Alte Nationalgalerie: Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende

Tuesday. The delightful Ms. V. is once more in Berlin, this time without the other of the previous visit’s VNS Matrix duo. Three days only. Of those, only two full, and of those, only one not spent talking breakfast ’til past the witching hour. What to do then, on the one day when things can be done? Go lake wandering in Brandenburg? How about museums? Museuminsel! Virginia has never been there, and there is an exhibition I’ve decided I need to see. Better yet, a day card for all the museums on the island, and we can gorge ourselves on art.

By the time we get there, it’s 15h. Three hours only for gorging. Into Alte Nationalgalerie, my third time there this year (once for the Gottfried Lindauer: Die Māori-Portraits exhibition, and once for general permanent exhibition perusing.) This time for ImEx: Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende. Up to the first floor. Options: left, right, straight ahead. Left looks like expressionism. Left it is then. Surprise! It’s all mashed together, side by side antagonism and curiously, harmony.

The exhibition is split into twelve greater and lesser sections, each one filling one of the large halls or the smaller chambers which horseshoe around the central atrium: Bathing, Diversions (dancing, opera, theatre, cabaret…), Behind Closed Doors (portraits of private life), Artists (self-portraits and portraits of each other), Art Mediators (collectors, critics, dealers…), Animals, Still Lifes, Out of Doors, Country Homes, City, Premonitions of War, and where we ended, Relationships (they all sound less stiff in German). Many of the works I recognise from my previous visit—some even remaining where they usually hang, and the room’s theme built around them; others come from the museum’s archives; others from private collections, public and private galleries across Germany—Dresden, Düsseldorf, München … of course also Brücke-Museum in Berlin—from Paris, Brussels, London, New York, Madrid, Amsterdam … a surprising amount though from Berlin and the various galleries and institutions in the city. It’s massive, comprehensive, overwhelming in that way the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin excels at.

Context? I’m not so sure. I didn’t use the audio guide, which a) cost an extra four euros and b) I didn’t feel like going that deeply into something with such a narrow timeframe. I do know the audio from my previous visits, and for some works it is comprehensive—for this exhibition with the audio, it would take a minimum of four hours to get through. Many of the works I photographed didn’t have an audio accompaniment, and I don’t think I was especially favouring the odd or lesser works, in fact I photographed over half (not all of those are below), as well, the catalogue is in German, so I’ll put it out there that the SMB tripped itself up once again when it comes to context.

I—we: myself, Virginia, and Sarah-Jane–arrive in the Bathing room. Immediate conflict between the bourgeois Impressionism and the Punk’s Not Dead Expressionism. I appreciate the former, it’s all very nice and pretty and earnest, but it’s far more of a fantasy land than the brawling lascivious colour and porn of the latter. Impressionism is the art of colonial, racist, imperial Europe about to go to war and already busy with genocide. Expressionism exists in that world, yet it’s against everything Impressionism represents, even if it can’t articulate that without falling into the racist and misogynist language of the former. It’s telling that all the people of colour, all the queers, all the revolutionary politics happens in Expressionism (occasionally in Post-Impressionism). It’s a middle finger, and one that’s going to get stomped on.

Emil Nolde’s Papua-Jünglinge, three Papua kids sprawling on a beach before an emerald ocean. It’s almost ugly caricature, yet next to Max Pechstein’s Sitzendes Mädchen (Moritzburg) and Paul Gauguin’s Tahitianische Fischerinnen it looks far more believable and honest than the vapid Renoir.

Into the dance hall. First a bunch of works on paper from the Kupferstichkabinett. Ballet dancers, cabaret girls, really famous works like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s Der Loge mit der Goldmaske and Die sitzende Clownesse, Mademoiselle Cha-U-Kao, aus der Mappe Elles, or Edgar Degas’s Mademoiselle Bécat im Café des Ambassadeur. There’s also Lautrec’s Der Tanz im Moulin Rouge, which I looked at, looked at again, yes, it’s exactly that, two older women dancing and they are definitely in love. I would steal that.

On to the paintings, Emil Nolde’s Tanz II is a raw, harsh riot of colour and vicious brushwork shoved hard onto canvas. It’s glorious and I wish contemporary dance could be half as fucking useful and alive as this. Nearby is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Zwei Tänzerinnen, Kirchner who I saw over and over and adore, and this one just reminds me of Dasniya, all glaring yellow tutus and serious bedlam. And beside that … yup, the one I nearly cried over, Edgar Degas’ Tänzerinnen im Probensaal, which I gave it’s own post—and forgot to mention Degas is a nasty anti-semite.

Then there’s Auguste Chabaud’s explosive French Cancan, Georg Tappert’s Kreolin, which you can’t miss because it’s the first thing you see when you enter, and it’s huge and loud. On to portraits and still lifes like the beautiful Die Frau des Künstlers by August Macke, and Paul Cézanne’s Stillleben mit Blumen und Früchten—this time properly lit and placed so it wasn’t a glaring hell of glassy reflection, and was right beside Alex von Jawlensky’s Stillleben mit Blumen und Früchten, which is basically the same work on a week of LSD.

Kirchner returns with Gründe Dame im Gartencafé, then Nollendorfplatz followed by Potsdamer Platz, all highly political and scornful of monied Berlin social life, he’s more or less the Chris Morris of Expressionism. Kirchner also finished the exhibition (for me, as usual I wandered improperly) with what he passes off as Skizzierender Künstler mit zwei Frauen; Künstlergruppe, but is in fact a mid-way drawing pause during a romp with two naked babes. His work was labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis, and hundreds of pieces destroyed before he committed suicide, survived by his wife Erna, who is probably one of the two woman.

A few of the works are not to be photographed. The museum assistants are usually strict in enforcing this, yet inadvertently I photographed all but one, even taking closeups of Kirchner’s Künstlergruppe while an assistant was standing right beside. Something about both of us not paying attention. One work I was diligent in casing was Claude Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge, 1899 which no photograph can even approximate. It’s like a portal out of this universe. It hangs on the wall looking altogether alien, present but not belonging. I’m not a fan of Monet, it’s a whole lot of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the eyes, but this one, to see it here, ok, I get it, I get this. He makes everyone, Impressionist, Post- or otherwise, Expressionist, Die Brücke, the Fauvists, all of them look like tiny, insular variations on a single argument, and Charing Cross Bridge lands in the middle, a total Outside Context Problem. The image below, any image isn’t going to convince anyone of this, only this, hanging inappropriately like it’s pulled its pants down and is flashing the other works in this exhibition will do that. I still don’t really like it, just can’t deny it’s fucking uncanny.

What else? A few works by women, Maria Slavona’s Häuser am Montmartre, Marie Braquemond’s Die Teestunde are two that made it below. It’s mad popular, 100 000 visitors so far. It needs a proper half-day with audio guide, and supplies air-dropped. Probably going again (anyway, I have the Neues Museum to see also, and it’s right next door.)