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German Expressionism, Sexuality and Modernism

I recently delivered a lecture on The Nude in Modernism at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin—inspired by a visit to the Hamburg Kunsthalle a number of years ago. Here is a brief extract from the lecture, illustrated by the (mostly) German paintings discussed.

Ekphrasis: a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Figure 1. View into Infinity, 1905. Ferdinand Hodler.

Next to View into Infinity (Figure 1) we have another naked youth, a freestanding sculpture by Belgian George Minne carved in 1898, only a few years before View into Infinity and with an altogether more pedestrian title. The Kneeling Youth (Figure 2) wraps his arms around his chest, his soft stomach is left exposed and his protruding hipbone shows us both the artist’s deft skill while alerting us to a very human vulnerability. His head is bent in towards his chest. He is preoccupied with his own thoughts. This bent head, unlike Hodler’s open youth, is a refusal to share with us. He is purposefully avoiding our gaze. His hands are expressive: strong masculine hands belonging to the body of a young boy. It is difficult to look at the slim bodies of both figures and not sense that a transition into manhood is underway. Hodler’s youth has come to terms with this, he stares at us confident and openly, Minne’s youth is still adjusting.

Figure 3. On the Lakeside, 1910. Max Pechstein.

Figure 2. The Kneeling Youth, 1898. George Minne.

It’s not just the young men who are caught in a moment of transformation. A few rooms away on the bank of a lake, a young woman is undergoing a similar experience (above, right). This young lady, painted by German Max Pechstein, is more brightly yellow than Hodler’s young man. More surprising is that she is in the same pose as Minne’s young man. Her arms are across her chest, and her head is pulled in towards her right shoulder. Again, it is a moment of quiet introspection, the crossed arms an attempt to conceal or hide.

There comes a time in a young adult’s life when they feel completely out of touch with their surroundings so that the only thing they can do is fold in upon themselves like the characters in Minne and Pechstein’s artworks.

Pechstein’s painting reflects this dilemma in a more common way. Placing other women in the painting highlights the standing woman’s interior life more and also immediately places her in direct comparison to the bathers. Perhaps she is wishing she were somewhere else or somebody else entirely. She has yet to achieve her view of infinity.

Another painting in the same room hints towards the harmony that awaits Pechstein’s young lady. German Otto Mueller’s Six Girls on the Beach (Figure 4) just like Pechstein’s On the Lakeside depicts women bathing in a stream.

Figure 4. Six Girls on the Beach, c.1913. Otto Mueller.

Mueller’s painting is more muted. It looks like it could be a fresco or equally at home on papyrus found in an Egyptian tomb. The women here are nearly identical, the same shape, size, colour, texture. They are harmonious, their arms link, forming a chain. Perhaps they have forgone any individuality in favour of the benefits of being in a group: comfort, security, companionship, distraction – everything co-dependency offers.

Unlike Hodler, Minne, and Pechstein’s young adults, who all internalise their feelings, these women reach out into a social sphere and are reciprocated.

Young adults often say two things, that they want to fit in, or they want to be invisible. Mueller’s painting suggests that the two are the same – to fit in is to become invisible; is to become an adult and indivisible from an other.

In Modern Art: 1851–1929 (Oxford University Press, 1999) the historian Richard R. Brettell writes that “One of the most fascinatingly visual obsessions in modern art is with adolescent sexuality" (135-136). However, this is a topic and subject that remains taboo or under-explored in most societies today, despite the freedom with which it was pursued in the first half of the twentieth century. There are a number of artists today, often women, and often photographers (Sally Mann, Nan Goldin), who approach the subject, though doing so is often met with criticism, not least from the subject depicted, who often argue that such work is not fully consensual.

Perhaps one reason that artists depicted adolescents at this time can be connected to the emergence of psychoanalysis from the 1900s onwards, notably in the German speaking world where Hodler, Peschstein, and Mueller worked. Freud’s thesis on the unconscious is indivisible with the subject of human desire and sexuality as evinced with his theories on the Oedipus and Electra Complex, for instance. However, there might be another reason for the depiction of adolescent sexuality from 1914 onwards.

The catastrophe of WW1 (1914-1918) for Europe, and particularly for Germany on the losing side, was felt throughout the continent. Up to 3 million Germans and 15% of German men had been killed during the war, upending traditional gender roles, and negatively impacting the country’s birth rate. For instance, with a deficit of births during the war at about the 3.2 million mark. Despite a humiliating punitive Versailles treaty, the Weimar Republic or Third Reich was, until the rise of National Socialism, a socially progressive state that offered new freedoms and protections to women and children, including in education and health care, as well as tolerance for prostitution, homosexuality, and sexual emancipation.

Anita Clara Rée symbolises some of these freedoms in her work: Semi-nude before Prickly Pear (Figure 5). A Hamburg native, and Jewish, Rée was branded a Degenerate Artist by the Nazi’s and her work was removed from German collections and destroyed. The Hamburg Kunsthalle has a relatively strong representation of her work because its groundskeeper the canvases in his apartment during the war. Sadly, Rée’s persecution by the Nazi’s contributed to her death by suicide in 1933.

Figure 5. Semi-Nude Before a Prickly-Pear Cactus (1922-25). Anita Rée.

Let us stay with Rée and Richard R. Brettell for the moment. Bretell writes that

“The female nude constitutes an internal tradition within modernism”, and argues that the “tradition was absolutely co-equal with the rise and mass dissemination of photographic pornography, which played a suppressed but strong role within the medium from the 1850s onwards” (136).

“We know,” Brettell writes, that many artists collected pornographic photographs, probably for two reasons: first as pornography and, in certain cases, as part of their critique of conventional sexual mores and, secondly, as models or easily accessible sources of actual nude figures” (137).

While Brettell is writing here mostly of male artists at the turn of the century, from Manet, to Egon Schiele, to Picasso, it is interesting to consider his statement in relation to the German modernists we have seen so far, and also to compare it with later artists, such as Marlene Dumas (Figure 6.) and Lisa Yuskavage who also appropriate tropes from visual pornography in their work.

Figure 6. Marlene Dumas, Fingers, 1999


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