Art exhibition

Two for the Show

pechstein Foto bpk Jörg P. Anders
Max Pechstein, an expressionist painter, in 1910.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The monumental, unprecedented and rich “ImEx” show at Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie brings Impressionist and Expressionist artworks together for direct comparisons, and the differences are stark.

  • Facts


    • The exhibition, on Berlin’s Museum Island, runs through September 20. The catalog costs €25, or $27.43.
    • One hundred of the show’s 160 artworks are from collections of Berlin museums, so the exhibit illustrates the city’s world-class aesthetic resources.
    • Impressionism is a 19th century art movement that started in Paris. Expressionism is a modernist movement that started in Germany in the early 20th century.
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“ImEx” is the succinct, simple title of a major art exhibition at Berlin’s national gallery.

There have been numerous exhibitions about French Impressionism and German Expressionism in the past. So far though, no exhibition has dared to attempt a direct comparison of the two movements.

The Alte Nationalgalerie is now offering this twin perspective in an exhibition created by departing curator Angelika Wesenburg.

The show establishes aesthetic bridges but also lines of demarcation. Some of the contrasts come through most clearly in the comparison of different motifs, and many are possible in this exhibition of 160 works.

One hundred of the paintings are drawn from collections of Berlin museums in a world-class show of the city’s resources, presented with exuberance and aplomb.

How well-behaved and atmospheric the Impressionist cityscapes seem, compared to these pictures filled with a magical, violent effect of depth.

The Alte Nationalgalerie’s entire ground floor was cleared out for the exhibition. Hanging in the rotunda are photo panels with cityscapes from Berlin and Paris around 1900. Busts are set up in the rotunda’s middle: Aristide Maillol’s likeness of artist Auguste Renoir, Georg Kolbe’s bronze of Impressionist dealer Paul Cassirer, and William Wauer’s bust of Herwarth Walden, an avant-gardist gallery owner and founder of Expressionist magazine Der Sturm.

The circle of these great mediators of art is completed in one of the exhibition’s final portions where oil portraits of the dealers, collectors and publicists of both artistic trends are displayed. They include Edvard Munch’s full-length portrait of Harry Graf Kessler and Lovis Corinth’s half-length portrait of art historian Julius Meier-Graefe from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

In the Alte Nationalgalerie’s octagonal room that usually showcases works from the 19th century, a first large section summons up comparisons with cityscapes. Serving as cornerstones are Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Potsdamer Platz” (1914) and his “Kölner Rheinbrücke” from the same year. They are accompanied by nocturnal scenes by Lesser Ury and Camille Pissarro.

How well-behaved and atmospheric, on the other hand, the Impressionist cityscapes seem in juxtaposition with these pictures filled with a magical, violent effect of depth. Only Claude Monet’s “Charing Cross Bridge” from Madrid manages to be convincing as an Impressionist work that radiates a nebulous energy. It must be considered a shortcoming that Mr. Kirchner’s “Rhine Bridge,” placed all by itself here, was not combined with Gustave Caillebotte’s “Pont de l’Europe” from the Petit Palais in Geneva, an artwork that exudes the same depth and presents the most radical view of a bridge from that era (1876).

Not all the pictures featured in this interconnected series of room are of the highest quality. In the “Animals” section, the weak rendition of a birdcage by Berthe Morisot is juxtaposed with Franz Marc’s plentifully colored picture of a cow. Max Slevogt’s “Trabrennen” is only a faint reflection of Édouard Manet’s racetrack impressions that are present in a lithograph from the graphic section. Then there is Heinrich von Zügel’s “Knabe mit Rind”: the rustic intrusion of a diligent painter of farm animals and pets from the Munich School. And the dead flamingo by the Berlin Secessionist Curt Herrmann, who was not a particularly gifted painter of animals, is also not a delight for the eyes.

Compensation is offered by other thematic groups with an abundance of first-class works. The rooms featuring bathers and recreational depictions are not short on works of “ImEx,” which is a contraction of “Im(pressionism) to Ex(pressionism”), and establish references to other thematic ensembles. Thus Erick Heckel’s “Schlafender Pechstein” from the Buchheim Collection could also be inserted into the sequence of artist portraits. And Lovis Corinth’s flag-adorned “Tiergarten-See” is reminiscent of the fluttering banners in Max Slevogt’s painting “Under den Linden,” which is hung among the cityscapes as a substitute for Claude Monet’s pictures of flags.

The thematic section “Pleasure, Café, Dance” offers an interesting mixture of works. Important pieces by Kirchner, Macke and Nolde appear alongside Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh. Works by less prominent artists such as Erma Bossi, Auguste Chabaud, Leo von König and Georg Tappert find a legitimate place in this succession of pleasure-celebrating subjects.

The section “Couples, Relationships” offers insights into more or less subtle relationships. Here are exemplary pictures by Beckmann, Kirchner and Munch. The Impressionist eye-catcher is Manet’s painting “Wintergarden” that Hugo von Tschudi purchased in 1896 for Berlin’s National Gallery.

Visitors to the exhibition, with its mixture of superlative and secondary works, will not be able to deny the duality of the two artistic movements. Their points of departure were simply too divergent.

Without exception, the Impressionists had academic roots from which, inspired by the Barbizon School, they emancipated themselves through open-air painting, segmentation of tones and the shimmering play of color. The Expressionists, most of whom were self-taught, were singularly uninterested in rendering effects of light. Their creed was immediate, unadulterated expression, simplified form and vivid coloration. Their programmatic elements were bold perspectives, distortions of the human image inspired by primitive art (by South Sea cultures in the case of the “Brücke” painters), exaltation and negative beauty.

The French sought a unity between emotion and form. The German Expressionists gave more space to emotion than to form, which was allowed — even intended — to remain unruly. We take away this rare sight and insight from Berlin’s monumental show – and that is much more than can generally be expected from blockbuster events.


Macke Spaziergang im blumen
August Macke, an expressionist painter from Germany. Source: bpk / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Jörg P.A.


Handelsblatt’s Christian Herchenröder writes about the international art market. To contact the author:

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