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German Expressionism: Tel Aviv Museum exhibits prints and drawings from its collection
Oskar kokoschka, Self-Portrait, 1910. Poster for der sturm.

By: Irith Hadar

TEL AVIV.- The term "Expressionism" spans diverse expressions of the modernist current in art and literature, which developed in Germany and in the sphere of German culture in the first two decades of the 20th century. Expressionist art spoke in multiple voices of individual artists and short-lived associations which moved in different directions to expose the experience of a society and a culture in crisis.

The common feature of this multifaceted, multilingual totality was the belief in the therapeutic power of subjective-emotional expression. The new modern condition—the main element generating the crisis experience in Expressionist work—became the subject of public debate. Scholars, scientists, and other intellectuals identified the characteristics of modernity—technology, democracy, rationalism, materialism, positivism, demystification of the world—and tied them to the profound ideological crisis. Recognition of the evolving change and the realization that it is no longer possible to live and create as in the past, brought, to the fore and to the paper, a blend of responses-feelings which took the form of apocalyptic visions, a yearning for alternative lifestyles, a thrill with the Berlin metropolis, a critical examination of the urban person and the phenomenon of the crowd, and a spectrum of thoughts about the New Man and a better, more just society. These concerns were addressed in the first chapter of the exhibition (November 2011 - February 2012), which juxtaposed perceptions of nature and the natural with representations of the metropolis—the scene of action and the bi-polar symbol of modern existence. The second chapter of the exhibition (March - June 2012) focuses on the Expressionists' approach to modernity and their reference to their life in the metropolis, this time through manifestations of culture, both high and popular. In terms of medium, the desire for broad distribution channeled the Expressionists' interest to printed and reproduced art and to the cinematic medium.

Culture was regarded, at the time, as a type of code—an essence which exposes the rules of human society, projecting on all aspects of life touched by the crisis of modernization. The constitution of the cultural sciences was tied, from the very outset in the mid-19th century, with the ideal of enlightenment and liberalism, and relied on the assumption of a rational law, which guides human conduct, making for a rational answer to every moral, pedagogical, and social quandary. The social and political storm in the beginning of the 20th century led to a radical revolt against the law of culture, a revolt nourished by the connection between the bourgeoisie and modernization (as objects of loathing), and the untamed, inner-emotional, and "genuine" (as objects of passion). Vis-.-vis the negation of the existing notion of culture, the belief in art's ability to express the real increased, and direct expression was proposed as a path to an element of truth in existence.

The unprecedented prosperity of print was one of the major expressions of the bi-polar attitude to the notion of culture. As the antithesis of the singular, precious object representing bourgeois art, print became the quintessential medium of Expressionist practice. One-off prints and series in limited editions, periodicals and illuminated books published in very large editions—all these unfold the full scope of the medium's manifestations, whose distribution was aimed at the cultural circles as well as the consumer public at large. These prints included many portraits of intellectuals, alongside portraits of some of the leading publishers, whose activity made the printed profusion possible and whose choices dictated the available inventory. The many portraits in the exhibition attest to the Expressionist engagement with the portrait, especially the self-portrait, as a distinctive expression of the search for the true "self," or in Georg Simmel's words: "those … human traits and impulses which … seek to determine the form of life from within" ["The Metropolis and Mental Life," 1905]. The presentation of these portraits reveals the emphases and connections made by the artists in depicting themselves and those around them.

Negation of the existing notion of culture did not sweep all the assets of the past away. Instead, it led to reconsideration of culture and shed light on works which offered an interpretation that echoed the current affairs of the time, such as Richard Seewald's illustration for Penthesilea (1914)—an 1808 play in which Heinrich von Kleist rejects the perception of classics a-la Goethe as the epitome of equilibrium and restraint, describing, in the spirit of Nietzsche, the days of ancient Greece as a violent, erotic, and sensual era, replete with urges and passions. In his play, in contradistinction to the narrative outlined by Homer, it is Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, who kills Achilles following a sequence of misunderstandings, and subsequently, upon realizing her mistake, kills herself in remorse. A similar reversal occurs in the film Hamlet (1921, directed by: Sven Gade, Heinz Schall; script: Erwin Gepard), infusing Shakespeare's play with yet another layer of illusion and complexity: Hamlet in the film is, in fact, a princess—a figure with a dual identity played by actress Asta Nielsen, the first diva of the silent movie in Europe. Popular culture also confronted the Expressionists with sites of confusion, illusion, and reversal of world orders in the sideshows and cabaret acts, whose printed depictions became a metaphor for contemporary culture. As reaffirmed by art historian Hans Tietze: "The prints of our time will give evidence of [the Expressionists] to a later generation as the truest document of the fever that agitates us."

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