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Important Art by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
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.
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.
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.