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 - Tate, London
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 - Tate
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