“The Expressionist Nude,” now on view at the Neue Galerie in New York through June 13, is not a major exhibit. A survey of Expressionist riffs on the classical nude, there are no headliners, no particularly famous or iconic works—for that, viewers can visit the Edvard Munch retrospective in the main exhibition space upstairs. But “The Expressionist Nude” isn’t meant to check off boxes on a list of modernist must-sees. It is meant to pull the curtain away from the painterly tradition’s favorite subject: the human form.
Universalism versus individualism, objective versus subjective, conformity versus revolt—these were the key tensions of Expressionism’s art historical moment. Turn-of-the-century Expressionists, for their part, emphasized the subjective interpretation of the visual world, sacrificing in realism what they gained in psychology and mood. This psychologized approach had a revolutionary effect on portraiture. Take Edvard Munch’s The Scream, for instance. Widely regarded as one of the first Expressionist paintings (and, incidentally, also on view through June 13), Munch’s infamous, skull-faced figure emphasizes emotional over visual truth. More ghost than human, the screamer presses both hands against exaggeratedly scalloped cheeks as he draws his mouth into a very silent ‘O.’ His positioning vis-à-vis the rest of composition is abrupt and anomalous—heavily foregrounded, torso cropped, he rises into the painting like a wisp of smoke from some other frame. Meanwhile, the rest of the canvas undulates with unreal colors, contorting a sunset into thick, waxy waves of bright orange and navy blue. A tiny sailboat spins on a lake in the distance. Two suited men stroll along the boardwalk, casual, unhurried, as if deaf to the cry that fills the foreground. It is notable that the relative realism of the figures runs counter to the intensity of the screamer’s expression.
Later German and Austrian painters continued to translate the objective world into their own personal visual vocabularies, shattering further art historical norms along the way. These are the artists and themes explored in “The Expressionist Nude.” The exhibit challenges the traditional motif of the classically “idealized” nude: the nude as beautiful, serene, sexually naïve, and realistically represented, not to mention female. The nudes on view at the Neue, by contrast, are awkward, tortured, immodest, and occasionally male.
The selected catalogue has a probative, exploratory quality that rings true to the spirit of modernist experimentation. The pencil sketches, ink drawings, woodcuts, and watercolors are all on paper, and many seem like rehearsals for larger works—the bare-breasted mother from Klimt’s Hope II, for example, is recognizable in multiple studies. A great merit of the show lies in the wide range of aesthetics and artists represented, a diversity that begs comparison within and across the Austrian and German Expressionist traditions.
The exhibit opens with a series of illustrations by the under-recognized Austrian painter Alfred Kubin, presented here as a Symbolist prototype for later Expressionist nudes. Kubin’s macabre, thickly-inked figures and fantastical scenes have the aleatory, wandering composition of doodles, as if the artist discovered his vision only after placing pen to paper. Back to the Womb seems like a page torn from an expressionist Book of the Dead; corpses in coffin-sized gondolas float down a river and into the swollen belly of the supine nude who receives them. Next come Kokoschka’s spare pencil sketches of adolescents. Liberated from Kubin’s inky, cross-hatched backgrounds, Kokoschka’s studies leverage the psychological power of white space. Alienated figures drift, isolated, across an otherwise blank page. There is almost no suggestion of shadow or shading. The figures enclose the same emptiness of the background in a way that makes them seem transparent and amphibious; the impish girl in an untitled sketch has the wide, triangular face of a newt. In Two Girls Standing, two studies of the same prepubescent girl float side by side in empty space, posed like seahorses with heads tilted forward and legs slightly curled, each unaware that she shares the page with her reproduction. The doubling of the figure reduces each to a test. The effect is melancholy and moving.
But Egon Schiele’s self-portraits are by far the most arresting, in part because only in these watercolors is the unfinished quality that defines many of the sketches transformed into the very subject of the work. That arrested impulse is the stunted libido, partially repressed, partially expressed, in the tug-of-war between ego and id. The result is a taboo-shattering and paradoxical self-portrait like Standing Male Nude, Back-View. A man (and you feel it must be Schiele) leaps, twisting, tossing his head to the side, as if slapped. His hair fans with the sudden movement. One arm reaches forward, the other torques. Testicles hang. The suggestions of spine, rib, and sinew emerge from an emaciated, mottled body of blood reds and moldy greens. Is he grimacing or dancing? Who knows? But it is one of the only paintings that makes me feel as if it could shout. The Scream, by contrast, is suspended in a desperate, static silence.
Alongside Schiele’s wild portraits, Gustav Klimt’s pencil sketches seem rather tame. An early mentor to Egon, Klimt later embraced the decorative, saleable style of Art Nouveau, and his sketches show the same academic technique, mosaic patterning, and idealism for which these paintings are known. Wrinkles ripple like tree rings across an ancient woman’s face and back, creating a geometric design that threatens to overtake the figure as the focus of the composition; a pregnant woman stands in silhouette, resting both hands on the globe of her belly. Serene, she gazes into her womb as if it were a crystal ball. At the time, such a depiction of elderly and pregnant nudes marked a foray in forbidden territory. But the shock is neutralized by the unthreatening placidity of the figures, which share little of the deviousness of Schiele or Kokoschka’s nudes. As in his ornamental paintings, Klimt’s women seem to transcend the subjectivity of artist and canvas—these beatific nudes belong to the realm of decorative abstraction and myth.
And when does expression, however subjective, reactionary, or “modern”, become just another idealization? Again, this tension between subjective and objective lies at the heart of the exhibit—perhaps at the heart of most modernist art. The power of Schiele’s work seems to lie in resisting a resolution. The paradoxical plays on rebellion and subjugation, movement and suspension, the nonchalance of a tortured self-examination, all expressed in Schiele’s contorted, emaciated, and decidedly un-idealized nudes, strike the viewer as undeniably true. The exaggerated solipsism of these paintings results in a truth about what it means to confront the self in a Freudian age. Modern man, Freud concluded, traded the free expression of the libido for a stable social existence, and as a result is forever doomed, on some level, to melancholy and malcontent. But in art, as Freud concedes, and Schiele proves, we may find brief moments of consolation. Or at the very least, self-recognition.
Klimt’s mythical women serve to bridge the intensity of Schiele’s solipsism with the “primitivist” utopianism of the Die Brücke movement, whose woodcuts constitute the rest of the show. In thrall to the idea of a utopian future and drawing heavily from African and Oceanic motifs, members of this Dresden-based collective adopted their trademark “primitivist” aesthetic as an attack on European bourgeois convention. Whereas Schiele, Kokoschka, and Klimt cut their nudes loose to float across a blank page—a suspension that isolates the psychology of the figure—Kirchner, Heckel, and Mueller snap their nudes against abstracted jungle backgrounds rendered in fauvist schemes, leaving the white of the page to fill in the space between the palm leaves. The figuration and foliage alike are equally childlike, intentionally stripped of detail and painterly skill—most of the images were created with hand-cut wooden blocks, rather than a brush.
Die Brücke artists, as curator Janis Staggs notes in an accompanying object label, consciously replaced the studio background of traditional portraiture with such al fresco scenes that elided all evidence of bourgeois life. The resulting compositions suggest an agenda: This, Die Brücke woodcuts seem to say, is how we ought to be living. Max Beckmann’s Standing Male Nude with Glasses, by contrast, combines the crude, angular lines of the “primitivist” aesthetic with traces of the bourgeois world to which all these artists belonged. The combination marks an improvement over Die Brücke’s utopian ideology. Beckmann presents a melancholy joke and, crucially, implicates himself: with one leg perched atop a low model’s stool, the other spread wide, a male nude strikes a triumphant stance at variance with the humiliated expression on his bespectacled face. We might have entered a dream in which this man has found himself naked, in front of a crowd, wearing nothing but his glasses. Beckmann, though also German, was not one of the Die Brücke collectivists who, in their idealization of the pure, the “primitive”, and the au naturel, seem to have sacrificed something of the personal, that trace of the self. And perhaps every Expressionist work—or every work of art, really—requires the artist to express something he himself knows.
But no one likes a moralizer, and a hyperbolic moralizer even less. And so, suffice a juxtaposition: At the fall of the Weimar Republic, National Socialism would rear its ugly head, denouncing Expressionist art across Europe as degenerate, incompatible with a new radical idealism—the ideal of the nation state. And here comes the hyperbole: As in politics, so in art. Wherever the idealized, the mythic, the universal reign, there is no longer any room for individual truth: for the blue-orange expression of a scream.