Expelled for independence

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IT is hard to imagine anything much further, in spirit or technique, from the meticulously fine work of the typical 19th-century wood engraving, so frequently used to illustrate books, than this -- an uncompromisingly rough, impetuously gouged woodcut by one of the revolutionary artists of Germany's ``Die Br"ucke'' group. Though somewhat loose-knit, the Br"ucke artists held together for eight years from 1905 to 1913. Dresden was their center until 1911, when the leading members moved to Berlin. They had been preceded three years earlier by one of their number, Max Pechstein, whose membership had begun in 1906 but was terminated in 1912 when he was expelled for exhibiting his work independently. Individual development finally disrupted the need for solidarity.

But at their closest Die Br"ucke artists made works of remarkably similar style, particularly in their woodcuts. Nolde (only briefly a member), Kirchner, Heckel, and Pechstein all attacked the softwood surfaces of their wood planks with a deliberately primitive vigor, inspirited by their admiration for Gauguin's woodcuts and carvings made under the influence of the Polynesian art of the South Seas. (Pechstein was to make his own pilgrimage there in 1914.)

Carved African masks added potent fuel to their fiery, expressive art, with rather different results from that wrought by the same fashion on Picasso and Braque in their exploratory moves toward Cubism in Paris.

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If Br"ucke artists were like any contemporary French movement, it was the ``fauvism'' of Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck. One of the fauves, in fact, the Dutch painter working in Paris, Kees Van Dongen, was a ``bridge'' between the two persuasions: He was invited in 1908 to exhibit with Die Br"ucke artists in Dresden.

Max Pechstein's art reached a peak of bold certainty, of almost brute strength, in 1911. During the summer months spent in East Prussia, at Nidden, he cut a set of 11 heads of fishermen, of which this is one, and a further 11 woodcuts of bathers. Recently included in a British Museum exhibition of German prints, ``Fisherman's Head VII'' was described in the catalog as ``an excellent example of the mature Br"ucke woodcut; the hewn character of the block enhances the man's rugged features.''

Van Gogh would surely have appreciated Pechstein's concentration on the living force of the contour. There is nothing tentative or insipid about this work. It is noisy, alive, and rigorous in its impassioned contrast of intense black with vivid white.

The white areas are those cut away on the wood block; the blacks are what is left standing in relief and then inked and printed. However, the print itself is not in effect a solid black vs. an empty white, but two positives in vehement confrontation, each vivifying the other.

In 1921 Pechstein wrote about the development of his printmaking, from conventional wood engraving to the startling rejuvenation of the traditional woodcut epitomized by this fisherman:

``In 1905 in Dresden I made my first woodcut in the manner of a wood-engraving, cutting out the drawing with a burin on hard boxwood. Then I turned to the gouge and wood cut along the grain (alder, lime, or poplar) which allowed an easier cutting. . . . Finally I took to using a short cobbler's knife and cut freely into the wood. . . .''

He made no preliminary drawing on the wood, the ``artistic intention'' being ``clarified by earlier sketches and drawings, and so prepared in the head.'' The result was an astonishing identification of style and subject in the case of the fishermen, and an immediacy and completeness in which minor or distracting details are not just subordinate to the overall power of the image, but routed out by it entirely.

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