Looking for a new direction in German art, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff joined forces with friends and fellow artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, and Erich Heckel to form Die Brucke in 1905. Die Brucke (or “The Bridge” in English) looked to bridge the gap between modern life and artistic expression and represented the first stirrings of Expressionism in Germany . Born on December 1, 1884, Schmidt-Rottluff in his Self-Portrait (above, from 1906) shows the strong influence of Van Gogh on him and his fellow German Expressionists, which the recent Neue Galerie exhibition and publication Van Gogh and Expressionism (which I reviewed here) examined in depth. These young artists took the lessons of Van Gogh’s art and memorable life story and followed his example in expressing their own feelings in pre-World War I Germany.
Following the example of Emil Nolde, an “honorary” member of Die Brucke, Schmidt-Rottluff revived the woodcut as a means of artistic expression. Like Nolde, Schmidt-Rottluff found the crude lines of the woodcut capable of great feeling, especially in the depiction of religious subjects. In his Christ and Judas (above, from 1918), the faces of the savior and his betrayer, at the intimate moment of the betrayal with a kiss, Schmidt-Rottluff captures all the pathos of that scene. In 1918, as World War I began to come to its sad conclusion for Germany and the punitive measures of the Treaty of Versailles loomed, Schmidt-Rottluff may be commenting on the betrayal of Germany itself by those who had led the nation into war with grand promises of victory.
In the Twilight (above, from 1912) shows the influence of Edvard Munch on Schmidt-Rottluff. Amazingly, both Munch and Van Gogh found their first popular audience in Germany (Munch while alive and Van Gogh posthumously), thanks in large part to the championing of Die Brucke and like-minded artists. Although Die Brucke dissolved in 1913, its influence carried on in German art for decades, bringing the best of modern art to that culture even before the native cultures accepted it. Sadly, with the rise of the Nazis, Schmidt-Rottluff and Die Brucke fell under the banner of “Degenerate Art” and momentarily lost their place in German society and art. The same insight that allowed them to see the merits of Van Gogh and Munch so early later cost them as the Nazis swept away all art they felt was foreign and, therefore, decadent. In truth, Schmidt-Rottluff and Die Brucke represented all that was truly great about early modern German art in its versatility and endless acceptance of all methods of expression.