinating. How to preserve your -ism, and yet create a recognisable portrait, preferably of yourself? Every self portrait is a double work, where style and image both contribute to the author’s image. Slevogt did it photorealist (academic?), Levis Corinth slightly less realist, and Kirchner as always is the most radical. Like Monet never did anything else than impressionism, Kirchner stayed true to expressionism, both can in fact count as the extremes, the styles’ distillates. Astonishing that the exhibition’s first Monet hangs in the “Country House” section (there is one, indeed), and the same is true for Sisley, the “depressed impressionist”. Unfortunately, the curators could not always get the works that would work best in the situation: Ernst Haeckel’s Channel in Winter just screams for comparison with Monet’s L’Allée des Rosiers à Giverny for the almost identical composition, but all they got is one more Renoir.

The last chapter is reserved to the pre WWI years and to be honest, this is neither IM nor EX. Ferdinand Hodler and sculptor Ernst Barlach are great in their own right, but have few to do with the exhibition as a whole.

For to understand more, you're strongly advised to visit Alte Nationalgalerie’s upper floors, too. Here you will find the styles that preceded IMEX, and realize how after Romanticism and Realism, the state of art just called for something new. In the realism section, you’ll meet the young Max Liebermann again. And you may detect August Kopnick’s 1848 painting Die Pontischen Sümpfe bei Sonnenuntergang, a direct precursor to expressionism.

To continue the exhibition, you may also visit a Berlin gallery of your choice - (neo-neo-neo-neo-neo)Expressionism still sells best around here.

IMEX, 22 May-20 September, 2015, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin



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