Expressionists Great and Not So Great

LONDON — Sometimes life gets a little queasy. Take today, for example, as I walk toward the entrance to the Press View (my capitals) of a new show called Expressionists at Tate Modern. 

The table is laid with heaps of paper to be given away — and one to be signed to prove you are who you are and not, say, Franz Kafka, returned from the grave to add further thickenings of gloom and despondency to the tragedy of our times. 

Glancing ahead over a muscling of shoulders, I see that many people are already in Gallery One, looking at this and that, and perhaps even scribbling too. Some do both. The true connoisseur just looks, fingers knotted behind back until they ache. 

What’s up then? Why the queasiness? The problem is in the word itself: Expressionists. Am I sure that I know, after all these long years of gawping at thousands of paintings, what the word really means? I mean REALLY REALLY means? It readily attaches itself to Germany, of course, like an overcoat introduced to any random door hook. 

I try to take a deep breath or two. I spell my own name correctly. And hey, presto, in I go.

A solution has hit me like a lightning bolt. A wall panel — probably the very first one, in the very first gallery — will explain it all, and I’ll be able to pass on that newly acquired clarity without missing a key’s tap. 

The wall text does no such thing. In summary, it just uses such words as these: bold experiments with color, dramatic forms, atonal music, and free-verse poetry. I immediately think of the vibrant colors and strange angularities of Kandinsky as he wrestles between the figurative and the abstract, and I think of putting music with image.  

Let’s carry on then! Let’s give the show its full title: Expressionists: Kandinsky, Münter and the Blue Rider. It tells the story of many artists who formed a loose grouping in the years before World War One dismembered the old guard. In short, it’s a dying empire’s last great huzzah. A lot of familiar names are in this show — Kandinsky, Klee, and Franz Marc, to name but three. One of its centers — in fact, a key center  —  is Munich, and an entire gallery is devoted to who gathered there. Like any good show, it breaks new ground, by introducing us to artists of whom we may have been all but unaware, such as Wladimir Burliuk.

But it has its problems too, big problems. It is a very large show indeed — 12 galleries in all — and it feels too large for its own good. It includes too many works of an indifferent quality — together with a considerable number of masterpieces. Pulses race only intermittently.  

The show feels like an extended PhD thesis. It is full of good, knotty argument. It breaks important new ground around such matters as gender, race, and nationalities — the Expressionism being described here is a multi-national project. It is worth knowing who all these people were, to dig more deeply into the complicated story of Wassily Kandinsky’s heritage, for example. But what happens if what you are discovering when exploring a field in great depth is not as exciting aesthetically as the important fact that it has been discovered at all?

Let us consider the relatively small matter of the Tote Bag, the forever-on-the-move public face of any exhibition. The image on this tote bag, which I spot in the bookstore, is a reproduction of the portrait of Alexander Sacharoff. A performance artist and dancer who is much discussed in the fifth gallery, Sacharoff’s main subject was the performance of gender. 

Sacharoff studied ballet, acrobatics, and free movement in Munich. Memories of his public performances have been kept alive in the sketchbooks of Marianne Werefkin, who not only painted his portrait, but also drew him in action. It is her 1909 portrait of Sacharoff that you can carry around on that tote bag, and its quality is very indifferent indeed. The bag itself weighs in at £20.

This problem arises repeatedly in this show: you are told an interesting fact, and then presented with a series of yawn-worthy images. The Expressionists seem to have lost too much of their expressive energy. 

The last three galleries, which concentrate on sound, color, and light, bring much more urgency and focus to the exhibition. They lead us closer to the heart of what Expressionism actually achieved when at its best. It regarded itself as a scientific, intellectual, and spiritual endeavor, a synthesizing force for separate artistic disciplines. It built on Goethe’s explorations of color theory: how the use of color affects our moods, what its emotional qualities consist of. The artists conducted scientific experiments in order to discover, for example, what happens when you view a painting through a prism. It shifted across disciplines — Kandinsky wrote poetry and played the cello. He also explored the relation between word and image. He collaborated with the composer Schonberg, whose music plays in Gallery Nine. Schonberg was himself a painter. Franz Marc regarded himself as half cleric and half philosopher. Art had the capacity to heal, to cross-fertilize, to challenge fixed ideas. Art need not be confined to gallery spaces. It could make the world anew.   

Expressionists: Kandinsky, Münter and the Blue Rider continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, England) through October 20. The exhibition was organized by Tate Modern in collaboration with Lenbachhaus, Munich, and curated by Natalia Sidlina, Tate Modern curator of international art, and Genevieve Barton, assistant curator of international art.

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