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German modern art exhibit focuses on expressionism at D.C.'s National Gallery

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The German expressionists, who created some of the most powerful art of the 20th century, are featured in an exciting new exhibition at Washington's National Gallery of Art.

"Modern German Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection" shows "a common thread that connects the 18th century to the late 20th century, and mixes German Romanticism and impressionism with German expressionism, the Bauhaus, and even pop art," said Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery (NGA).

The free exhibit, on display Feb. 23-June 29, includes:

  • Two galleries of vivid, powerful works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Prolific and versatile, Kirchner was a master of painting, watercolor, drawing, sculpture, and printmaking. They include "Russian Dancers" a lithograph in red, blue, yellow, and black, and "Bathing Couple"; a woodcut printed in black, blue, green, and red; "Performer Bowing" -- just a few of the many extraordinary works he created in one year alone, 1909.

Kirchner was Ruth Kainen's favorite artist, and her collection of his works on paper is one of the best outside Europe, noted exhibition curator Andrew Robison, NGA's Andrew W. Mellon senior curator of prints and drawings.

He quoted Kirchner as saying that viewers should get three things from his work: "'a free, aesthetic pleasure; a new sense of beauty and life; and the secret of an inner life, an otherwise inexplicable relationship between beings and things.'"

Kirchner especially enjoyed creating images of people moving, often dancing or swimming. In all his work, he showed "the interflow of life and art," Robison noted in a press preview.

World War One was a turning point for him, as for so many in Europe. He enlisted in the German army, but found the regimentation impossible. He had two nervous breakdowns, but in a sanatorium, he creates portraits, including one of the famed conductor Otto Klemperer in 1916. The artist started using sleeping drugs, then morphine, but continued creating wide-ranging, gripping works.

With the rise of Nazism, Kirchner was forced out of the Berlin Academy of Arts in 1933. They eventually labeled him a "degenerate" (entartete) artist and "un-German". In 1937, Nazis confiscated more than 600 of his works from German museums, and either destroyed or sold them. Many ended up in America. Due to all this, Kirchner committed suicide in 1938.

  • Several paintings by Kirchner's Die Brücke (The Bridge) colleagues, including Emil Nolde. Although Nolde had been sympathetic to Nazism, Nazis confiscated more than 1,000 of his works -- more than from any other artist. Nazis prohibited him from painting in 1941, so he worked secretly in watercolor, and termed them "unpainted pictures". His Berlin studio, with many of his prints, was destroyed by bombs in 1944.
  • Works by expressionists' precedents, such as Edvard Munch and Max Klinger.
  • Unusual drawings by other famous artists, including intensely personal works by Egon Schiele, and abstractions by Kurt Schwitters.

"Her favorite works by less well-known artists, like the tender and fragile Walter Gramatté, the profound and vivid Ludwig Meidner, and dreamy Wilhelm Morgner," the NGA noted.

"Ruth discovered people," said the exhibition's curator Robison "She was unusual in that she collected not just for the name of an artist, but for the depth and breadth of a school."

This exhibition is the second of three featuring selections from Ruth Cole Kainen's bequest.

Ruth Cole Kainen (1922–2009), who began collecting art in the early 1960s, served in the Navy WAVES during World War Two, earned two bachelor's degrees, was a freelance writer, and also volunteered for major Washington arts organizations. On her 47th birthday, she married Jacob Kainen, a painter, draftsman, and printmaker.

"Jacob and Ruth Kainen, one of the foremost couples in Washington art circles, have been astute connoisseurs and generous donors to the Gallery for many decades, giving more than 2,000 works to the collection," said Earl A. Powell III, NGA director.

For more info: "Modern German Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection", Feb. 23-June 29. Free. National Gallery of Art, http://www.nga.gov, West Building, on the National Mall, Constitution Avenue Seventh Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-737-4215.

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