European Figurative Prints from Gauguin to Paladino
A National Gallery of Australia travelling exhibition
Rough Cuts: European Figurative Prints from Gauguin to Paladino contrasts works from two distinct periods in twentieth century art. It does so not only from their figurative standpoint but also from the standpoint of their working method and surface aesthetic.
The two periods are the earlier Expressionist period from around 1905 to 1920, with artists such as Erich Heckel, E.L. Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and two of their precursors, Gauguin and Edvard Munch, and the later neo-figurative period of the late 1970s and 1980s, with works by the German artists Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff and A.R. Penck, and the Italians Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi and Mimmo Paladino, the artists of the co-called Italian Transavanguardia.
As young men in their early twenties, Heckel, Kirchner and Schmidt-Rottluff were the founding members of the group of initially Dresden-based artists called Die Brücke. Other members whose work is included in this exhibition included Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde. Die Brücke itself was one of a number of groups that coalesced during the period of ferment that characterised the schism and rift-riven artistic landscape of fin-de-siècle Europe. While these artists saw themselves as ‘a new generation’, they had recognisable antecedents – the work of van Gogh, Munch, Gauguin and the Fauves, for example, was well known to them. Technically, with their re-advocacy of the woodcut as an image-making medium, they also paid homage to an even earlier period of native Gothic art, with echoes of the works of Dürer, Cranach and Grünewald. In addition, they were influenced by the tribal arts of Africa and Polynesia accessible to them through the newly published and illustrated ethnographic periodicals and museum displays of the day.
Their aim was a conscious break with tradition, a rejection of the academy with its predilection for slick, pristine surfaces and its, to them, trite subject matter. Instead, what the artists of Die Brücke wanted to do was to harness the emotions in all their expressive force by creating works whose surface aesthetic manifested and mirrored the very emotional content they sought to express: rough, primitive, elemental, hand-made. They often, for example, produced works using found pieces of unfinished timber or re-cycled lithographic stones. In doing so they consciously rejected the technical mechanised perfection that so dominated late nineteenth century lithographically produced images in favour of something that produced the look of rawness, of untamedness, of energy that they sought. Their aim was transformative, expressive; their goal to make visible what was psychologically hidden - hidden in us as individuals, in our social relations, in the very landscape itself.
Such concerns were central to the work of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. As such, they were in part symptomatic of the pre-occupations of the time. Freud’s Studies in Hysteria and his Interpretation of Dreams, for example, had both been either begun or published in the 1890s. In this context, four of Munch’s seminal print works are on display in Rough Cuts, including his famous Lovers in the waves 1896 and his powerfully iconic study in melancholia Attraction I 1896.
Munch’s significance to the artists of Die Brücke was not just psychological. Munch was also a technical innovator – he would frequently, for example, cut his woodblocks up into three or four interlocking sections which he would separately ink. He would then reassemble them to produce a multi-coloured print in one pull. In a variation on the same theme, Erich Heckel produced one of the great masterpieces of the Expressionist era – his self-portrait Männerbildnis [Portrait of a man] 1919.The example on display in Rough Cuts is the extraordinary and extraordinarily rare trial proof of this work – that is, the image that Heckel worked on by hand, over-painting the underlying woodblock, before the final edition was produced. This is an astonishingly powerful work, elemental in its simplicity, unflinching in its self-observation and unsurpassed in the rough beauty of its execution. Equally arresting are his Hockende or Crouching Woman 1914, with its eccentrically shaped image fashioned out of a piece of found wood, or Kirchner’s Sitzende Akt [Seated nude] 1910 after the painting by Pechstein included in the Die Brücke show of that year. In additon, Kirchner’s famous Unterhaltung von drei Frauen [Conversation between three women] 1907 and his lithograph Maler mit Modell, zeichnend [Painter drawing, with model] 1910 are represented here.
There was a tradition amongst the Die Brücke artists to produce their own catalogues for the small number of exhibitions they had between 1905 and 1913, when they disbanded. Each artist would take the work of another in the show and produce a woodcut, or sometimes several, to illustrate the catalogue of the show.
Amongst the Die Brücke artists favourite models were two young girls, Fränzi and Marzella, perhaps sisters, who frequently accompanied the group on their artistic excursions into the local countryside. The colour illustration shows the painting Marcella 1909–10 by E.L. Kirchner now housed in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Although the reversed black and white woodcut on display in Rough Cuts has always been catalogued as Fränzi, it is clearly based on the Marcella painting. This painting was listed as item number 25 of the 1910 exhibition. The inscription reads ‘Picture by E.L. Kirchner; Cut by E. Heckel’.
This delicate, poignant, slightly self-conscious portrait of one of Die Brücke’s favourite models is a small masterpiece in its own right, a masterpiece due entirely to the simple union of rough wood, cheap paper, black ink and the genius of its maker.
Other works from this period on display include Schmidt-Rottluff’s religiously inspired Jünger [Disciple] 1918 and Christus unter den Frauen [Christ amoung the women] 1919; Christian Rohlf’s brilliantly whimsical re-interpretation of the established classic Susanna im Bade [Susanna in her bath] c.1917, and Käthe Kollwitz’s mordant Das Letzte [The last act] 1925.
The period from 1905 to 1920, the first period of German Expressionism, produced then some of the most astonishing images using the most rudimentary of techniques in the history of art. It was a period that had not, however, exhausted itself. During the 1970s and 1980s, as a reaction against a decade or so of Abstraction, there was a return to a figurative-based art in the form of a ‘new’ or ‘neo’ Expressionism in Germany, while in Italy the artists of the Transavanguardia, artists such as Clemente, Chia, Cucchi, and Paladino, embarked on a new, highly personalized, and different form of lyrical neo-expressionism.
Jack Cowart, in his seminal essay from his ground-breaking 1983 Saint Louis Art Museum exhibition entitled Expressions made clear the link. Discussing the sculptural work of Markus Lüpertz, he had this to say:
‘They [the sculptures] are consciously related to, but still challenge, earlier German Expressionist work, just as Baselitz and Immendorff’s large woodcuts and linocuts compete with Expressionist prints.’
‘Large’ fails to adequately convey the size of some of these works. Immendorff’s Kriegsblatt [Warsheet] 1982 from his Café Deutschland series is huge, measuring almost two by two and a half metres in sheet size, rivalling the monumental dimensions of some contemporary painting. Kriegsblatt is one of the most extraordinary linocuts ever produced. Based on the painting Adlerhälfte [Eaglehalf] from the enormous cycle of Café Deutschland paintings begun in 1977, the impetus for which came in turn from Renato Guttuso’s painting Caffè Greco 1976, Kriegsblatt is in its initial impact overwhelming. Echoing the German obsession with ‘cabaret’ of the 1920s this is an image documenting a still-divided Germany. Political symbols crowd the stage — the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate, helmeted soldiers, workers, opportunists, a paint-brush strangled Eagle — the symbol of the German state – all jostle chaotically for attention. This is a political cri-du-coeur on a massive scale.
Equally monumental, at almost two metres tall, is Georg Baselitz’s linocut Bicycle Rider 1982. Its characteristic, for Baselitz, upside-down presentation creates an equally characteristic sense of disorientation — the oddly recumbent figure seems to precariously balance the bicycle wheel above him like some circus act ball — while the rough-cut surface appears to have been attacked with a chain-saw. In Penck’s Nacht Vision [Night Vision] 1982 on the other hand, a woodcut whose surface has indeed been gouged by a power-saw, the nightmare-like effect is quite different. Here we have an amalgam of chiaroscuro, prehistoric stick figures and primitive, encrypted pictograms whose ultimate meaning is as allusive as it is illusive. Perhaps this highly idiosyncratic pictorial language evolved as a consequence of the fact that Penck originally practised in the East — he emigrated to the West in 1982 — where the use of an overtly political language was either dangerous or impossible.
Of another figurative order altogether are the Italians Chia, Clemente, Cucchi and Paladino. These artists formed part of the group known as the Italian Transavanguardia [beyond the avant-garde], a term coined by Achille Oliva to describe a form of Neo-Expresssionist work that arose in Italy in the late 1970s and 1980s. Characteristic of the art of Chia, Clemente, Cucchi and Paladino is their idiosyncratic exploration of history, culture, antiquity, mythology and non-Western art for the pictorial content of their work. The wilder extravagances that characterise the surface aesthetics of their German counterparts give way in their work to a gentler lyricism. Although, not entirely. Paladino’s monumental — again this work measures almost two metres by three — Triptych: Sirene, vespero, poeta occidentale [Sirens, evening, western poet] 1986 is a tour-de-force of free-form intaglio print-making, using open-bite etching, sugarlift, aquatint, drypoint and carborundum to produce a work that is powerfully enigmatic, quasi-mystical and archaeologically poetic in its implied iconography.
Similarly, the artist Enzo Cucchi mines the folkloric riches of his humble origins to explore material that is redolent with quasi-mystical, religious significance. The works of Sandro Chia, on the other hand, appear more circumscribed, more personal, and more consciously introspective than either Cucchi or Paladino.
Rough Cuts, featuring works drawn exclusively from the National Gallery of Australia’s International Print Collection, juxtaposes, then, two bodies of works from two distinct art-historical periods. It does so from the perspective of a particular surface aesthetic. Each of these works seeks to convey through the expressive power of its ‘primitive’ mark-making something that is elemental to the works themselves. Whether this is a psychological truth, a political statement, a poetic vision or something that is more existentially illusive, there is enough here in Rough Cuts to challenge and engage anyone, from the print connoisseur to the general public alike.
Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books
National Gallery of Australia