German Expressionism: taking inspiration from Leicester

Expressionism in Germany is particularly associated with two major groups which emerged before World War One: Der Blaue Reiter in Munich and Die Brücke in Dresden, artistic communities which reacted against the bourgeois culture and wanted to change art and society. For those interested in seeing German Expressionist works now, obvious destinations are the Lenbachhaus in Munich or the Brücke Museum in Berlin. But closer to home, Leicester has a large collection of German Expressionist works which grew out of an exhibition of “Mid-European art” held there in February 1944. The exhibition was instigated by the then director of Leicester museums, Trevor Thomas (his is a fascinating life story – dismissed from his role in Leicester after the war following a court appearance for public indecency at a time when homosexuality was illegal, the last person to see Sylvia Plath alive…) and featured works belonging to a German emigré collector. A recent visit inspired me to explore and showcase related items in our own collections.

By Goesseln via Wikimedia Commons

The Leicester collection includes a copy of a major significant document in the history of 20th century art, the 1912 Der Blaue Reiter Almanach (available to view online here), edited by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Cambridge University Library (like other British university libraries) does not have a copy of this but we do have a 1974 illustrated English translation of the anthology with a useful history and notes. The almanac was the subject of a doctoral thesis in 2004: Der Almanach des Blauen Reiters als Gesamtkunstwerk by Jessica Horsley (405:3.d.200.12); the 100 year anniversary of its publication was celebrated in 2012 with an exhibition of pictures used in it, held in the Münter-Haus, Murnau for which we have the catalogue: “Die blaue Reiterei stürmt voran” (2013.8.2023).

The gallery devoted to German Expressionism in Leicester’s New Walk Museum  features several lithographs from Der Bildermann, a short-lived bi-monthly periodical which ran for just 18 issues during 1916, aiming to introduce the general public to contemporary art. Der Bildermann included contributions by prominent artists such as Ernst Barlach, Erich Heckel, Oskar Kokoschka, Käthe Kollwitz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Heinrich Zille. Here at Cambridge we have an almost complete set of issues, donated to the Library in January 1947. The gallery below highlights some of the most striking images (click on the images to see larger versions).

Over time the Leicester collection was developed and its range widened to include post-expressionist Neue Sachlichkeit works such as those of George Grosz. One of his most important books was Das Gesicht der herrschenden Klasse: politische Zeichnungen (available to view online here) which contained hard-hitting political cartoons featuring among others the military, wounded soldiers, fat businessmen and prostitutes. It was published in 1921 and quickly sold out – in November 1921 the third edition was published. The University Library acquired a first edition during the 1960s and also has a 1984 English translation with introduction and notes by the art historian Frank Whitford. A few years ago, after Frank Whitford’s death, the University Library acquired over 700 books from his library. It seems apt that among them is a slim volume from 1921, written by the art historian Willi Wolfradt as part of the series Junge Kunst and devoted to George Grosz. It has an impressively Dadaist front cover (S950.d.9.450).

In 1978, 34 years into the life of the Leicester collection, a catalogue of the permanent collection of 19th and 20th century German paintings was prepared, The Expressionist revolution in German art, 1871-1933 (9400.b.2469). More than 40 years on, this makes for interesting reading as it provides a snapshot in time of how the collection had grown up to that point and enables us to see how the collection has continued to grow subsequently. The foreword states that “although the collection is still far from comprehensive – there is, for instance, no example of the work of Paul Klee, August Macke, Paula Modersohn-Becker or Gabriele Münter – it remains what is probably the largest public representation of Expressionism in the United Kingdom.” Searching the artists and artworks section of Leicester’s excellent website, one can see that most (there is still no work by Macke) of these omissions have now been rectified through purchases.

Cover of 2006 exhibition catalogue featuring 1937 Self-portrait with straw hat

The Leicester collection has also grown through donations. A recent example of this is oil paintings and drawings by Marie-Louise von Motesiczky given by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust in 2018. Motesiczky (1906-1996) was an Austrian artist who came to England as a refugee in the 1930s. She became closely involved with the writer Elias Canetti, a fellow emigré from Vienna. They exchanged letters throughout their lives, published in Liebhaber ohne Adresse: Briefwechsel 1942-1992 (749:4.d.201.1). A major retrospective of her work was held in 1985 at the Goethe-Institut in London (see 1989.10.822 for the exhibition catalogue) and the 100th anniversary of her birth was celebrated in 2006 with a travelling exhibition which began at the Tate Liverpool before moving on to Frankfurt, Vienna and Southampton (see S950.b.200.4285 for the catalogue).

If you are interested in German expressionism I can thoroughly recommend a visit to Leicester’s German Expressionist Collection.

Katharine Dicks

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