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15 October 2023

Max Pechstein and the politics of paint

Amid Germany’s 20th-century upheavals, the expressionist’s art brought him both renown and peril.

By Michael Prodger

Max Pechstein was an artist with a mixed bag of honours to his name. He served in and survived two world wars and became a successful and influential painter and teacher in his native Germany, but he was also imprisoned by the Japanese in 1914 and by the Russians in 1945; he was lucky to avoid a similar fate under the Nazis. He was one of the artists singled out for opprobrium at Hitler’s infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Berlin in 1937, when 16 of his pictures were displayed as examples of what the Führer said art should not be. As a result of official disfavour, 326 of his paintings were removed from galleries around the country and Pechstein wisely hastened away from trouble, sequestering himself in distant Pomerania.

From 1906 until 1933, however, Pechstein was a key figure in the development of German expressionism, a distinctive form of modernism that used bright colours and vigorous brushstrokes to emotional effect, taking the chromatic techniques of French post-impressionism and fauvism and giving them a Teutonic twist. He was active, too, in art-world politics, which, in the febrile post-First World War years, were closely entwined with changes in wider German society.

[See also: Frans Hals and the will to life]

Pechstein (1881-1955) was born in Zwickau and trained initially as a decorative painter before switching to fine art. In 1906 he met Erich Heckel, one of four architecture students who the previous year had founded Die Brücke (the Bridge), a group committed to the modern and to non-bourgeois art and methods. Emil Nolde and Kees van Dongen joined later. Pechstein declared that he and his new friends “were overjoyed to discover our complete unison in the urge for liberation, for an art surging forward, unrestricted by convention”. They took their inspiration from German gothic woodcuts, Gauguin, Matisse – whose work Pechstein saw during a nine-month stay in Paris – and Edvard Munch, as well as the art of Africa and Oceania.

Pechstein described an outing in 1910 which captured the camaraderie and boundary-pushing spirit of the group. He arranged a painting expedition with Heckel and Ludwig Kirchner, the most able of the Brücke founders, to the lakes of Moritzburg near Dresden. “We knew that we would have the opportunity to paint nudes in the open air without interference… We had to find two or three people who were not professional models and would therefore pose for us without falling into studio routines… We artists set out early every morning, laden with our equipment, followed by the models with bags full of good things to eat and drink. We lived in complete harmony, we worked and went swimming… each of us executed a great number of paintings and drawings.” What Pechstein neglected to mention was that some of the models were minors.

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Perhaps because he worked in a slightly more easy-on-the-eye manner than his colleagues – evidence of the influence of French painting – Pechstein soon became Die Brücke’s most prominent painter and certainly its most commercially successful. Some resentment at his pre-eminence lay behind his expulsion from the group in 1912, supposedly for exhibiting alone at the Berlin Secession, the leading forum for modern art in Germany, and breaking the agreement that the Brücke artists would show their works communally.

The rift suited Pechstein. In 1914 he decided to emulate Gauguin’s search for untainted civilisation and, with his wife, travelled to Palau, an archipelago in the western Pacific which was then a German colony. It was, he said, an “earthly paradise”, but it proved a short-lived one. With the outbreak of war, Pechstein was interned at Nagasaki by the Japanese and on swearing an oath of neutrality left to make his own way home. This he did, by way of Shanghai, New York and working as a stoker on a Dutch ship to earn his passage across the Atlantic.

[See also: The lyrical pastorals of the British neo-romantics]

In 1915 he enlisted in the army and was sent to Flanders, but he spent most of the war as an aerial cartographer rather than on the front line. By the armistice, however, he had seen enough of battle to have become radicalised and he was one of the founders of the socialist Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers’ Council for Art; AfK) and Novembergruppe (November Group), which advocated art-school reform and making art and architecture for the broad citizenship. “Art and the people must form an entity,” as the AfK manifesto put it. These left-wing affiliations did Pechstein no favours when the Nazis came to power.

This painting, Stormy Weather at the Baltic Sea (Sunlit Waves), now in a private collection, was painted in 1919, when Pechstein was most active in art politics – not that it shows. The groups with which he was involved formulated principles but not a recognisable style and this picture continued in the vein in which he had long been working.

In 1909 Pechstein had paid his first visit to Nidden on the Baltic in East Prussia (now Nida in Lithuania). The town sits on the Curonian Spit, a long fillet of land which separates the mainland from the Baltic, and an artists’ colony had built up there. Thomas Mann would build a summer house nearby in 1929, known jokingly by the locals as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and holidayed there until, like Pechstein, he fell foul of the Nazis.

Pechstein visited six times in all, and this painting was made on his fourth trip, when he also produced lithographs and wooden sculptures inspired by the folk art of the area. While it lacks some of the black outlines of his most characteristically expressionist works, it nevertheless keeps a potent emotional charge. The worst weather may have passed and the sun is breaking through, but it is a scene of scudding clouds, churning sea and atmospheric effects that may be shafts of light but could double as rain squalls or lightning. It is too rough for the fishing boat to be put to sea.

The picture, a reaction to a real place and moment, is also a literal evocation of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement of German romantic art – when violent emotion and heightened subjectivity were seen as an antidote to Enlightenment rationalism. Although Pechstein was a prolific correspondent – more than 1,000 of his letters exist, unpublished – he didn’t explain his work, so there is no definitive reading of this picture. It is not overly fanciful, though, to sense some form of personal agitation reflected in the scene – but perhaps of hope too.

Indeed, the following decade was a successful one for him, with healthy sales, public commissions for stained glass, international medals and a professorship at the Prussian Academy of Arts. The arrival of the Nazis curtailed his career and he visited Nidden for the last time in 1939.

He was drafted into the Volkssturm (territorial army) during the war and after his imprisonment by the Russians returned to Berlin to find that his house and studio, containing a large number of his works, had burned down. Although Pechstein was rehabilitated in the years before his death, his painting lost much of the vigour and daring of his earlier work. The Baltic storm he had painted in 1919 had died away, but so too had the excitement he had felt on that empty beach.

[See also: The fatal flaw in the “final” Beatles song]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts