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Ripple Effect of an Artist's Style

Exhibition explores Max Klinger's influence on K"athe Kollwitz and Alfred Kubin

By Theodore F. WolffSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 1990



NEW YORK

THE influence of one artist upon another is usually easy to trace: A glance at the early paintings of Jackson Pollock, for instance, tells us he was heavily influenced by Benton, Orozco, and Picasso. A look at Picasso's youthful productions indicates he was impressed by El Greco and Lautrec. Some artists, on the other hand, appear to have had few if any direct influences. Georgia O'Keeffe is high on that list; so are Eva Hesse and Joseph Beuys. And much the same seems true of K"athe Kollwitz (1867-1945) - at least as far as style is concerned.

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With Kollwitz, however, that appearance is deceptive. Her mature style may have been her own, but its roots were nourished by the prints of Rembrandt, D"urer, and Goya. And just as important, she was supported in her decision to be a graphic artist and guided in her early attempts to forge her own style by the etchings and writings of Max Klinger (1857-1920), a remarkable painter, printmaker, and sculptor only 10 years her senior.

Klinger also influenced Alfred Kubin (1877-1959), a younger artist who preferred black-and-white to color and who would soon become celebrated for his fantastic images of the darker side of life.

All three of these artists have been brought together in an outstanding exhibition at the Galerie St. Etienne here in New York. ``Klinger, Kollwitz, Kubin: A Study in Influences'' celebrates what each produced as well as the importance of Klinger's influence on the careers of the other two. It includes a large number of these artists' finest etchings, lithographs, and drawings. It should strengthen Klinger's reputation as one of the most influential German artists of the early 20th century.

It also demonstrates Klinger's belief, spelled out in his influential 1891 treatise ``Painting and Drawing,'' that the aims of colored and black-and-white work were diametrically opposed. Painting, he felt, was best suited to the accurate representation of nature, drawing to the expression of fantasy and subjective responses to experience. ``Realistic coloring,'' he wrote, ``will destroy that spiritual world which drawing, alone of all the arts, shares with poetry.''

With this distinction in mind, he divided his work between representations in color (none are included here) and smaller images in black-and-white. Among the latter were strange and haunting prints that anticipated some of Surrealism's devices, as well as a number of etchings documenting the social ills of the day.

Kollwitz's introduction to Klinger's work came in 1885, when she visited an exhibition of his print series ``A Life.'' She was bowled over by his handling of the etching medium and his use of the print-cycle form to explore social issues too complex for single images. Most important, she saw his work as a vindication of her own still tentative approach to art.

What followed occupies a significant place in the history of 20th-century printmaking. After struggling for years to translate Emile Zola's novel ``Germinal'' into a series of prints, she abandoned that project to create her first print cycle, a reworking of Gerhart Hauptmann's play ``The Weavers.'' It was her first great success, and it would have won her the gold medal in a prestigious German exhibition in 1898, had Kaiser Wilhelm II not vetoed the award. Even so, her reputation was secured.

Kubin, on the other hand, was drawn to Klinger's more fanciful and grotesque works. Immediately after seeing Klinger's rather bizarre series of prints titled ``A Glove,'' Kubin is said to have gone into a kind of trance, during which the macabre underpinnings of mundane existence suddenly became clear to him. Using that state as a springboard, Kubin moved rapidly forward with the fanciful and often vaguely disturbing images for which he would become known. His first one-man show was held in Berlin in 1902. His reputation never matched that of Kollwitz, but he had the satisfaction of knowing that his ink-and-wash drawings influenced at least one generation of younger artists.

All three artists are well represented in this exhibition. Americans will probably find Klinger the most intriguing, Kubin the most peculiar, and Kollwitz the most accomplished. They will also, I suspect, find the show fascinating and challenging. And why not, for among the works on view are a number of the most beautifully executed, haunting, and perplexing prints and drawings of the period.

Chief among them are Klinger's print cycles ``A Glove'' and ``On Death I''; Kollwitz's ``The Peasant War'' series; and five or six of Kubin's strange and yet oddly delightful drawings.

At the Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th Street, through June 2.