Brücke Artists and National Socialism

From February 1906 to November 1907 Nolde was part of the Brücke artist group, which existed from 1905 to 1913. Its members included Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Their invitation to Nolde was extended after seeing his art at Arnold’s in Dresden in early 1906, where works by Vincent van Gogh, important to all of them, had previously been presented. While Nolde’s own Brücke affiliation was thus very much linked to Post-Impressionist influences, Nolde opposed the admission of Christian Rohlfs, presumably because the latter’s art displayed too much proximity to the French.

Although the influence of Post-Impressionism can clearly be seen in the Brücke works, it nevertheless intended to produce a new German art able to counter French art in an at least equal manner. In his public lecture series in the summer semester of 1933, German art historian and museum director Max Sauerlandt (1880–1934), one of Nolde’s most important supporters, stated: “The core of the problem of the validity and significance of contemporary German art: Is there today, or has there been since the era of French-European Impressionism, any German art at all worthy of that name, a painting significant enough in and by itself to be placed alongside the paintings of past times?” Sauerlandt’s answer was entirely in the spirit of German Expressionism and its protagonists Nolde and the Brücke artists, to each of whom the art historian devoted a lecture, beginning with Nolde. For Sauerlandt it was clear: “Tirelessly all these artists, Nolde at the top, drew, watercolored, painted in nature, in front of nature, according to nature; admittedly never with the intention of academically correct reproduction, but always with the inescapable direction of lending a poetic form to the factual that was before their eyes, the form of the Romantic poetry they carried within; or with the innate capacity to realize something imaginary in the conscious certainty that the ‘spirit of the real is the truly ideal.’ [...] German Expressionism is nothing else than the latest German form of a Romanticism pathetically exaggerating and violently superstructing reality from the forces of emotion.” (Max Sauerlandt: Die Kunst der letzten 30 Jahre, Berlin 1935, pp. 135; 142f.)

Although this argumentation resembled the reasoning of Expressionism supporters in the 1910s, a status of official acceptance had been reached at this point, with the admission of Brücke artists to the Prussian Academy of Arts—including Pechstein in 1922 and Nolde in 1931. For Nolde, this must have been of great significance, as Liebermann, his one-time opponent, presided over the Academy from 1920 to 1932. How hard the Brücke artists were hit by the following National Socialist cultural policy’s rejection of Expressionism can be seen in their respective responses to the Prussian Academy of Arts’ requests for resignation. In his reply, Kirchner thus wrote: “For almost thirty years now I have been fighting for a new strong and genuine German art through my work and will do so as long as I live. I am neither a Jew nor a Social Democrat nor have I been political otherwise, and I have a clear conscience. I am therefore in favor of waiting calmly with respect to what the new government will do in the matter of the Academy, and I also trustfully place the question of my membership in your hands.” (Kirchner in a letter to Max von Schillings dated May 17, 1933). Pechstein emphatically reacted to the request of resignation and explicitly named his Aryan descent and his affiliation with the Nazi regime: “I, as well as my wife, are proven to be full Aryans, my oldest son is an S.A. man, my youngest son is already in his second year in the Jungvolk [separate section for boys aged 10 to 13 of the Hitler Youth organisation], and in addition I myself have been a member of the N.S.V. [National Socialist People’s Welfare Association] and a member of the N.S. Air Sports Association since 1934. [...] Pride in my ancestors, an old lineage of courtiers and armorers, forbids me to take a step with which I deny myself a part of my honor.” (Pechstein in a letter to the Prussian Academy of Arts, July 12,1937).

Pechstein’s participation in a competition by the Propaganda Ministry in 1934 proved that he was also artistically versatile and adaptable (illustration). In the realistic manner of New Objectivity Pechstein’s design, entitled Das Symbol der Arbeit (The Symbol of Work), for a mural of the “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength through Joy) organization KdF, features four blacksmiths under the lettering “Kraft durch Freude” along with a swastika.

In post-war reception, the stigma of “degenerate” art has often led to a truncated understanding of Classical Modernist artists solely as victims of the Nazi regime. A close look at their decisions, actions, and work does not diminish the fact that they indeed were. But it also shows that the personalities and their individual attitudes were far more multifaceted and in part contradictory.

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