For years it was assumed that a stool with a leopard motif found in the studio of the Expressionist painter, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, had been made by the artist himself. Depicted in many of his drawings and sketches, often as a prop beside a female nude, the stool was only recently identified as a ko’oh, an object of high prestige in Cameroon that would have once belonged to a high ranking Bamileke ruler.
Whether Kirchner was aware of its significance, or indeed, how it ever came to be in the artist’s hands – Cameroon was under German colonial rule from 1884 to 1916 – remains unclear. But the stool has become emblematic of the complex set of questions regarding cultural appropriation that surround the artists of Die Brücke (The Bridge) movement, whose important modernist works were produced at the height of Germany’s colonial power.
The exhibition Whose Expression? The Brücke Artists and Colonialism is billed as the Brücke Museum’s first “confrontation” with the colonial legacy of this 20th-century art movement, an important part of the modernist and avant-garde canon. It also presents detailed new research into the provenance of painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff ’s collection of more than 100 objects from 20 different regions of the world, all housed at the neighbouring Kunsthaus Dahlem.
Nolde forced his subjects from Papua New Guinea to pose for him at gun point.
Formed in 1905 in Dresden by Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and later Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Müller, this young group of mainly self-taught artists sought to convey powerful emotions through simplified forms and a vibrant use of colour. The name, Die Brücke, was chosen to symbolise the metaphorical bridge their works formed towards the art of the future. Reacting against the established bourgeois social order of Imperial Germany, the artists appropriated visual elements found in artefacts from regions of Africa and the Pacific to create a synthesised aesthetic marketed as an unmediated, freer form of expression.
“They looked for something different and found it in the newly opened ethnological museums in Berlin and Dresden,” says Lisa Marei Schmidt, the Museum director and co-curator of the exhibition. “Yet throughout their interest and appropriation, no consideration was given to how the objects were obtained or the original creator of the work.”
The established narrative of the Brücke is that of a group of modernist prodigies thwarted by the National Socialist regime which expelled their works from German museums and included them in the notorious exhibition of “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) held in Munich in 1937.
All this is difficult to reconcile with the fact that Emil Nolde was an antisemite, racist and card-carrying Nazi who believed in the ultimate superiority of “Germanic art” – an embarrassing claim when one considers the sources of his inspiration. Both Nolde and Pechstein travelled to the German colonies, and in both cases, found the colonial outposts they encountered nothing like the “unspoilt paradise” they had imagined. However, the infrastructure of colonial rule and the barbaric subjugation of colonialised peoples does not appear in their work. Shocking details come to light, such as the discovery that Nolde forced his subjects from Papua New Guinea to pose for him at gunpoint.
Prompted in part by the opening of the Humboldt Forum, a serious institutional effort is now underway in Germany to engage with its colonial past. “In Germany [the Nazi period] has been in focus so much that we forget about our colonial history,” Schmidt says.
The exhibition at the Brücke Museum has been carefully put together: the texts accompanying each artwork are dense, with the use of additional notes and video interviews providing crucial historical context – a kind that feels long overdue.
Whose Expression? The Brücke Artists and Colonialism Brücke Museum, Dahlem, through March 20