The German Revolution: Expressionist prints

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Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, Fräulein Engelhardt, 1926

Marking the centenary of the 1918-19 revolution in Germany, Glasgow’s Hunterian gallery has on display an impressive and wide-ranging selection of etchings, lithographs and woodcuts from the wave of printmaking in Germany during the first two decades of the 20th century, as well as works representing key influences on this movement.

Although involving various groups, expressionism is generally characterised by a subjectivity and distorted reality that breaks down the notions of objective form to convey emotion. Printmaking became popular as it was easier to produce more widely than painting and allowed greater experimentation.

Edvard Munch was a major influence, in particular through his use of woodblock printing. “In The Man’s Brain”, hand-printed in red ink, shows a naked woman drawn inside a man’s head, her hair enveloping his face. It touches on the common expressionist theme of emotional angst, reflecting developments in psychology.

For etching, Spanish artist Goya in particular had provided an example of print’s expressive power in his use of light and dark, and development of aquatint for extreme contrast — seen in “Disparate Matrimonial”. John Berger describes his “merciless light” showing up cruelty, “like film shots of a flare-lit bombing operation”.

The early 20th century saw the rapid industrialisation of Germany and the growth of its cities and working class.

The exhibition features several works by Käthe Kollwitz, whose main focus was the poor and working class, often women. Portraits such as “Working Woman In Profile” convey a sense suffering and hardship, but also of endurance and strength through the light of the subject’s face and hands.

The German expressionists increasingly turned to new forms to communicate the horrors of the First World War. This included the front itself — such as in George Grosz’s 1915 “Attentat”, in which he tries to capture the chaos and destruction caused by a bomb dropped from an aeroplane, and also the wartime suffering in Germany, in works such as “Das Volk”, taken from Kollwitz’s anti-war series.

These conditions led to the revolution itself, sparked when Kiel sailors mutinied in November 1918, which saw workers’ and soldiers’ councils take power all over the country, the overthrow of the Kaiser and end to the monarchy, and an immediate end to the war.

The last room, containing the 11 largescale lithographs that make up Max Beckmann’s “Hell” series, deals with the aftermath of the war and events in January 1919 when the leaders of the revolution, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered by right wing Freikorps troops sent in by the reformist SPD government.

Here, Beckmann presents post-war Berlin as a twisted carnival sideshow — the cover image is of an announcer promising entertainment, before a series of disturbing, nightmarish scenes of disfigured soldiers, starving families and torture chambers. One particularly harrowing piece, “Martyrdom”, depicts the brutal murder of Rosa Luxemburg.

They feature harsh use of lines and angular, strangely compressed and contorted figures with tangled limbs — images largely out of his own experiences as a medical orderly in the war.

This exhibition gives us both a rich insight into how artists reacted to the political upheaval of this period using new forms of expression, and reopens discussion on the lessons of the German Revolution, to prevent it from becoming a forgotten footnote of history.