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Tracing the roots of Expressionism in German art

Of a number of exhibitions planned by the Royal Academy here and aimed to survey the art of various countries over the last eight decades, ``German Art in the 20th Century'' (through Dec. 22) is a bold first. It is a show with a conscious bias: It attempts to trace in German art of the past 80 years the roots for today's version of Expressionism, both in Germany and elsewhere. As Berlin art critic Christos M. Joachimides, one of the organizers, explains in his catalog essay, the criterion for selecting particular artists was that they provide ``the background of our own time.'' Though it is an approach that has some limitations, it also produces some revelations and surprises.

Particularly telling, perhaps, is the way some of Germany's most recent artists connect with the Expressionists at the start of the century. These earlier painters and sculptors were much influenced by Van Gogh and Gauguin, by African and Oceanian carving, by medieval woodcuts. In a group known as die Br"ucke (the Bridge), they burst on the German art scene just before World War I. Franz Marc, whose own paintings emerged in fraternity with a different group, said that the Br"ucke artists ``suddenly sto od as if dazzled by the immeasurable freedom of art.'' He added: ``They know no programme and no compulsion; they only want to go forward at any price. . . .''

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Die Br"ucke artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Emil Nolde (though only briefly in the group) are splendidly seen to have brought a ruthless surge of modernism to German art. Their work is still fresh and raw, particularly as shown by some quite unfamiliar examples included in this show.

This uncompromising but romantic Br"ucke art tends to dominate the exhibition, and the works that follow seem either to relate to or deviate from them.

Certain outstanding artists have apparently been omitted from the 52-artist survey because they do not fit its thesis. Works in favor are those with an Expressionist tendency, broad and vigorous in their brushwork or kinetics, not too abstract, relating to human emotions and conditions -- works that don't balk at the illustrative, narrative, literary, or political.

Such bias has its positive and even revealing side. Some familiar artists are seen with a critical, rather than a merely historical, eye. Kandinsky, for instance, although Russian but counting by context as German, is not shown conventionally as the first abstract artist, but is represented by his glorious 1909-14 sweep into Expressionist, cosmic landscapes of prismatic color and elemental space. These paintings, vastly freer than his later finicky, floating geometrics (not shown), are improvisatory

deluges of startling imaginativeness.

Paul Klee, however, fares less well for the show's bias. Only his late works, those dark signs of looming grandeur, are included, but nothing of his whimsical meditations or visual musicmaking. This presents an unbalanced view of Klee's art.

If one individual stands out -- and fully -- it is Max Beckmann. His paintings come over as quintessentially German. The history of his nation in the 20th century has been so traumatic that it is hardly surprising if its art sometimes reflects a certain frustration and rage. Beckmann, though capable of a severe tenderness, usually appraises his society with consummate bitterness. But unlike some of his contemporaries, Grosz and Schad, for instance, he does not descend to clawing caricature o r a cool, vicious ``realism.'' Like them, he is socially conscious and satirical, but, in line with Expressionism, he is also an admirable wielder of the paintbrush: His art is rewarding as well as ferocious.

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Beckmann worked on several levels. Like some of today's lionized artists, he was a traditionalist and modernist both. He is a realist without being unconscious of certain undeniable challenges presented by abstract art. He is also virtually a Gothic artist in his strict indictment of corruption, cruelty, and sensualism.

But he was not, apparently, much concerned with the future. In this he was very different from the Br"ucke Expressionists, whose art was often termed ``savage'' but was still ebulliently optimistic. He belonged to the uncertain, tense present of the interwar period. If his art has foreboding, it seems to be only of something unimaginable. It is as close to a downright expression of tragedy as any in the exhibition.

Overall the show promotes a feeling that German art in this century yearns for a national tradition. But the nationalistic kitsch of Nazi art (not shown) and the socialist realism of Soviet art are as unacceptable to this view as the early French-influenced German Expressionism was to Hitler. Many of the artists shown were labeled ``degenerate'' by the F"uhrer, and forbidden to paint.

Many of today's artists would doubtless have received the same treatment. Georg Baselitz, for example, has even deliberately linked his art with the earlier Expressionists. He has played, in some of his recent works, with a kind of painting close to die Br"ucke: Nolde's paintings can now, without absurdity, be used as points of departure or stimuli by this (literally) upside-down Expressionist and hero of today's ``new painting.''

If, finally, some sort of continuity may be discernible in Germany's art in this century, it has to be said that this exhibition also, undeliberately, makes a rather opposite point: It suggests a struggle between an avant-garde art dazzled by its own ``immeasurable freedom . . . to go forward at any cost'' and an art that is a deeply troubled no man's land, with some feeling for a past but no clear sense of a future. Today's stars in German art still seem, in atmosphere, closer to the second position, however near stylistically they may seem to the first.

After its showing at the Royal Academy in London, ``German Art in the 20th Century'' will be at the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, West Germany, Feb. 8 through April 27.

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