Upstart Paris Gallery Scores Coup With German Exhibit: Review

"Conversation of Artists" (1913) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The work is at the Pinacotheque de Paris through March 11. Source: Pinacotheque de Paris via Bloomberg

The Pinacotheque de Paris is the black sheep among art institutions in the French capital.

When the privately funded, commercial exhibition space opened in 2007, the art establishment greeted it with hostility. Shows with odd mismatches -- Pollock and shamanism, Giacometti and Etruscan art -- haven’t improved its image.

Still, the Pinacotheque repeatedly has succeeded in getting important loans and mounting exhibitions that, while bashed by the critics, draw crowds.

“Berlin-Munich 1905-1920: Der Blaue Reiter vs. Bruecke,” its latest show, is a case in point. The title is misleading, the concept is shaky, yet many of the works on display are first class.

Die Bruecke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) formed the backbone of German Expressionism. The first group was founded in 1905 in Dresden, the second in 1911 in Munich. Only later did the members of Die Bruecke, one by one, move to Berlin.

Nor do the dates fit. The 150 or so canvases, watercolors and prints -- landscapes, portraits, nudes, still lifes -- run from 1907 to 1930.

Anyway, it makes little sense to equate them with the short-lived groups: Die Bruecke was disbanded in 1913. Der Blaue Reiter was broken up by World War I when Kandinsky, its driving force, had to leave Germany and go back to Russia.

Battling Views

The thesis of the exhibition is that the two groups held “diametrically opposed views” about art.

The members of Die Bruecke -- Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Pechstein, Otto Mueller and Erich Nolde -- are portrayed as emotional and instinctive. Whereas we are told that Kandinsky and his comrades-in-arms -- Franz Marc, August Macke, Gabriele Muenter and Alexei von Jawlensky -- were “thinkers and philosophers.”

It’s true that Kandinsky was influenced by mysticism and Theosophy and wrote a book titled “On the Spiritual in Art.” Yet there was also a philosophical impetus behind Die Bruecke. The name of the group was inspired by Nietzsche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra”: “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.”

The show fails to bolster the thesis. Besides emphasizing the well-known fact that Kandinsky turned his back on Expressionism and became a founding father of abstract art, it doesn’t even try to demonstrate that the artists from Dresden and Munich produced “diametrically opposed” results.

Their works hang peacefully side by side, and it’s left to the viewer to make up his or her mind.

Degenerate Bargains

The dubious concept notwithstanding, this is a laudable effort, not least because the German Expressionists are virtually absent from French museums: They were either ignored or dismissed as crude imitators of the home-grown Fauves.

French curators didn’t even wake up when the Nazis cleansed German museums of “degenerate art” and dumped the works on the international art market.

Only in 1978, thanks to “Paris-Berlin,” the pioneering exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, did they discover what they had missed. By then, prices had gone through the roof, and the French museums have been unable to fill the gap.

“Berlin-Munich 1905-1920” runs through March 11. Information:

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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