OUR COLUMNIST SCULPTURESTEPH AND
‘Kirchner was one of the founders of the artist group ‘Die Bruecke’ (the bridge). The group composed a manifesto, written by Kirchner, that stated that “Anyone who directly and honestly reproduces that force which impels him to create belongs to us.”
At the onset of World War I, Kirchner volunteered in 1914 for military service. After he suffered a mental breakdown he had his first stay at a sanatorium. He would from then on be in and out of these places, in various locations. In 1915 he was admitted to a sanatorium for drug and alcohol dependency.
In 1918 he was in a better place (physically) and went on to have exhibitions in Berlin, Basel, Bern and Detroit. In 1937, a number of his paintings were included by the Nazis in a show of ‘entartete Kunst’ (degenerated Art).
In despair about the political situation in Germany, his declining physical health, and overwhelming loneliness, Kirchner committed suicide on 15 June 1938.
His Art was tagged ‘degenerated’ by Hitler, not simply because of the style of painting (expressionism) but because his ‘weakness’, mental breakdowns and his ‘failure’ as a soldier embodied what Hitler defined as ‘degenerated’. He had nothing to say that would serve Hitlers message- quiet the opposite.
Concentration camps started as prison camps for all the individuals who opposed the rise of Hitler and his opinions (he was in prison from 1923-1924 for ‘treason’). These were generally communists, socialists, religious personalities, Academics, writers, Artists, etc…
Anyone who had a mechanism to express their opposing views and arguments in public basically.
Simultaneously Hitler and his inner circle developed mass communication of propaganda, after eradicating the free and liberal forms of expression, they staged their communication to manipulate the masses (‘the burning of the books, Reichskristallnacht, etc..) and the emerging modern media served them extremely well, while using displays of public physical intimidation and violence to force people into submission to not challenge.
Before that, after the first World War, Germany was pretty much finished. The decision by the Allied forces for Germany to repay all the reparation cost (dept), the mass unemployment, and the drafting of a state constitution for the Weimarer Republic by a monarch, left the regions in chaos and turmoil. People didn’t understand what ‘voting’ means, they never had to think about politics, the over 100 different parties and their candidates didn’t make any decision making processes possible. How to feed the family and to have a roof over your head were more pressing issues.
Hitler or his party was not elected. It was 1934, when the flawed constitution was exploited for its loop holes by Adolf Hitler, who then was selected to serve as the succeeding Reichspraesident after Hindenburg’s death.
Article 48 of the constitution empowered the president, if “public order and security [were] seriously disturbed or endangered” to “take all necessary steps to re-establish law and order”.
These permissible steps included the use of armed force and the suspension of many of the civil rights otherwise guaranteed by the constitution. Most importantly, the president could take over the legislative powers of the Reichstag by issuing Notverordnungen, (emergency decrees) which had the same rank as conventional acts of parliament.
Hitler after the arson of the Reichstag in Berlin (1933) used this event to make use of article 48, to become leader and Reichs chancellor,…and the rest is well documented history.
Germany wasn’t exactly doing well before the first World War, either.
What differentiates the ‘German’ from other artistic expressions relating to war, in my opinion, is that the ‘German’ artist (as a contemporary to that society and culture) witnessed and experienced the circumstances and processes that created a fertile ground for totalitarian and fascist ideologies to flourish which eventually led to mass genocide and war.
For Kirchner and his contemporaries, they expressed their understanding of what they observed and experienced. As many artists they were perceptive to the under currents of discontent in themselves and others around them and feared their potential consequences to society and its culture. If people would have ‘listened’ to his and others (like Dix) Art and read the books instead of burning them, who knows if Hitler would have been so successful in manipulating a nation and the World into the abyss. He didn’t risk to have these voices heard.
I don’t think that there are different temporalities at play but different experienced traumas, or different viewpoints; the ‘victor’ and the ‘failed’ or ‘sinner’ (in more than one context) .
I also think that it is the perceived loss or absence of spirituality during this period (including the prelude to the first World War) in Germany that is a big aspect reflected in these artworks.
There are too many current examples in the World where the same roots for conflict, abuse, corruption have led to- or might lead to violent conflicts and while ‘British’ Art may portrait ‘war’ these ‘German’ paintings provide an insight beyond the event into the precursors for creating the conditions of war.
The increase in International shows of works by German artists may just be a measure as to how unfortunately timeless they still seem to be.