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German expressionism highlights stunning new exhibit at D.C.'s National Gallery

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, "Three Bathers by Stones", 1913, color lithograph. Kirchner's work is a highlight of "Modern German Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection" at D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, Feb. 23-June 29.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, "Three Bathers by Stones", 1913, color lithograph. Kirchner's work is a highlight of "Modern German Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection" at D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, Feb. 23-June 29.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, "Three Bathers by Stones". National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Ruth and Jacob Kainen Collection

'Modern German Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection'


German expressionism, especially Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's work, is the centerpiece of a stunning exhibit of German modern art that opened Feb. 23 at Washington's National Gallery.

"Modern German Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection", ranging from romanticism to pop art, is the second of three exhibits featuring selections from Ruth Cole Kainen's generous bequest.

Kirchner (1880–1938), was her favorite artist. He even, indirectly and posthumously, brought her together with the man she married, artist and curator Jacob Kainen.

"'Someone at a luncheon mentioned Kirchner, and Jacob turned, politely, to tell me who he was. I responded, with a little annoyance, that I had a Kirchner lithograph hanging on my wall. Two days later Jacob called to ask if he could come see it. And we were on," she once told "The Washington Post". Within a year, they married on her 47th birthday in 1969.

She amassed "the most fantastic collection of Kirchner's works on paper outside of Europe," said the exhibition's curator Andrew Robison, NGA's Andrew W. Mellon senior curator of prints and drawings.

Kirchner's full range is well-represented in the exhibit, which continues through June 29.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Prolific, ever-developing, and extremely versatile, Kirchner was a master of painting, watercolor, drawing, sculpture, and printmaking. Examples in this exhibit include "Russian Dancers" a lithograph in red, blue, yellow, and black, and "Bathing Couple"; a woodcut printed in black, blue, green, and red; and "Performer Bowing" -- just a few of the many extraordinary works he created in one "miraculous" year alone, 1909.

Two self-portraits show him at very different times in his turbulent life. One is very gaunt, disturbed, unsettled. Five years later, in 1928, a multi-hued watercolor over crayon self-depiction shows him fondly remembering Berlin.

Kirchner suffered nervous breakdowns, triggered by his service in the German army in World War One. He created portraits of fellow sanatorium patients -- including conductor-composer Otto Klemperer -- and psychiatrists.

Curator Robison's favorite Kirchner is a portrait of psychiatrist Dr. Bauer, with three dome-shaped heads (one is quite phallic), and flashing blue eyes.

"It's a brilliant use of stylistic technique that shows this guy's activities and interests," Robison commented at a press preview. He noted that Kirchner used the technique of double faces as early as 1917, before Picasso did.

Dr. Bauer became one of Kirchner's greatest collectors, until the psychiatrist and his collection were victimized by the Nazis.

Kirchner, who was not Jewish, was forced out of the Berlin Academy of Arts in 1933. They eventually labeled him a "degenerate" (Entartete Kunst) artist and, ironically, "un-German". In 1937, Nazis confiscated more than 600 works of this non-Jewish artist from German museums, and either destroyed or sold them. Many ended up in America. Due to all this, Kirchner shot himself through the heart and died at age 58 in 1938.

Die Brücke (The Bridge)

One room is dedicated to works by the artists' community Kirchner founded, Die Brücke (The Bridge). They aimed to form a bridge "liberating German art from formal idealized art to a new German art rooted in daily life and realism," Robison said. They poor artists pooled their money to hire models and mount exhibitions.

Selections by Die Brücke members, including Emil Nolde and Egon Schiele, are from 1906-1914.

Emil Nolde

Nolde's "The Dancer" or "The Candle Dancer", of a woman gyrating in a burgundy hula skirt, is a joyous and unique print of this lithograph. It's also part watercolor and part printer's ink dabbed on by thumb.

Robison had wanted the finished impression, but was also intrigued by this very special proof. "Ruth snaps, 'You've got to have both. You buy this and we'll buy the other,'" he quoted.

Another of Nolde's six works in the show is a nude in green ink, "a wonderful print and a wonderful example of modern art."

Although Nolde had been sympathetic to Nazism, Nazis confiscated more than 1,000 of his works -- more than from any other artist. They included his work, as well as Kirchner's (and Chagall, Kandinsky, Klee, Grosz...), in the infamous 1937 "Degenerate Art" exhibit in Munich.

Nazis also prohibited Nolde 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.

Egon Schiele

Schiele, best-known for his highly sexual nudes, is instead represented only by "Mountain Stream".

Walter Gramatté

Gramatté, another of her favorite artists, has one of the most dramatic of all these striking works. The very fragile woodcut, red and black on yellow paper, was originally entitled "The Suicide", but Gramatté changed it to "Playing with Suicide."

Two of his "Torment" color lithograph impressions are displayed. "'I think you should have both,'" she had said.

Lea Grundig

One of the most terrifying works is "Under the Swastika: Gestapo in the House". Two adults and a child, with terror in their eyes, peek out behind doors. The 1934 drypoint is by Lea Grundig, who was deported to a concentration camp, but managed to flee. This is the exhibit's only work by a woman.

In buying art, Ruth Cole Kainen "always looked for the best...she was a very opinionated, strong-willed woman," said Robison. "She saw it always as coming to the Gallery (NGA)."

Robison, who had traveled extensively with her to buy artworks, recalled that she would say, "'We need it. Who has the money to pay for it?'" She was a major owner of a timber and lumber company.

Ruth Cole Kainen (1922–2009) served in the Navy WAVES during World War Two, earned two bachelor's degrees, was a freelance writer, and also volunteered for several Washington arts organizations.

She began collecting art in the early 1960s, and donated more than 750 works to the National Gallery.

"Thank you, Ruth," as the curator said.

For more info: "Modern German Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection", Feb. 23-June 29. Free. National Gallery of Art,, West Building, on the National Mall, Constitution Avenue Seventh Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-737-4215. Ruth and Jacob Kainen together donated a total 2,000 works to the NGA.

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