Giving a primal jolt to the old, formal world of art

German Expressionism set loose an avalanche of emotionalism in art that is still rumbling down the lesser slopes of the 20th century. It set precedents for pictorial extremism not even topped by Abstract Expressionism several decades later. And it gave historical validation to countless numbers of painters to whom the direct expression of intense, even violent, emotion became the entire point of art.

For all its importance as a movement, however, we must in all honesty admit that German Expressionism produced very few truly first-rate paintings. But it did contribute an overwhelming impulse, a primal jolt, to the creative consciousness of our age, and gave it a viable and highly subjective alternative to the logical formal concepts originally brought forward by Cezanne and later crystalized in various movements, most particularly in Cubism and Constructivism.

Intense emotion is the keynote of "Expressionism -- A German Intuition -- 1905-1920" at the Guggenheim Museum here. It is one of the largest and most comprehensive exhibitions devoted exclusively to this movement ever mounted in the United States.

It is also exceptional in that it includes many important works from European collections seldom, if ever, seen in the United States before. A good dozen or so of these are among the pivotal paintings, watercolors, and prints of the 20th century -- and so their very appearance at this time on the Guggenheim's walls is a major American art event.

Unlike many of this century's other revolutionary art movements which only attracted a small handful of major talents to their folds, German Expressionism is particularly rich in names and talent, and 18 of these artists have been selected for showing.

The main emphasis of this exhibition, however, is on Expressionism's central figures: Emil Nolde, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, Vasily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, and Max Beckmann.

The issues raised by this movement have not been settled yet. As Dr. Vogt writes in his introductory essay to the exhibition's catalog: "More than six decades have passed since Expressionism reached its high point in Berlin shortly before World War I. Nearly all art movements since then have had to deal with Expressionism in one way or another; but we have not yet come to any fundamental agreement about the true validity of this powerfully expressive style."

Although the German art world at the turn of the century remembered the scandal triggered by Edvard Munch's Berlin show of 1892, and tried its best to understand the highly expressive art of Van Gogh and James Ensor, it still leaned heavily toward an academic art devoted to historical subjects painted in the officially approved grand manner.

It took a while for the younger artists to drive a wedge into this bastion of respectability, and to bring Germany into the forefront of 20th-century modernism. But once that was accomplished, German art moved ahead at a rapid pace, slowing down and stopping only when Hitler declared all modernist art -- especially Expressionist -- decadent --

If we were to ask a group of distinguished artists of the past to characterize German Expressionism, they would probably do so using words like "excessive," "clumsy," "undisciplined," and "blatant." Most of them would also speak of its color as harsh and garish, and many, I suspect, would insist that it was too easy to do.

It says a great deal about the direction art has taken these past 60 years to state that, while these words still apply, they are now used in a complimentary rather than in a pejorative way.

It is difficult to view this exhibition objectively. Names like Nolde, Kirchner, Kandinsky, and Kokoschka reverberate throughout the history of modernism more like saints than like artists. And Beckmann, in his huge and often magnificent monumental work of more recent years, struck such a note of profound seriousness and concern that to look at him and these other figures at all critically in terms of their work, rather than their intentions, originality , and dedication, seems perilously close to a kind of artistic sacrilege.

How, after all, can we judge works that have penetrated into our consciousness and become a living part of our understanding? How can we truly trust our judgment of a particular painting or print if its creator was also responsible for works that shaped our critical thinking?

It's not easy, and I wish, quite frankly, that I could say this is a highly significant and magnificent exhibition -- and leave it at that.

But I can't. Significant it most certainly is. In fact, I doubt if we will see an equally important show for quite a while. But magnificent? Well, I'm afraid not.

While it is true that there are a few magnificent works in it, I'm unhappily forced to say that a great deal of it is second-rate and boring. We of 1980 may be heir to Expressionism's genius, but are quite rightly immune by now to many of its revolutionary excesses.

For that is what German Expressionism was really all about: a series of revolutionary acts designed to clear the air of dead social, political, and aesthetic formulas, and to force a sense of creative urgency upon the consciousness of the times.

Urgency was what these artists felt, and urgently is how they painted -- with the result that only a small handful of their works rise above the focus of their passion and the militancy of their means.

But these few works strike such solid bedrock, make their points so simply and clearly, that future ages will know us to a large extent through them.

And I, for one, am satisfied with that, for the best of Nolde, Modersohn-Becker, Kirchner, Marc, Kokoschka, Beckmann -- all the leading Expressionists, as a matter of fact -- represents values translated into art we still hold to be true and fundamental to our humanity: creative passion, social concern, and individual freedom.

The Expressionists were militants more concerned about human emotions and ideals than about the manufacture of pictures for museums. As such they often pushed too hard and cut too many corners for their art to be altogether pleasant or neat. But if they erred or fell somewhat short at times, they did so while standing solidly in the right.

This exhibition is significant for anyone attempting to understand who we are today. It is also a salute to valiant and long-gone heroes, and, I'm pleased to say, the place to see some of the most poignant and moving -- if not always the best -- art of the 20th century. In putting the exhibition together, Dr. Paul Vogt, director of the Museum Folkwang, Essen, West Germany, was chairman of a committee composed of Dr. Wolf-Dieter Dube, director of the Staatsgalarie Moderner Kunst, Munich; Thomas M. Messer, director of the Guggenheim Museum; and Henry T. Hopkins, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It will run through Jan. 18 at the Guggenheim here, and will then travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will be open to the public between Feb. 19 and April 26.

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