November 6, 2012

"Pioneers and Exiles: German Expressionism" Exhibit Q&A

Jenny McComas, curator of Western Art after 1800 for the Indiana University Art Museum, discusses the new exhibit exploring works of art in German Expressionism that connect to moral behavior.

Courtesy of IU Art Museum.
How does this exhibit connect to Themester 2012?

The exhibition provides an opportunity to examine what constitutes ethical behavior in the art world. One section of the exhibition focuses on the impact of World War II on German Expressionist art. Seventy-five years ago, in July 1937, the Degenerate Art exhibition opened in Munich. This exhibition was one of the Nazis’ most spectacular undertakings in the realm of cultural propaganda. The exhibition, comprised of six hundred works of art recently removed from Germany’s state-run art museums, was meant to discredit German Expressionism—previously considered Germany’s proudest accomplishment in the field of modern art. Degenerate Art and its aftermath—the sale of most of the so-called degenerate works abroad—were examples of bad behavior at a governmental level. These sales presented potential buyers with an ethical dilemma as they had to consider whether it was “good” or “bad” to purchase these works for their own collections. The exhibition includes three works that the Nazis “purged” from German museums, including one that was featured in the Degenerate Art exhibition. I will be discussing these issues further at a gallery talk on December 5.

What inspired this exhibit?

A number of factors inspired the exhibition. As an art historian, my primary area of research is in early twentieth century German art, so it was natural to propose an exhibition that takes advantage of the IU Art Museum’s superb collection of German Expressionist art. The concept of the exhibition was also influenced by the work I have done as the head of the museum’s Nazi-Era Provenance Research Project. In this ongoing project, I conduct research into the provenance (ownership history) of European works in our collection. The goal is to determine whether or not the work could have been looted during World War II. By conducting research into the histories of these objects, I’ve uncovered fascinating stories and found interesting connections between works in the collection and important historical exhibitions or collectors. Thus, rather than simply organizing an exhibition that surveyed the Expressionist movement, I chose to present the works in a way that would also emphasize the history and development of the museum’s collection by highlighting previous owners or exhibition histories of many of the works on view.

Courtesy of IU Art Museum.
What does the title mean? Who are the exiles referred to in the title?

The title is a reference to the individuals who helped introduce German Expressionism to American audiences. The “pioneers” are the art museum directors, curators, scholars, and art dealers who played a role in bringing German Expressionism to America, writing about it, displaying it, and creating a market for it. The IU Art Museum’s first two directors, Henry Radford Hope and Thomas T. Solley, were pioneers in this regard. Hope prepared several exhibitions of Expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s and Solley was responsible for building up the collection we currently have at the museum. The “exiles” are German artists, collectors, and art dealers who fled Nazi Germany and resettled in the United States. In some cases, the “pioneers” and “exiles” were one and the same. Quite a few works in the exhibition were acquired either through purchase from German émigré art dealers or were donated by émigré collectors.

Most IU students probably don’t know what Expressionism is. Could you briefly explain some of the qualities that make a work Expressionist?

Expressionism was a modern art movement that arose in Germany in the early twentieth century. As the word “Expressionism” indicates, these works can be broadly characterized as expressive. Rather than depicting the world naturalistically, the Expressionists utilized color and form to express inner emotions or to depict contemporary events. There were two main groups of artists associated with Expressionism prior to World War I: the Brücke (Bridge) in Dresden and Berlin and the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) in Munich. The Brücke artists developed a bold, angular style characterized by radically simplified form and expressive color, while the Blaue Reiter artists were particularly interested in the spiritual power of color and in painting’s affinities to music. Artists associated with the Blaue Reiter, especially Wassily Kandinsky, were among the first European artists to experiment with abstraction in their work. World War I also had a profound impact on German artists, many of whom adopted an Expressionist aesthetic to comment upon Germany’s social and political woes.

This exhibit will be displayed from October 6 to December 23 in the Special Exhibitions Gallery on the first floor of the museum.

Amber Hendricks
Themester 2012 intern

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