Degenerate Art: London Exhibition Explores This Ominous Period of German History

An exhibition of German Expressionist artists, exponents of Degenerate Art has opened at E&R Cyzer gallery. It is an unique opportunity to see a number of paintings by artists who were persecuted under Hitler with their work were dismissed as ‘Entartete Kunst’. This is the first exhibition of note to take  place in London for over 5 years. Masters of German Expressionism runs until August 15 at E&R Cyzer gallery on 23 Bruton Street London.

The Gallery is featuring oils and works on paper by pioneers of both Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, Alexej Von Jawlensky and Emil Nolde Highlights are paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Pechstein which portray the vibrant and decadent society of early Weimar Republic Germany. Tango-tea by Kirchner and Rauchende (The Smoker) by Pechstein capture the scintillating atmosphere of early 20th century Germany echoing the scenes of Christopher Isherwood’s famous Cabaret musical, before Black Tuesday and the coming of the Third Reich.

This ominous period of German history resulted in some of the most revolutionary experiments in art.  At first appearing to present scenes of whimsy and pleasure, these images in fact carry dark undertones which address the creative anxiety which afflicted the German Expressionists, as they grappled with issues of post-war industrialisation and a renewed search for national identity. The Expressionists looked at the world in a more immediate and emotional way, while embracing spirituality. Norman Rosenthal, leading art historian, discussed the 2003 Expressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy: “[The Expressionists] pushed themselves to the limit…They were putting their own existential being on the line.”[The Guardian, It’s a Scream, June 2003).

Kirchner’s Tango-tea was painted shortly after WWI and the disbanding of Die Brücke. The painting was bought directly from the artist in 1947 by Roman Ketterer, the renowned German art dealer who was subsequently the executor of the Kirchner estate.  In 1917, the artist experienced a physical breakdown and escaped the city of Berlin for the Swiss countryside. He began to paint peaceful snow-capped landscapes, still fascinated by the tensions between urban life and nature. The Tango dance scene on display is a rare exception to this retreat into landscape painting, as it references his haunting scenes of the city. Unable to resist the allure of the dim-lit Tango-teas which would go into the night, Kirchner would visit these clubs to watch the dancers and paint their bodies in motion. Reflecting Picasso’s Le Moulin de la galette (1990), the painting is a sensuous display of dancers frozen in dramatic Tango poses.

Rauchende by Pechstein portrays the iconic image of a woman smoking a cigarette against glowing yellow background. This work was acquired from prominent art historian Dr Karl Lielenfeld by German banker Jacob Goldschmidt in 1950, who was at the time in the top 10 of German’s richest men. It is clear to see why the painting boasts such an impressive provenance: the female subject is alluring.  Her cheeks are flushed with life and her hand is coolly dangling the cigarette between her fingers. The scene recalls the glamorous repose of Berlin before the war, while its vivacious colours perfectly exemplify German Expressionist painting.

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