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Review: German Revolution Expressionist Prints at Lady Lever Art Gallery

German Revolution Expressionist Prints at Lady Lever Art Gallery until 28th February 2021 (check here for updates on restrictions & visiting times)

Words, Leah Binns

German Revolution Expressionist Prints is an exhibition at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, on loan from the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery. Its aim is to provide an overview of printmaking as a significant medium during times of political and emotional turmoil in Germany. Often limited in terms of colour but limitless in terms of expression, printmaking excels at depicting bleakness, while also reflecting the violent energy of social unrest. Prints hold these volatile narratives within small spaces, resulting in images that are both explosive and contained. Printmaking imbues the artwork with craftsmanship, its textures alluding to the physicality of the processes of engraving, etching, or carving. And with different techniques and surfaces eliciting different effects, the process is also deeply experimental. In some works, scratch marks fuse landscape and flesh, aligning the ferocity of a wartorn terrain with the anguish of weathered expression. In others, sharp lines can confront the viewer with dynamic and direct images that address themes of poverty and hunger, defiant and difficult to misinterpret. 

The exhibition acknowledges the print as a medium adjacent to the fine arts, but as something that can be disseminated, easily published, and more widely accessible to a greater audience than traditional painting. Repeated themes echo from piece to piece, shared and reworked, highlighting the compulsion inherent in printmaking. There is a desire to repeat that is intrinsic to the medium, the process itself mimicking the arduousness of physical labour that becomes a significant theme for many artists disillusioned with working life.   

The first room, Love and Anxiety,​ ​ provides context for the surfacing of printmaking in European art, and it is here where most of the biggest names in the exhibition reside. The room provides a history beyond Germany, and that goes as far back as Francisco Goya, whose print Disparate Matrimonial ​(1810-23) is an insight into the early potential of etching. Without clear silhouettes, the fighting bodies merge with each other and the crowd behind them, forming what looks from afar as a kind of limbed and fluctuating landscape, while the details emerge as you look closer. The faces are foggy and indistinct yet portray deep suffering, reflected in techniques used throughout the exhibition. 

An Edvard Munch print, Im Mannlichen Gehirn ​ ​(1897), best plays into the room’s title, finding form in the intersection of desire and anxiety. This piece depicts a fantasy dreamscape as much as it does grounded anguish, suggesting a space in which love and torment can coexist. An early engraving by Pablo Picasso, The Frugal Meal ​ ​(1904), introduces the viewer to the potential of printmaking in depicting poverty and emptiness, presaging themes to come in the next two rooms. Two figures, who outright reject each other’s eye contact, are shown with elongated, frail bodies, emphasising themes of hunger and poverty that persist throughout. The sombreness of the image is reinforced by the frugal meal itself; the desolate still life arrangement at the foreground of the image results in a composition that is as pointedly empty as it is full.   

While this room succeeds in thematically foreshadowing what is to come, and providing an insight into the development of the medium, there is much left unsaid about non-Western influences. In the Munch work, as well as Erich Heckel’s woodcut Mädchen Beim Baden ​ (1907), the influence of African arts that many of these artists encountered at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin is vivid. African imagery is at the foundation of work by Die Brücke, the group of artists​ that the exhibition spotlights, whose work coincides with Germany’s colonisation of parts of Africa. While this is acknowledged in the curation, African objects are left unshown and merely​ alluded to, a major influence and power dynamic diminished.  

The second room, A Bridge to Utopia​ ​, narrates short-lived optimism as it materialised during the German Revolution. This room suggests a yearning for simplicity, while the artists are struggling between the visuals of absence, in terms of famine and poverty, and those of emotive overabundance. Perhaps unfittingly for the room’s title, this space contains works by known Nazi Emil Nolde, whose views of Expressionist art are permanently tied to a violent nationalist perspective. It seems disjointed for his work to sit alongside a portrait by Otto Dix, who was seen as a threat to the Nazis, was dismissed from his teaching role as they rose to power, and had much of his work censored for its challenging unpatriotic themes. Dix’s drypoint print Artisten ​(1921)​​is performative in nature, depicting two circus acrobats with exaggerated expression and emotive qualities. The work perhaps alludes to the relationship between performer and spectator, sustaining a transitory moment of mutual acknowledgement, as the figures wait for an audience applause. The depiction of circus performers is distinctly anti bourgeois, and was part of what Nazi Germany deemed to be degenerate art. There is no harmony between the pieces in this room; they counteract each other, challenging the viewer with contrasting themes and perspectives.  

Taking influence from non-Western aesthetics and techniques, woodcuts became a popular medium, characterised by the boldness of their line and the emotional intensity of their monochromatic palette. Max Pechstein’s woodcut Einäugige Mutter​ ​ (1921)​ is one of the more compelling works in the space, and continues on the motif of blindness as a way of visualising scarcity, as initiated by the Picasso work in the previous room. This work is unapologetic in how it elicits an uncomfortable response; while it portrays the tenderness of a maternal relationship, the negative space where the mother’s eye should be is stark. There is a trace of violence in how the eye has been carved out of the mother by the artist himself, accentuating the tangibility of printmaking. Through the heavy-handedness of the woodcut as a medium, the artist himself is implicated in the disfiguration of the subject.

The final room, Conflict and Despair,​ ​ is undoubtably the highlight of the show, housing several works by Käthe Kollwitz that hold all the pacifist energy and political resistance that pieces by Emil Nolde lacked. Her work exemplifies how delicate lines are equally as compelling as bold ones in conveying sorrow and grief, and they show how the effects of conflict and loss can linger on after the war’s end. Die Carmagnole ​ ​(1901) is one of the only pieces in the show to feature architecture as a way to elicit claustrophobia in a printed image. A guillotine is central to the composition, framed by crowds of dancing bodies, giving the piece a dismal sense of theatricality. The texture is varied, from the light and joyous expression of dancers, to the depiction of the setting as a dense, confined space. 

Kollwitz uses lithography in a way that is at once restrained and intense; her portrait of a working woman, Arbeiterfrau im Profil nach Links ​      ​(1903), is intricately blended and subtle, an indistinct face eroded by light. The hands of the woman are given the same attention, suggesting a sense of identity that is intrinsically wrapped up in manual labour, while the rest of the figure’s body dissolves into shadow. In her work, there is a compulsive desire to depict suffering, and an occupation with studies of hands as a symbol of work to do this. This unconventional way to portray a person perhaps gives away more than their facial expression would.  

Kollwitz’s self portrait, Selbstbildnis im Profil Nach Rechts ​     ​(1938), shows a face concealed by darkness, but visibly laden with sorrow. Her tired eyes disclose the loss that haunts her; the death of her youngest son in combat in 1914. Clearly there is a connection that Kollwitz felt between her own torment and that of the working woman, while indicating a similarity between the act of manual labour, and the artistic act of documenting it. From her staunch anti-war sentiment, to the more tender aspects of love, family, and the grievances of loss, there is a defiance in her history, studying art when women mostly couldn’t. There is a tenaciousness and a tirelessness to her figurative works, suggesting a woman unapologetic about the plights of the working class that she dedicated her life to depicting through art.  

Like all revolutionary art, the pieces shown here internalise disparate themes; conflict and community, isolation and togetherness, love and anxiety. This instability is imperative, and the particularity of the print as a medium that condenses this into a small space is crucial. There is nothing unclear about an expressionist print, as the graphic medium and the emotional turmoil work together to create the image, where linear forms can dissolve the body into its movements. The textural potential of printmaking is boundless; the sharp angularities of a woodcut can be resonant both with impending industrialism and a natural landscape, while lithography’s subtle lines can feel both smoggy and explicit. However, the curation itself highlights the inequality in power that we give to images. African masks as a major influence are referenced but unspecified; we are unable to see this original imagery, only its refashioning into the European canon.