The Eye of the Beholder
Bewildering modernity at UMMA
by Grant Mandarino
Visitors to the University of Michigan Museum of Art this month have the opportunity to see a stellar temporary exhibition of works on paper by some of the leading figures of the German and Viennese Expressionist movements of the early twentieth century. Expressionism is often identified with bright colors and vigorous paint strokes, with works that bring us to the very edge of representational art (think Vincent Van Gogh). Though small in size, this show concisely displays a far less vibrant view of modern life and demonstrates the great diversity of styles that coexisted within these movements.
Nearly all the works date from the calamitous years around World War I. We see this reflected in the haggard faces that populate the drawings of George Grosz and the dramatic squiggles of a restaurant scene by Ernst Kirchner, works that attempt to capture the pace and populace of the modern city. Emil Nolde's haunting Actress (1912), by contrast, appears immobile, and yet loose bands of diffused color evoke the light washes of city streets at night or the glare of the stage. Modernity, with its speed and bewildering sights, is a theme that runs through the show.
Not all the works depict urban life. A few take religious or mythological stories as their subject, while a pair of bleak landscapes transports the viewer out of the city to the countryside. There are also several nudes, some rendered with crisp, thatched lines, others more bulbous in shape. Oskar Kokoschka's Nude with Arms Overhead (1934), drawn in blue crayon, may be the best piece in the whole show. The patchwork of dark blue lines and pale blue shadowing creates an effervescence of character that other nudes in the show lack. Kokoschka's work proves that, even on paper, German Expressionism could be just as bold and colorful as anything happening in France.
The Eye of the Beholder is the second show drawn from a collection that was donated to the museum in 2007 by
Ernst Pulgram and his wife Frances McSparran, both former U-M professors. The collection complements the German Expressionist works the museum already owned, several of which can be seen in the modern art galleries on the second floor. Hopefully UMMA will decide in the near future to mount a more substantial exhibit of the whole collection supplemented with the museum's holdings. Until then, this exhibit, which continues through March 14, is the best chance to catch a glimpse of one of the defining moments in the history of modern art.
[Originally published in March, 2010.]