Exhibition text

As part of the exhibition series: Expressiv! Abstraction in the Modern art

A history in eight examples: Francis Bott - Günther Gumpert - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Bernard Schultze - Fred Thieler - Hann Trier - Theodor Werner - Fritz Winter

Kirchner's last drawing in the publication of 100 drawings by the artist, published by Will Grohmann in 1925, perhaps even at the beginning of 1925, was the first indication of his shift towards the "New Style". In the following years, he developed this in a strict simplification of form and color and increasing abstraction into an independent and idiosyncratic variant of the general European efforts at the same time towards a painting and sculpture of color fields and volumes framed by endless loops, which was then called "Abstraction-Création" in Paris in 1931 with the founding of a group with the same name. This group soon included up to 400 international artists, from the oldest, the Russian Wassily Kandinsky *1866, to the youngest, the Japanese Taro Okamoto *1911. This development was abruptly interrupted in 1937 and only revived in 1948, when it expanded from a more European to a global phenomenon.

Our exhibition aims to tell this story of art in the middle of the 20th century, which developed over and through the violent caesura of the art ban, the Second World War and the Shoah, and yet somehow always remained coherent, using a number of very different case studies.

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In 1924/25, as we have seen, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) began a change of style in his art, which reached its highest consistency and purity from 1928 to 1933. It is true that Kirchner always remained attached to the figurative aspect of an eye experience, as can be seen in "Playing Bathers" from 1928. Even there, however, the intertwined fields of colour entwined by an endless contour, the main characteristic of "Abstraction-Création", are recognizable.

These reach their purest form in the two paintings from 1933-34 "nudes in the forest", of which we can show and offer here the small version alongside drawings and two versions of the color woodcut.

Fritz Winter (1905-1976) began to paint abstractly at the Bauhaus in Berlin and Davos in 1928/29. As a miner's child, he also initially learned this profession. As a politically committed man, at the age of 19 he made the leap into the freedom of the culturally significant international vagabond movement of the 1920s and finally into art. After quickly learning about the stylistic development of art since 1880, he delved deeper into its most recent development by studying at the Bauhaus from 1927 to 1930 with Kandinsky, Klee and Schlemmer, and by working with Kirchner in Davos from 1929 to 1932. A year earlier, he had already decided in favor of abstraction, which he tirelessly explored until his death. After promising artistic beginnings, combined with teaching activities in Berlin, where he encountered the work and personality of the sculptor Naum Gabo, and in Halle in the years 1931-33, he went into inner emigration with his partner in Allach near Munich in the same year, which he himself immediately understood as "exile" and painted "on a heap", as he called it. Deceptive hope still sprouted in 1936 when he applied for and - probably erroneously, as he was far from any artistic concession - was granted admission to the Reich Chamber of Culture, which was followed by a definitive ban on painting in 1937. Fritz Winter continued to work, but was called up for military service in August 1939 and had to experience the whole drama of the Second World War until May 1945, when he was taken prisoner by the Russians, from which he was only released in May 1949. He immediately began to work again and his works attracted international attention at the Venice Biennale in 1950. As a protagonist, he was successfully involved in the fierce "abstraction debate" of the following years and experienced the zenith of his success with numerous exhibitions and accolades in the second half of the 1950s. This brief biography is exemplary for that of the following artists.

In 1930, Theodor Werner (1886-1969) also discovered abstraction, although he was almost a generation older than Fritz Winter. Until then, living in Grosssachsenheim near Stuttgart, he had been more committed to impressionist painting, but in 1930 he ventured to move to Paris and became a member of the "Abstraction-Création" group. There he met his wife "Woty", also a painter and above all a weaver. Almost all of his work was destroyed during the Second World War. However, we can show one of the main works of the Paris years, the "Figures" from 1934. These figures are probably less "abstracted" from a visual experience - as in Kirchner's work - but rather art creations in the same forms and colors. From 1946 to 1959, he lived and worked in Berlin as an important protagonist of abstraction in Germany.

We are showing the painting "Signs in Motion II" from 1953 from this period.

He lived in Munich from 1959 until his death and bequeathed his estate to the Bavarian State Painting Collections.

Kirchner, Winter and Werner were directly and indirectly involved in different ways in the development of abstraction around 1930 towards Abstraction-Création, while the other artists in our small exhibition belonged to the generation for whom - after the first aborted beginnings before the war - the first post-war years brought great upheavals worldwide and in which 1948 became the fateful year for art. The full extent of the destruction, suffering and death of the Second World War, which ended in nuclear war in 1945, the Holocaust and other atrocities committed by the warring powers had gradually become known and the hopes for peace of the United Nations, founded in 1945, were nipped in the bud with the outbreak of the Cold War by the Berlin Blockade in 1948. Against this backdrop, it no longer seemed possible to depict people in art. The only way out was the abstraction of form and color, which at the same time offered the highest degree of freedom, a high good that everyone aspired to, especially artists.

1948, the fateful year of abstraction, was also the year in which Francis Bott (1904-1998) began his career after decades of change in the European anarchist-communist vagabond scene of the 1920s in Germany, Vienna, Prague and Paris, as well as in the French underground in the Pyrenees and again in Paris. There, Francis Picabia became his friend and mentor. As an independent free spirit, he did not join any groups or take part in general exhibitions, but was represented by outstanding galleries in France, England, Germany and Switzerland in the 1950s.

1948, the fateful year of abstraction, also marked the beginning of Bernard Schultze's (1915-2005) work. As with the other painters in the group shown here, he also began his art studies before the Second World War in the 1930s. These first works were destroyed during the war. After his military service from 1939 to 1945, he came to Frankfurt to join the Zimmergalerie Franck and the Quadriga group, where he met his wife Ursula. There he became one of the most important German exponents of Art Informel, lived and worked in Paris many times and moved to Cologne in 1968.

Schultze and Ursula were influenced by Frankfurt's post-war scene, which was particularly formulating the idea of freedom, so that in 1992, when the GDR artists were accepted en globo into "his" Academy of Arts, he left it in protest.

His website begins aptly with: "Bernard Schultze is one of the central protagonists of gestural-abstract art in the second half of the 20th century. His name and work are inextricably linked to the international success story of German Art Informel." We are showing some smaller works from the 1950s. The gallery has a very large selection of Schultze's works.

1948, the fateful year of abstraction, also marked the beginning of Hann Trier's (1915-1999) career in Cologne. He was also one of the few survivors of his generation. From 1934 to 1938, he was just able to complete his studies at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf and graduate in Berlin in 1939, before serving in the war until 1945. During this time, probably because he was working as a technical draughtsman in Berlin (as a soldier) from 1941 to 1944, he took part in the Great German Art Exhibitions in Munich in 1941 and 1943, a biographical peculiarity in this group of our exhibition. He then lived in Bonn, co-founded the Neue Rheinische Sezession in 1948 and was a member of the Munich group ZEN49 from 1951. He took part in documenta I, documenta II and documenta III in Kassel. From 1957 to 1980, Trier was professor and later director of the Academy of Fine Arts in West Berlin. We are showing an outstanding large expressive painting from 1960.

1948, the fateful year of abstraction, is also likely to have left its mark on Fred Thieler's (1916-1999) life and work. After serving in the army and going into hiding because of and with a Jewish mother in Munich, he nevertheless found the courage to attend a private art school there. From 1946 to 1950, he studied under Karl Caspar at the Academy of Arts and painted his first abstract works. He lived and worked in Paris from 1951 to 1953 and became a member of the ZEN49 group in 1952.

He was also an outstanding exponent of Art Informel in a particularly expressive variant. The following small selection from his exhibition participations may show his importance: 1958: 29th Biennale di Venezia; 1959: documenta II, Kassel; 1964: documenta III, Kassel; 1984: von hier aus, Düsseldorf. We are showing some expressive examples from the 50s and 60s. More large and expressive works in our gallery.

1948, the fateful year of abstraction, also marked the beginning of Günther Gumpert's (1919-2019) career. He began studying art in Krefeld and Wuppertal in 1937, but was interrupted by military service from 1939 to 1945. He continued to work self-taught in the first post-war years, in Wuppertal around the legendary Galerie Parnass and soon with a studio in Paris in the Rue de Vaugirard (where he became friends with Francis Bott and Johnny Friedlaender), but often lived and worked in Spain, Morocco, Yugoslavia, Switzerland and above all in Rome, until he moved to Washington in 1967.

Like Bott, a restless spirit with terrible memories of war in his luggage, a wanderer between worlds, a European and citizen of the world avant la lettre, always in search of a little peace and the opportunity to paint a little, lyrical poems in color and black and white.

This abstraction after 1948, which seems so light-footed today, was by no means easy. This freedom had to be fought for against the overly strong conservative and eternally yesterday's ideas that spilled over from 1945, and certainly also in trench warfare in art academies, museums and art criticism. It was not until 1959 at the "Documenta II" that it was able to fully assert itself. Possibly as the last contemporary style of art, it became the first world style. Its scope and spread can be seen in the five monumental volumes of the publication by Michel Ragon and Michel Seuphor, published by Maeght from 1971 to 1988 (available here).

It is precisely in and through its "speechlessness" that this abstraction is an essential statement of the art of its time: from 1930 to 1960 and beyond, against fascism and for freedom in peace.

Wolfgang Henze

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