Important Art by Erich Heckel
House in Dangast (The White House)
Heckel's painting is the raw result of an artist striving for a personal artistic expression. This canvas, of the Old Post House in Dangast (the "White House"), was painted by Heckel at the age of twenty-two and was produced on his second visit to the North Sea location. As art historian Wolf-Dieter Dube observed, "Landscapes became more important and more numerous when Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff decided to make their first trip to Dangast in 1907". The painting itself strongly hints at the influence of Post-Impressionism and Fauvism which is obvious in the non-naturalistic, clashing, colours (which are in fact more evocative of a sun-ripened Mediterranean location than of Germany's more inclement North Sea coast).
The painting, according to historian Peter Vergo, marks something of a turning point - or maturation - in/of the artist's style. He wrote that "[the painting] signals a dramatic move away from the heavy impasto characteristic of his works done in the preceding year towards a flatter, clearer manner of painting. The pigment is now sparingly applied, the composition dominated by flat, luminous planes of colour. Heckel at this time started diluting paints with varnish or even paraffin, experimenting with ground pigments and attempting to devise a kind of thin distemper that might suit his increasingly rapid an impulsive brushwork".
Later in the year Heckel and other Die Brücke members exhibited alongside Fauvist works by the likes of Derain, Vlaminck, Kees Van Dongen and Othon Friesz at Dresden's Kunstsalon Richter gallery. Vergo wrote, "Matisse, too, was known in Germany in 1909 at the latest, in part through his exhibition at Cassirer's in Berlin of January of that year. House in Dangast had, on the other hand, had been painted as early as the preceding summer, and it is possible that Heckel had arrived independently at similar conclusions, and that his later statement that he was unaware of contemporary French art should be taken quite literally".
Oil on canvas - Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid
Bathers in the Reeds
The historian Wolfgang Henze writes: "Although the 'Brücke' painters had a relatively undramatic landscape at their disposal in the environs of Dresden and Berlin or on the North Sea and Baltic coasts, they nevertheless represented it in compositions of wildly exaggerated colours and forms, compositions in which their main subject matter, the human being in all his natural nakedness, exists in passionate, likewise gesturally exaggerated unison with the landscape, drawing a parallel, perhaps, with the artists' own coexistence, however dissonant, with the cultural landscape of the city".
In Bathers in the Reeds, six figures are frolicking in a summer landscape. On the left, a bather runs towards his companions. They are made up of a pair enjoying a piggy-back game, two who appear to be engaged in a game or conversation, and another who crouches, perhaps setting down a picnic, under the tree that dominates the right side of the frame. The colours are broadly naturalistic - the reeds and grasses are green and yellow, and the tree is rendered in a greenish blue. It isn't clear if the figures are clothed, as flesh colours are blended here with non-natural colours. Heckel does not give his players faces with their individualism carried rather by their movements. Their anonymity is perhaps meant as a cipher for the projection of the artist's own happy experiences.
The subgenre of bathing scenes recalls a series by Paul Cézanne and, like the Frenchman, Heckel's picture also celebrates the idea of being at one with nature. Yet Cézanne's more marshalled orchestration of his scenes is not shared by Heckel whose composition is more diffuse and relaxed. The viewer's eye runs, with the figure on the left, across the setting from figure to figure and back with freedom; gone here is the centralised organisation of the picture space. But there is still a concerted idealising impulse in the picture; it is not specific but speaks generally of the eternal power of nature. The ambiguity of the nudity/non-nudity, meanwhile, invokes the idea of an indeterminacy between modernity and eternity. We might ask: are we seeing a scene from the distant or mythological past, or is Heckel placing us firmly in the present?
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Crystalline Day (Day of Glass)
Art historians Norbert Wolf and Ute Grosenick have observed in Heckel's work of the 1910s that "[e]motional expression continued to play a key role, but combined with well-considered, rationally controlled form". Here, indeed, the forms are simplified but discordant. It is thought that Heckel was influenced by an encounter with an exhibition of Futurist work in 1912 and this image deploys devices, like the fracturing of pictorial space, that are strongly associated with the Futurists.
The art critic Tom Kwei said of the work: "The image really seems to clamp down around the viewer. The shoreline at the left-hand side extending out from the gently evoked greenery to the water itself and forming a hinge of sorts which leans forward reflecting the abstract clouds to the jagged icicles below. As a result of this inward cast horizon everything is foreshortened. The woman upfront bathing appears to perfectly embody this mildly contorted aesthetic as her oddly positioned arms fit snugly within the cliffside reflection of the water. The nearby worn rocks are neatly nestled but never touching the cloud patterns on the lake. Heckel's effect here then is one of the crystalline, a sense of direct statis in which all parts carefully lattice".
Heckel's intention remains uncertain here, however. The painting's title hints perhaps at a nostalgic wish for the return of some fragile and passing bliss he experienced with his erstwhile friends and colleagues who frolicked freely around the Moritzburg ponds. It is as if for him the memory of that idyll should be "crystalized" in this painting. Or it could be that Heckel was simply experimenting with new formal treatments. Either way, Kwei pointed to this kind of ambiguity when he concluded his analysis of the painting with the observation that "As with the majority of Expressionist influenced work of the period, there is an erratic quality burrowed beneath the vision so that the setting and figure are common, but the feelings are not".
Oil on canvas - Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich
Judged unfit for combat during World War I, Heckel worked throughout the war in the Red Cross medical corps in Flanders. His troupe was headed by the art historian Walter Kaesbach who encouraged Heckel to continue to paint and make prints throughout the conflict. It was during the terror and human suffering that surrounded him that this picture (referred to by some as simply as "Madonna") was painted. Heckel's "Madonna" is bedecked in modest black and she kneels by a brook that is illuminated by the reflection of the midday sun that hangs high in Heckel's heavenly blue sky. Her praying hands and intense fixed facial expression are complemented by the verdant richness of the landscape that contains her.
The hopeful (yet buried) religiosity and human solidarity elicited by this painting does not mark a departure from Expressionism; it is rather evidence of an exploration of one more phenomenon of human subjectivity. The woman's expression is solemn, even fraught. She carries the inscription of a fractured self. Yet, for a man shaken by his own experience of war, Heckel's art takes a perhaps unexpected turn in this picture. He offers an antidote to the pessimism and solitude engendered by war by bringing an anodyne hope in the face of such suffering. Heckel's "Madonna", placed in by him is such luscious natural surroundings, is the embodiment of hope. Painted using the medium of tempera, the image is executed in the manner of an early Renaissance Madonna; Heckel bringing the past into the present with his Madonna's intense green eyes staring forward towards a better world.
Of this work's reception on the front where it was painted, Heckel said: "How glad I was to paint that for the soldiers, it is very beautiful, how much respect and even love for art there is in human beings, in spite of everything [...] and who would have thought that my style, which seemed so modern and incomprehensible to critics and public at rotten exhibitions in the cities, would now be able to speak and convey something to men to whom I make a gift of it".
Tempera on canvas - Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg
Portrait of a Man (Männerbildnis)
Heckel, who used printmaking as a means of simplifying and flattening his compositions, produced more than one thousand such prints during his career. The vast majority of these were made between 1903 and 1923. He created Portrait of a Man, perhaps his most iconic self-portrait, in the direct aftermath of World War I. Although the Die Brücke school had long since folded, his image remains one of the most emblematic woodcuts of the German Expressionist movement. In it, Heckel's eyes are focused on some distant object or event while his hands, clasped beneath his chin, suggest a man deep in thought; possibly contemplating the troubled years that have just passed or which lay ahead.
The Sotheby's auction house describes how "Heckel has left apparent the basic characteristics of the material in the work's sharp and rugged lines; cuttings that have been largely pre-determined by the natural grain of the wood block. As this process of gouging or hacking away has been employed here to portray the artist's state of fatigued reflection, it is as if Heckel has chiselled into his own face the physical ravages of time and experience. The colouring of the print augments the affective power that has been generated by the vaguely aggressive connotations of its production. The sickly green that makes up the portrait appears as another physical manifestation of the artist's emotional temperament. Moreover, the ink has been applied - rather unconventionally - with a brush rather than a roller, leaving the covering of the colours less than comprehensive. Such partial application makes Heckel's face appear all the more pallid and worn".
The woodcut technique was adopted, also in 1919, by the burgeoning post-war film industry which was looking for a "distinctively German" film style that would distinguish it from the dominant American films on international markets. The first of these was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which modelled its painted expressionistic sets on the Heckelian woodcut as a means of "expressing" the tortured imagination of the film's narrator (Caligari is in fact often cited as the first horror film). New York Museum of Modern Art's Deborah Wye suggests that "Portrait of a Man, a gaunt self-portrait created in the difficult months just after the war ended, manifests a psychic weariness that may be interpreted as broadly symbolic of the German people at that time". In was a view taken up in one of the landmark books in film history, From Caligari to Hitler (1946). Its author, Siegfried Kracauer, argued that in Caligari, and in the series of German Expressionist films that followed throughout the 1920s, one could trace a collective national disquiet that would allow, albeit unconsciously, Nazism to rise up.
Woodcut on paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Great dancing pair (Grosses tanzpaar)
This is one of the few surviving cabaret paintings Heckel painted during the 1920s. In it, an elegantly dressed couple dance on a raised stage. They are performing in front of yellowy-gold drapes, and they are flanked by the accompanying musicians who are positioned in the orchestra pit, to the performers' left. The painting is an expression of the (false) feeling of optimism that followed the formation (in 1919) of the Weimar Republic. Artists such as Heckel were lulled into a sense of freedom in the years after the war and before the full onset of fascism (the Republic was officially abolished in 1933).
Heckel's work was expressive of this new mood of optimism. His Berlin paintings became more decorative as he captured city nightlife in confident colors. Curator Laurie Benson notes that in this work, "there is a sense of frenzy and tension expressed by the strong colours, hard angularity of the dancers' pose and their rigid facial expressions [while the] way Heckel has treated the band seen in the background of the painting is reminiscent of the work of his close colleague Ernst Ludwig Kirchner".
When the Nazis took power in 1933, Heckel was, like so many of his colleagues, labelled a "degenerate artist" and his artworks were removed from the walls of German art galleries. Some of his paintings were placed in the exhibition of Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) which was toured throughout Germany in 1937. As Benson writes, "The aim of that exhibition was to ridicule modern art and incite hatred against progressive thinking. [Heckel] was also legally forbidden to practise his profession after 1933, although he did continue to paint. Unable to sell their works, and with art supplies critically scarce, it was common for artists to paint over old canvases or use the back of works they were no longer able to sell legally". Indeed, Great dancing pair was only posthumously discovered and on the reverse of a landscape he painted in 1939. The landscape features the Flensburg countryside in northern Germany, a region to where Heckel retreated during World War II.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Victoria
Landscape on the fjord (Landschaft an der Förde)
The Head of Conservation at the National Gallery of Victoria, Michael Varcoe-Cocks, noted that "While it is common to find labels, stamps, hand-written inscriptions or even misplaced items wedged behind a work, the most treasured versos reveal additional images". He adds that although "delegated to face the wall, the opposing side of a two-dimensional work [verso] often accumulates valuable information that helps researchers understand more about an artist's practice, a work's provenance and issues of authenticity". And so it proved with Heckel's "recto" (front facing), Landscape on the fjord, which, it transpired, hid what was thought to be the lost Great dancing pair (1923).
At some point in the 1930s, and either because he disliked the original work or, more likely, in the knowledge that the painting was destined to fall foul of the Nazi purge, Heckel took the decision to cover his Great dancing pair with a coating of distemper. On the reverse of the canvas, Heckel then painted this landscape. The landscape and still life were the dominant genres in his mature work and, as Benson observes, "painted in 1939 [Landscape on the fjord] would have been considered relatively safe and non-confronting in the eyes of the authorities". His landscape still displays Expressionist traits - bold colours and sharply defined areas of the canvas - but here the work is calm and subdued in its execution. As such it fitted perfectly with Heckel's late-career "orbis pictus" (visible world) series of landscapes and still lifes. Benson remarks, finally, that "Because the painting remained in Heckel's possession until he passed away in 1970 it must have been of great personal value to the artist, and he included it in many exhibitions after the war". Since the first work was only revealed posthumously, one can only wonder at what the artist's feelings were towards the earlier work.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Victoria