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LACMA ’s upcoming brush with German, French expressionists

by Tom Freudenheim

May 28, 2014 | 12:45 pm

Paul Cézanne, “Still Life with Apples,” 1893-1894. Photo courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Paul Cézanne, “Still Life with Apples,” 1893-1894. Photo courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) pre-eminent role as the American museum most regularly engaged in exhibitions to re-examine German Expressionism, its offshoots and variants was firmly established decades ago. The museum’s Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies also has secured the museum’s scholarly role in this field. So there’s a special sense of anticipation with the prospect of this summer’s major exhibition, “Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky,” opening June 8 in the Resnick Pavilion. For most of us, the term “Expressionism” seems automatically connected with the word “German” — at least when it’s not connected with “abstract.” This may soon change, as the exhibition means to suggest that Expressionism is less a national style than an international movement, in which both French and German artists played critical roles. 

Maybe this is the exhibition we’ve all been waiting for. After all, even our superficial visual recollections would somehow insist on a relationship between the intense colors of the so-called Fauve painters in France in the first years of the 20th century and the Germans painting at the same time. Yet, these two movements generally are presented to us as distinctly different ways of making art. A more reasonable, transnational understanding of art enriches our potential for viewing works without always categorizing them. To name just two predecessors, Cézanne’s cool proto-abstract paintings are contemporaneous with Van Gogh’s hotter and intense color essays, and we can anticipate that the exhibition will help us make sense of, and presumably even realign, such presumed opposing sensibilities in the Expressionist works. Expressionism with a Parisian “spine” sounds like a stretch, but this French core will form the central part of the exhibition’s installation. With works by Gauguin, Cézanne, Rousseau and Matisse, this means of display is intended to show us what German artists saw when they visited Paris. Various thematic groups will be offshoots of this central corridor, giving us the opportunity to reconsider their works and to rethink convenient and conventional pigeonholes: the French Fauves and  mostly French Cubists, as compared to the German Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke. It’s the interplay that should prove most instructive, making us see, it is hoped, familiar works in new ways. And, if it’s as interesting an exhibition as it promises to be, perhaps this way of looking at the art will also upend some of our ideas. Whoever thought works by Erich Heckel, Gabriele Münter and Max Pechstein would be featured in an exhibition with Pierre Bonnard and Théo van Rysselberghe?

One of the benefits of the recent Cubism exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art was it gave us a better understanding of the complex skeins of interconnections among and between various abstract movements. Orphism, Synchronism, Vorticism and De Stijl were all more or less contemporaneous, if somewhat localized, manifestations of the mode for abstraction. This exhibition at LACMA promises to enlarge our understanding of how the mania for applications of intense color and rethinking representational art was no less radical. 

In addition, by focusing on the impact of specific collectors and art dealers, among them the legendary Paul Cassirer and Alfred Flechtheim, and their influence in spreading and supporting aesthetic ideas, there may well be an opportunity to consider whether and how these forces operate in today’s far more interconnected art world. It’s also not coincidental that the exhibition will be on view during the summer of 2014 — a century after that last summer of what appeared, at least superficially, to be a world more or less at peace. These works can offer a vision of what the world felt like at that time, and also serve as a prelude to the World War I commemorations that will soon commence everywhere. An art exhibition that looks at the transmission of ideas about national identity and cultural heritage thus becomes especially timely.

The exhibition opened first in Zurich, but Los Angeles is the only United States venue for the show, which will then go on to Montreal. It will include loans of major works from museums in New York, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg and Zürich, but the most exciting aspect remains the reorientation of so many familiar artists into relationships that generally have not been emphasized. LACMA curator Timothy O. Benson led the team that organized this exhibition and edited the catalog, which includes a range of essays by an international group of scholars. There’s something deeply satisfying in seeing LACMA continue its leadership role in this arena.

“Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky” will run June 8-Sept. 14 at LACMA. For more information, visit lacma.org.

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