German Painter and Printmaker
Summary of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff was one of the four founding members of the artistic group Die Brücke, a collective formed in Dresden in 1905. He and his colleagues - along with other artists in Munich and Vienna who together defined the multifaceted style known as German Expressionism - shared a desire to reject both the restrictive social conventions of the time and the traditional aesthetic conventions and academic training provided by art schools. Although the Brücke artists moved to Berlin and disbanded the group not long after, Schmidt-Rottluff maintained his avant-garde ideals throughout his career. He served during World War I, forced by circumstance and by trauma to reduce his output to woodcut prints, but enjoyed considerable success in the following years, when Expressionism became more widely accepted by collectors and museums. Schmidt-Rottluff was among those artists labelled "degenerate" by the Nazi regime, but after World War II, with renewed attention, he helped found a museum in Berlin dedicated to the work of the Brücke artists.
- The goal of Schmidt-Rottluff and his Die Brücke colleagues was to create a new kind of art through the exploration of direct experience and emotion in nature and humanity. As he wrote in 1914, "I have no program, only the inner longing to grasp what I see and feel and to find the purest expression for it. I know I can approach these things only through art, rather than thoughts or words." To achieve this goal, he sought inspiration in the simplified forms of both European avant-garde and non-European art, and produced oil paintings, watercolors, prints, drawings, and sculptures.
- In the early part of his career, Schmidt-Rottluff was one of the most radical practitioners of woodcut printing, a medium his colleagues also took up. Learning from Japanese techniques along with those of artists including Albrecht Dürer, Paul Gauguin, and Edvard Munch, he produced powerful, highly simplified prints by letting the rough-hewn quality of the wood on which he created the image remain evident. This approach also informed his painting and came to characterize much of the Expressionist style.
- Having initially begun studying as an architecture student, Schmidt-Rottluff maintained his interest in three-dimensional form, producing wood carvings, decorative objects, and sculptures in wood and stone throughout his career. He also collected masks and sculpture from Africa. Much of his work reveals his exploration of the interrelations between two- and three-dimensional objects and decorative and representative forms.
Progression of Art
Autumn Landscape in Oldenburg
One of Schmidt-Rottluff's early works, Autumn Landscape in Oldenburg exemplifies his style shortly after the Brücke group came together. It was painted outdoors during his first summer in the village of Dangast, on the North Sea coast in the Oldenburg region of Germany, a location he described as "quite fantastic, everything simply demanding to be painted." The Brücke artists' visits each summer to rural sites reflected their rejection of the period's restrictive social conventions and search for a simpler way of life, away from the industrialization and corruption of the city. This search aligned with a longstanding German tradition of valuing direct contact with nature as a source of inspiration, and also echoed the more contemporary approach of French artists such as Paul Gauguin, who sought to depict regional cultures he considered simpler and more "primitive," far from the French capital.
This painting's simplified composition, bold brushwork, and vibrant, exaggerated colors similarly embody Schmidt-Rottluff's effort to overturn traditional pictorial conventions and were partly inspired by Vincent van Gogh's work. The two farmhouses at the top of the canvas are nearly the same size and shape as the haystacks in the foreground, and this along with the zigzagging bands of color that link them collapses the space in the image into a nearly flat surface. The sharp color contrasts between oranges and yellows and blues and greens also effectively convey the warm light of an autumn day.
Oil on canvas - Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Woman with a Bag
By 1910, Schmidt-Rottluff had largely abandoned the thick, agitated brushstrokes that had characterized his early work, and begun to move toward composing with broader, flatter areas of color, as this painting reveals. He also began to depict human figures more frequently, like his Brücke colleagues. Painted with a subdued palette of primarily earth tones, this painting shows a woman in a roughly defined space, standing before a pale shape that might represent a feature of the room. Holding one hand to her heart and the other to her head - a gesture that traditionally signifies melancholy or despair - she seems to express the sadness of the wartime moment in which the work was painted. Indeed, just a short time later, Schmidt-Rottluff left Berlin for military service on the Russian front.
The blocks and patches of color indicate Schmidt-Rottluff's knowledge of the Cubist works of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, some of whose paintings had already been exhibited in Germany by this time. Like the two French modernists, German artists also looked to non-Western art for inspiration, particularly that of Africa and Oceania. This is best seen in the woman's face, where simplified, elongated shapes recall similar forms in West African masks and sculptures. While Braque and Picasso in their pre-war Cubist works radically disrupted the illusionistic surface, however, breaking down objects and figures into components that were nearly illegible, Schmidt-Rottluff, like many other artists who were inspired by the ideas of Cubism, never fully adopted its radical visual approach. Despite the discontinuities in Woman with a Bag, particularly in the background, the figure remains clearly defined, composed of simplified shapes that logically follow anatomical forms.
Within Schmidt-Rottluff's oeuvre, this painting demonstrates the shift in his style from the early, more impressionistic landscapes. It also links with the rough, dramatically simple forms he had developed in his woodcuts, a print medium that had been central to the development of the Brücke style.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Made while the artist was serving in World War I, Christ (also sometimes titled Head of Christ), is a prime example of the shifts in Schmidt-Rottluff's art during the war. The anxiety and trauma he experienced left him unable to paint for a time, so he turned to woodcut, a medium he had already explored along with other Brücke artists. Near the end of the war and for about a year after his return to Berlin in 1918, he also treated primarily religious subjects like this one, perhaps another form of response to his experience of the conflict. He differed in this choice from many other German artists of the time, who often depicted the horrors of war more directly.
Christ is part of a portfolio of nine woodcuts depicting scenes from the life of Christ the artist published, recalling the long tradition of such series that includes Albrecht Dürer's sixteenth-century woodcuts. While some of the prints in the portfolio depict frequently represented moments of the narrative, like Judas betraying Christ, this image is more static and iconic. Schmidt-Rottluff has represented Christ as a mask-like head using jagged, rough-hewn lines and angular forms that allude to the African and Oceanic art that inspired modernists across Europe. The exaggerated features, with bulging lips and asymmetrical eyes, as if one were partially closed or swollen, also suggest Christ's injuries and suffering. The year 1918 is inscribed on his forehead and the phrase "Christ did not appear to you" below. In this way the artist places Christ's suffering in the context of the ravages and futility of the World War, commenting on the physical, psychological, and spiritual damage he and so many others had experienced.
Woodcut - Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Dr. Rosa Schapire
One of almost a dozen portraits by Schmidt-Rottluff of the art historian and Brücke supporter Dr. Rosa Schapire, this painting evidences both their close relationship and the evolution of the artist's style after World War I. The angular forms and broken patches of color are similar to the treatment of figures in his pre-war paintings and prints, but the colors are considerably brighter. While the stylized facial features indicate his continuing engagement with the concepts of Cubism, the heightened colors suggest his knowledge of another major modernist figure: Henri Matisse. Indeed, the unexpected band of blue on the sitter's forehead and nose recall a similar form in Matisse's portrait of his wife known as The Green Stripe (1905, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen).
Schapire appears seated, with a smiling, open expression. Behind her is a small table above which hangs a painting, alluding to her role as an art historian and a supporter of the arts (she later published a catalogue raisonné of Schmidt-Rottluff's prints). The angular features of the head within the painting echo those of Schapire herself, presumably because Schmidt-Rottluff intended to represent another of his own works, hung on the wall of his summer retreat at Hohwacht on the Baltic coast, where this portrait was painted. He gave this canvas to Schapire as a Christmas present that year, and it later became part of a decorative plan the artist devised in 1921 for her home in Hamburg, along with Woman with a Bag (see above) and other paintings, carvings, furniture, and textiles. She was able to bring both paintings with her to England when she fled Nazi Germany in 1939. The work thus reflects the artist's aesthetic development as well as one of his closest and most significant professional relationships with a notable figure in German art history.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Evening in the Room
Moonlight shines into the corner of a crowded room, where nearly every element overlaps the next, from the table, chairs, and sheer curtains to what may be a framed canvas tucked behind them. The work is painted with the fairly regular brushstrokes and more naturalistic colors typical of Schmidt-Rottluff's style in this period, when he modified his earlier, more radical approach in part to avoid the growing public criticism of expressionism.
Indeed, despite the air of calm that seems to emanate from this canvas, it was painted during a stressful period in Schmidt-Rottluff's life, when his work had been labelled "degenerate" by the Nazi regime and he had been forced to leave his position at the Prussian Academy of Arts, although he could still paint and exhibit his work. He increasingly spent time outside Berlin, either on the Baltic Sea coast or at the home of Hanna Bekker vom Rath - one of his most important patrons - in a small town outside Frankfurt, where this work was painted. The compressed space of the composition may reflect the somewhat makeshift nature of his living and working situation, and hints at the limitations he experienced in creating his work. This painting, like many of the interiors and still lifes Schmidt-Rottluff made in the 1930s and 1940s, represents both an exploration of space, light, and color through everyday subject matter, and - if considered from a biographical perspective - an expression of the difficult political and social conditions the artist was facing.
Oil on canvas - Museum Wiesbaden
The Black Mask
In late 1946, Schmidt-Rottluff accepted a position at the University of Fine Arts and returned to Berlin. He resumed painting, and his reputation as an important artist was quickly restored, thanks in part to a broader effort to rehabilitate avant-garde artists and celebrate their persistence despite Nazi suppression. He continued to paint numerous still lifes as he had during the 1930s, using the same kinds of simplified forms and flattened spatial compositions, as this work demonstrates. The broad, smooth outlines of The Black Mask, however, are characteristic of his later work, while the bold, non-naturalistic colors mark a kind of return to the more radical experimentation of his early years.
Many of his later still lifes include a carved or sculpted object among the few simple items that make up the image. Here, along with two seashells and a candlestick that he himself had carved decades earlier, he depicts a nineteenth century wooden mask from Ivory Coast (a work he owned and later donated to the Brücke Museum). As well as demonstrating Schmidt-Rottluff's longstanding interest in simplified forms inspired by non-European sources, this image suggests an exploration of the process of representation, as the artist records the naturally formed shells, the decoratively carved candlestick, and the schematic yet representative mask in the similarly schematic language of his painting.
Oil on canvas - Brücke Museum, Berlin
Biography of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Childhood and Early Period
Karl Schmidt was born in Rottluff, a small town in eastern Germany where his father owned a mill (he added the name of his birthplace to his own name in 1906). As a child, he attended the Humanistische Gymnasium, a secondary school that focused on the classics, including the arts. There he met Erich Heckel, who was a year older. Their friendship flourished in the "Vulkan" club, their school's arts and debating society, where they had lively anti-bourgeois art and philosophy discussions. When Heckel left to study architecture at the Sächsische Technische Hochschule in Dresden in 1904, Schmidt-Rottluff followed him the year after, though he dropped out after one semester.
While his formal studies in Dresden were brief, it was there that Schmidt-Rottluff met two other individuals significant in his early artistic formation: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Fritz Bleyl. Together with Heckel, they founded Die Brücke (meaning "the bridge,") on June 7, 1905. The name was suggested by Schmidt-Rottluff, inspired by a line from Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end." That year, the group had its first exhibition in Leipzig, where the artists displayed works that exemplified their desire to reject traditional bourgeois social values and academic art in favor of a new, more personal and direct approach; Schmidt-Rottluff noted that, "what we wanted was a refusal of the outmoded, overly-cultivated art practices." The works made by Schmidt-Rottluff during this period, like those of his peers, were heavily influenced by Art Nouveau and Neo-Impressionism, though his works stood out because of the simplicity of his forms, balanced compositions, and focus on rural scenes rather than cityscapes.
Despite being a founding member of Die Brücke, Schmidt-Rottluff kept himself relatively on its periphery, and was known as the loner of the group. The artists usually spent summers together at rural retreats, in search of a direct connection with nature and an escape from urban society, but in 1906, Schmidt-Rottluff chose to visit fellow artist Emil Nolde on the Danish island of Alsen rather than join rest of the Brücke group at the Moritzburg lakes outside Dresden. In the following several years he spent summers at Dangast on the North Sea coast, although Heckel and Max Pechstein, a later member of the group, occasionally joined him. Schmidt-Rottluff also convinced Nolde to join Die Brücke - if only for a year - and the two became ardent proponents of woodcut as a medium. Indeed, printmaking became an important component of the group's identity, both for its bold, graphic quality and for its use in promotion; they published seven annual print portfolios between 1906 and 1912 to gain financial support from patrons.
Although Die Brücke found considerable success in Dresden, Schmidt-Rottluff and the other members of the group decided to move to Berlin, Germany's largest city and cultural hub, in 1911. Within this more varied and dynamic urban context, the group began to lose its collective nature, and Die Brücke dissolved in 1913, marking a point of transition in Schmidt-Rottluff's artistic development.
Schmidt-Rottluff moved to Berlin just a few years before the outbreak of World War I; he was conscripted in May 1915 and served for three years on the Eastern Front. As a non-combatant attached to the Press Unit, he was able to continue making art, although the circumstances and emotional trauma meant that he was unable to paint. Nevertheless, he continued to make woodcuts. While he did not directly record the harrowing experiences of the war in his work, there was a marked increase in religious subject matter in the following years, which scholars such as Starr Figura view as the artist seeking solace.
The artist quickly reintegrated into the social and artistic circles in Berlin following the war. Although he did not express openly political views, he joined a group of artists, architects, and intellectuals who had been provoked by the war to call for radical social change and to form the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers Council for the Arts) in late 1918. This union, which included many members of the former Brücke, sought to organize collectively to abolish state-run systems and make the arts more openly available; as a flyer from 1919 stated, "art shall no longer be a luxury of the few but should be enjoyed and experienced by the broad masses." In spring 1919 Schmidt-Rotluff married Emy Frisch, a photographer who was already within his circle of friends; he had made a woodcut visiting card for her in 1915, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had represented her in about a dozen works in the early 1900s.
The 1920s were a period of relative ease for the artist. He continued to experiment stylistically, moving from the angular forms and rough brushwork of his early work toward a somewhat smoother and more refined yet still powerful execution. His work entered museum collections and was published in articles and books, including a catalogue raisonné of his prints written by art historian Rosa Schapire (he gradually lost interest in printmaking, however, and stopped altogether by 1927). His reputation during this time flourished as Expressionism became more widely popular, and in 1931 he was accepted into the Prussian Academy of Arts, a long-established institution of a type that Schmitt-Rottluff and his more radical colleagues had previously wished to dismantle.
Just a few years later, Schmidt-Rottluff's status and acclaim began to diminish as the Nazi party rose to power, and when Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the artist was forced out of the Academy. The subsequent years were difficult for him, as he was soon branded a degenerate artist and in spring 1941 was forbidden from painting, though he continued to produce watercolors in secret. In 1937, over 600 of his works were seized from public collections. Most of these were destroyed; others were exhibited in Hitler's infamous degenerate art exhibitions. When his studio and apartment in Berlin were destroyed in a World War II bombing raid in 1943, Schmidt-Rottluff and his wife returned to his hometown of Rottluff.
Upon his return to Berlin three years later, Schmidt-Rottluff's reputation began to flourish once again. He was quickly hired as a professor at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin, where he influenced a new generation of painters. In 1964, he and his wife Emy led the effort to create the Brücke Museum, dedicated to presenting works made by the Brücke artists. He gave 75 of his own works to the city of Berlin, and the museum opened in 1967 largely thanks to a grant from the new German government. From then on, he spent much of his time collecting works by his former artistic colleagues - many of whom were by that time deceased - and transferred all his acquisitions to the museum. This was his focus until he passed away in Berlin in 1976.
The Legacy of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Schmidt-Rottluff's legacy is most strongly felt through the Brücke Museum, which currently holds over 1,000 works by artists associated with Die Brücke and manages the artist's estate. The museum acts as the single most comprehensive collection of German Expressionism in the world. Through annual exhibitions and rigorous scholarship, the museum has restored the place of these seminal modern artists within the narrative of modernism that Hitler and the Nazis sought to erase.
While Schmidt-Rottluff's predominant legacy is the Brücke Museum, his impact can be traced on subsequent artists. His bold colors and forms influenced the aesthetics of some artists of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Hale Woodruff. Similarly, his role in popularizing the woodcut print as one of the defining forms of German Expressionism led to its prominence as a modernist medium.