by Gwendolyn Boevé-Jones, Mariana Escamilla-Martínez, Kimberly Frost
All paintings conservators know the exciting feeling when first examining an artwork close-up: it’s a special moment, even intimate in some way. We had an extraordinary situation in the studio when three very important paintings made in the same year by the leading artists of the German expressionist movement Die Brücke (The Bridge) arrived for conservation and in-depth technical imaging.
The years leading up to WWI in the art world were as hectic and conflict-ridden as the political and social situation in Europe. This period, 1912-1913, is precisely when the paintings we worked on were created. Unlike many paintings from this era, these artworks were well-preserved and had not been subject to any major interventions. This meant that we were able to fully appreciate and admire the original details of their brushwork, color palette, and materiality.
Side by side we were able to view and examine paintings by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; two scenes portraying bathers made by Erich Heckel and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 1913, and a third painting by Schmidt-Rottluff depicting a seaside landscape painted in the same year.
One striking fact highlighted by this comparison was their similarity in color palette. All three artists used pure and unmixed paints with a focus on primary colors. They used oil paints in non-traditional ways, such as applying the paint in thin glazes which yielded intense colors over the absorbent, white ground (see photos below).
All three artists prominently featured their brushwork in both areas of solid color application, as well as the formation and outline of shapes and figures. But their brushstrokes are distinct in rhythm and application. Heckel activates the surface with strong angular and diagonal strokes that sometimes barely meet leaving much of the white ground visible. Kirchner uses zigzagging strokes to accentuate the contours of his composition, while the colors below are applied with softer brushstrokes that vary the intensity. Schmidt-Rottluff applied strong dark outlines around the shapes and used both long fluid strokes and shorter zigzag strokes within his strong blocks of color (see photos below).
These similarities are not surprising considering that these three artists had overlapped throughout their personal histories. Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff had known each other since childhood and had grown up together with a mutual love of art and painting, alongside an appreciation of literature and poetry. Heckel moved to Dresden in 1904, later followed by Schmidt-Rottluff, and it is here that they met the like-minded Fritz Bleyl and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner forming Die Brücke group of artists in the next year.
Although all four students had little or no experience in painting, they decided to dedicate their time to art. They absorbed all the influences that Dresden could offer - they wrote letters to and were acquainted with other avant-garde artists such as Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, and Kees van Dongen. It was their goal to capture the essence of art through the innovative use of form and color.
”... we want to wrest freedom for our gestures and for our lives from the older, comfortably established forces.” - from the program of the 1906 Die Brücke exhibition composed by Kirchner[i]
Discussions and disagreements within Die Brücke surrounding Kirchner’s publication “Chronik der Künstlergruppe Brücke” led to irreparable conflicts that ultimately resulted in the dissolution of the group in 1913. However, many of the members remained friends, and as these paintings show they continued to influence each other’s artistic development. We at Studio Redivivus have enjoyed preserving them for the years to come.
[i]The Expressionists by Wolf-Dieter Dube Thames and Hudson, 1985 p. 21.