The beginning of Expressionism saw a new artistic boom in the old medium of printed graphic arts. Beyond what had previously been the most important function of printed graphic arts – reproducing works of other art forms – in Expressionism it was valued and used as equally valid art form. Nearly all the artists worked with woodcuts, etchings and lithography, sometimes producing an extensive oeuvre. Within this group of works there are works which are among not only the artistic highpoints of Expressionism, but are also among the best works in the history of printed graphic arts. As the print-run of such works was sometimes quite small, Expressionist printed graphic works are often among the special treasures of a collection. In the Prints and Drawings Collection of the Museum Folkwang, Expressionist drawings and printed works form a core of the holdings in spite of the painful confiscations carried out as part of the “Entartete Kunst” campaign of 1937.
Out the richness of these holdings, this exhibitions highlights for the first time a special group: the image series, of which the Museum Folkwang has important examples – especially Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s seven part series of color wood cuttings on Peter Schlemihl’s amazing story by Adelbert von Chamisso, made in 1915 an found in complete form only in four museums worldwide. Together with another series by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the exhibition also presents series by Erich Heckel, Ernst Barlach, Walter Gramatté and Paul Gangolf.
Viewing together independently produced works provides remarkable insights: Even though each work was occasioned by different authors and different times, they always take as theme, in different ways, aspects of people’s deep insecurity. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner approaches this in this woodcut series of Adalbert von Chammisso’s story Peter Schlemihl’s Amazing History from 1913, in which the metaphor of the Schlemihl’s loss of his own shadow, which he had sold to the Devil, illustrates the temptation of humans to let themselves be robbed of their humanity and their feelings for their fellow man through self-interest.
Apart from the copy of the Schlemihl series, acquired for the Museum in 1957, the exhibition has the title page of the copy held by the museum until 1937, on loan from a private collection, with the artist’s dedication to Karl Ernst Osthaus.
Already in 1907 Kirchner made a 5 part series of lithographs on the play Sakuntala, a major work of Indian literature from the 4th century, written by the author Kalidasa in Sanskrit, which tell the tale of a love crossing caste boundaries, one put to the test through divine influence. Erich Heckel, in a 12 part woodcut also from 1907, interpreted the Ballade of Reading Gaol, which had come out ten years previously, in which Oscar Wilde describes his appalling experience during his 12 year prison sentence which he served for having publicly admitted his homosexuality. Wilde, who experienced first and what humans can do to each other, left prison a broken, sick man in 1897 and died three years later.
Ernst Barlach, for his part, wrote his play Der tote Tag in 1910 influenced by his bitter conflict with his wife Rosa Schwab over custody of their son Nikolaus, and published it as a series of 27 lithographs two years later. Just like the play, which transforms the theme into a fairy tale like form, the series ends with a suicide.
Finally, Walter Gramatté took works by Georg Büchner as a starting point of two series of illustrations: In 1925, the years Alban Burg’s opera Wozzeck premiered, Gramatté made a 12 part series of etchings on Büchner’s incomplete play Woyzeck from 1836/37 and another 12 part series of etchings on Büchner’s tale Lenz from 1835. While this former has, with Franz Woyzeck, a physically sensitive and psychically deeply insecure main character who is driven to murder his love by his fellow humans’ unscrupulousness and lack of interest, the latter series deals with an insane writer – Lenz – who in his delirium imagines such a murder.
A thematic accent for the exhibition is provided by Paul Gangolf’s portfolio “Metropolis” published in 1922. The series of lithographs which appeared five years before Ftitz Lang’s silent film of the same name, is dedicated to various facets of life and work in a big city. Paul Gangolf (ca 1879 to 1939, born as Paul Loewy), today generally unknown, worked especially in the area of printed graphic arts and was close to George Grosz stylistically.
It is certainly no accident that that Expressionist artists, with their interest in illustrating human suffering and an intellectually unrestricted immediacy, honored such literary models with extensive illustrated series which characterized man as sensitive and vulnerable: “Man is an abyss; one becomes dizzy when looking down into him… (Woyzeck).
In the Museum Folkwang reading room the original text on which the series is based is available for consultation. Further information on the series can be found in the Museum Folkwang Online Collection.
Tip: For the opening of the Prints and Drawings Collection’s exhibition rooms in January 2010, a thematic book – Die Grafische Samlung im Museum Folkwang – was brought out by Edition Folkwang/Steidl with 240 pages, 220 color illustrations, and is available for 24 Euro in the Museum. The volume presents the print and drawing collection with a selection of 200 works from a period between the late 18th and the 21st century. The material is divided into twelve topics, examining different thematic and stylistic aspects.