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Display of German Painting Proves Timely

Modern works from three decades suggest a push for freedom

Just as the Berlin Wall fell, a collection of Expressionist and modern German paintings opened here, proving once again that politics and art intersect. The cover of the catalog for the show at the National Gallery is the Wassily Kandinsky painting shown above, ``The Church of St. Ludwig in Munich,'' where a large crowd of German people gathers before a wall.

The new show is ``Expressionism and Modern German Painting from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection,'' at the Gallery through Jan. 14, 1990.

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The collector reponsible for that show, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, sees that painting metaphorically as a reminder of people pressing for freedom at the Berlin Wall and also as an earlier symbol of rebellious Expressionist artists trying to push new ideas forward.

The baron explains what he sees as the significance of that painting: ``This very picture he [Kandinsky] painted in Munich - they were a group of people who were freedom fighters, from the east and the west.''

The artists were also politically involved in a peace effort, but ``with all the best intent of those people, they were not successful [in] preventing the First World War,'' continues the baron. Catalog notes of the painting mention the jewel-like tones of the ``church thronged with a brightly colored multitude, presumably worshippers.''

The baron says, ``One thing about this exhibition: You might like it or not like it, but one thing is true - that it is excellently timed [for] these international events. I was told there is a new collector's item in the art market, which is pieces of the Berlin Wall.''

Thirty-four paintings from the baron's collection are included in this exhibition, which brings to the United States many major works not on public display here before by 19 artists, including Kandinsky, Ernest Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, Max Beckmann, and others.

The paintings include Lyonel Feininger's lilting ``Lady in Mauve,'' with its long line of curves and cubes set against splayed buildings; Emil Nolde's ``Autumn Evening,'' with its red, green, gold, and black rivers of foreboding color; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's ``Street with Coquette in Red,'' in which gentlemen with green faces stroll after her; and the urban nightmare that is George Grosz's ``Metropolis.''

This is the first exhibition devoted completely to the modern German paintings in the baron's collection. National Gallery director J. Carter Brown noted that the museum has not collected Expressionism in the same depth as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

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Andrew Robison, the gallery's senior curator, culled this American show from the Baron's collection of 120 such works. Among them are works he calls the true monuments of German modern painting.

The paintings are arranged chronologically in three rooms to reflect the art of three decades: 1906-10; the teens; the '20s, and the '30s. Since there are nearly as many different definitions of Expressionism and subdivisions of it as there are critics, Robison decided a simple chronological setting would be best.

As the baron says in comparing Impressionism and Expressionism, ``The Expressionists are much more violent in color and violent in design.''

He explains that he inherited a collection of Old Master paintings from his father.

``When I first started [my collection], I was brainwashed by my father to think art stopped at the 18th century. Twenty-five years ago I started to collect German Expressionism especially, [the artists] were all people of anti-military and anti-dictatorial ideas, very individual people, which I like....''

Most of the artists whose work is included in the exhibition found their art censored or banned by Hitler. The baron notes in the catalog that ``the fact that most of these artists had been oppressed by the National Socialist regime and that their art had been officially branded as degenerate was, for me, an added incentive for collecting them.'' His first purchase, in the early '60s, was a watercolor by Emil Nolde.

The Baron and baroness, who also appeared at the press preview, are the subject of much speculation in the art world. The baron has one of the world's largest private art collections. Dommick Dunne, in a Vanity Fair story, writes that the baroness is a former Miss Spain and speculates on stories that she might become a Spanish duchess if half the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection went to Spain permanently. Unless that happens, most major museum directors around the world apparently hope that even part of that treasured collection might come to them.

The exhibition was organized by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation in collaboration with the National Gallery and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

It will be at the Kimbell from Jan. 27 to March 25, 1990, then at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from April 18 to July 1, 1990. Support for the show is in the form of an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.

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