Primitivism and Modernity in German Expressionist Art, 1905–13

Saturday, January 9, 2016
Galleria Exhibit Hall (Hilton Atlanta)
Andrew Cavin, Wayne State University
This poster reeavaluates the historical significance of the artwork of the German Expressionist group the Brücke. The Brücke, which formed in Dresden in 1905, was the first group of German visual artists to incorporate into their work a new aesthetic interest in the life and art of “primitives” (Naturvölker or Wilden).

Commentary on the Brücke has routinely characterized their work as a type of “romantic” primitivism, an idealization of the “primitive” other as authentic, free, and unalienated, in opposition to a modern society that was artificial, atrophied, and alienated. My research shows that, on the contrary, the Brücke’s use of primitivist motifs did not present the primitive in opposition to modernity, but rather used the primitive to undermine the distinctions between primitive and civilized. Unlike French primitivists and Munich-based group the Blaue Reiter, the Brücke did not romanticize “primitives” as authentic and unalienated, but rather thwarted the use of such concepts. Their work therefore offered a fundamental criticism of a contemporary development in twentieth-century thought, the sociological-philosophical critque of modern life as “disenchanted.”

The view of the Brücke as romantic primitivists is due to an entrenched historiographical tendency to read their work through the lens of contemporary critics of modernity, such as Georg Simmel, Julius Langbehn, and Wilhelm Worringer. However, I show that these figures were not major influences. I trace the Brücke's inspirations in Jugendstil (in particular Hermann Obrist) and other late-nineteenth century cultural sources (including the poetry of Walt Whitman)—sources which, while they could be critical of contemporary art and society, did not embrace the assumptions made by the critique of modernity cited above—namely, the radical oppositions between authenticity and alienation, nature and society, primitive and modern.

This research would be well suited to the poster format. I would present large reproductions of artworks as the focal point for conversation. I would include excerpts of the contemporary writings that have been used to understand the Brücke’s aesthetics, both from the conventional historiography and from my own research. Since both “contexts” lead to a very different understanding of the artwork, it may be interesting to attempt a variable scheme, in which a flipped display presents either the conventional sources or my own. The format will raise questions about how context shapes interpretations, and the difficulties of assessing historical aesthetics.

I will include quotations from the few available programmatic writings, and I will display artworks from others, such as the Blaue Reiter, to demontrate the difference between romantic primitivism and the Brücke’s critical primitivism.

I am excited about the opportunity to discuss interpretations and aesthetics in detail with visitors. As the Brücke artworks have been uniformly understood from a singular perspective, personal convesations will enable me to learn where viewers are receptive to my arguments, and where they require further evidence or support. I’ll also benefit from unexpected insights, all of which will be most helpful as I prepare my research for publication.

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