An Expressionist movement that's made to last

A little over 100 years ago (June 7, 1905), four architectural students in Dresden formed the Brücke group - an Expressionist movement using woodcuts and other printmaking techniques to achieve "a new synthesis between art and life." Not quite 100 years later (November 2001), the group's work became the subject of the Museum of Modern Art's first exclusively virtual exhibition. Today, Artists of Brücke demonstrates that while many websites can look old after a year, it is possible to create an online exhibit that remains engaging even if it's no longer "cutting edge."

A multiple award winner in the year after its creation, Artists of Brücke features more than 120 works chosen from the MoMA's collection of prints and illustrated books. In terms of presentation, this Flash-based exhibit suits the subject matter not only in its visual design (which includes a typeface created specifically for the exhibit), but also with such additional touches as animations of printer's ink being rolled across the screen during the exhibit's launch. And despite the heavy use of images and periodic multimedia extras, Brücke's pages load with commendable speed.

After launch, the Artists of Brücke homepage first offers a rotating preview of the prints to be seen later in the exhibit, and an introduction to the movement itself - especially useful for anyone not quite up to speed on German Expressionism. (Show of hands...) The first page of the introduction also adds audio to the visitor's experience, in the form of a narrated excerpt from the Brücke Manifesto as written by one of the founding artists. These audio clips appear at several points during the presentation, and though brief, make effective additions to the presentation - encouraging a more focused state of attention from those viewers who may arrive in the half-Zen, half-observant state common after hours of continuous visual scanning elsewhere on the web. (Or perhaps that's just me.)

From the introduction forward, any image that catches the eye can be opened into a full-page version, complete with detailed background information. And while full-sized prints don't open into their own windows, a "Return" icon takes the surfer directly back to the last point of departure. A common annoyance of Flash sites, that the accidental use of the browser's "Back" button usually results in reloading the exhibition from scratch, is avoided here by simply using JavaScript to eliminate the button bar from the browser window entirely. By simple virtue of this site's vintage, this is obviously not a new trick, but there are still Flash-based sites being launched today that don't take advantage of it.

Having been introduced to the origins and intentions of the movement (whose name means "bridge,") visitors can explore the rest of the exhibit through three routes. The first of these, Themes, displays the collection in eight galleries, sorted into topics central to the Expressionist movement. (City, Portraits, Christian Motifs, etc....) To simulate the real-world practice of galleries placing separate themes into separate rooms, each Brücke Theme opens with some animated "printmaking," a few notes of Schönberg on the piano, and introductory narrations from the artists' writings. Seamless, scrolling text boxes guide visitors through the exhibits, while occasional geographic references link to an interactive map.

Artists examines each member's works and influences individually - offering more text, audio clips, and artist-specific access to the Prints section. In Prints, the MoMA invites visitors to make some curatorial decisions of their own as more than 100 of the exhibit's woodcuts, lithographs and intaglios are presented in a single page of thumbnail images. At the bottom of the page, a series of radio buttons allow the visitor to dim or restore these thumbnails according to the previously explored categories of Theme and Artist, as well as by the medium itself. And if you're looking for more flexibility, these parameters can be combined - so one can choose to display, for example, only the woodcut portraits by Ernst Kirchner, or the city lithographs of Kirchner and Emil Nolde. At any time during this process, placing your mouse pointer over an active thumbnail instantly generates a slightly larger version of the image (with basic information), and clicking on the image opens the full-page editions of the artworks.

Other features, available through the exhibit's home page, include a brief Chronology of both the movement and the artists before, during, and after Brücke, a text List of Artworks in the MoMA collections, and a direct link to the interactive Map.

As the subject matter for an online-only exhibit, these Expressionist prints seem especially appropriate. The lack of fine detail in the featured works means that less is lost in the translation to the low-resolution medium of the Web than is the case with some other forms of art. In addition, the site is so well executed that even visitors with no prior interest in German Expressionist prints (show of hands...) may be drawn in by the quality of the design - and in the pleasure of exploring the "Web aesthetic." They may also find themselves absorbing a bit of culture. That it holds up as well as it does in the Web's universe of accelerated aging simply means that it continues to be an effective educational tool.

The Museum of Modern Art's Artists of Brücke can - still - be found at http://www.moma.org/brucke/.

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