The Berlin Secession: Expressionism, Rebellion, and a New Artistic Vision


The Berlin Secession: Expressionism, Rebellion, and a New Artistic Vision

Look back across the history of art and the countless schools, movements, and radical uprisings that have typified its dynamism, and you'll notice one key and common trend uniting the greatest leaps forward in artistic thought and creativity: they are prompted by reaction, by outrage, by kicking back against bourgeois sensibilities and the stale nature of the established order. In German art history, this is especially true; there's undoubtedly something gloriously reactionary about Germany's most potent and forward-thinking artistic minds, ever keen to explore further horizons, and uncover deeper truths.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of German artistic reactionary movements would be that of the Berlin Secession; a small yet devoted band of creatives from Germany and beyond, determined to keep a once-vibrant artistic community alive and relevant against a backdrop of an increasingly staid and safe artistic salon. Despite being often overlooked today, with much of art history's obsession with 19th and early 20th century art being focused on Paris and Vienna, there's little doubt that the Berlin Secession was one of the schools which shaped the art of the last century into what we know it as today.

The Origins of an Artistic Tour de Force

In order to understand what the Berlin Secession was, what it stood for, and how it came into being, it's best to consider the sensibilities of German art - and especially Berlin art - at the latter end of the 19th century.

As with the artistic and cultural scenes of most European capitals in the 19th century, art in Berlin was primarily controlled and audited by the offical German Academy of Arts. This academy had, and still has, a long and proud history; it was founded back in 1696 by Frederick III of Brandenburg, and was established to seek out and foster excellence in painting, sculpture, and architecture in Berlin and beyond. For much of its history, this was all well and good; German art and architecture flourished throughout the Enlightenment, and it acted as a unifying force across the disparate German states.

The academy worked in conjunction with the official Association of Berlin Artists (Verein Berliner Kunstler), which, at the end of the 19th century, was watched over ferociously by both the classical Prussian painter Anton von Werner and his patron, the emperor Wilhelm II. Driven by conventional and neoclassical aesthetics, their combined efforts saw the creation of many of Berlin's most prominent artistic features which remain today; the Berlin Dom, the Gedachtniskirche, and the 30 or so memorial sculptures placed along the Siegesallee. All were beautiful, but all were also backwards-looking, commemorative, and obsessed with the glorification of Prussian history. The problem was, this was desperately out-of-step with 19th century artistic mores and tastes - the modern age was upon the city, and the artistic community outside of the academy was growing increasingly despondent about the representation of new, dynamic, and forward-looking artistic ideas.

In 1892, seismic changes came about in the Berlin art scene, which rocked the authority of the academy to its core, and which saw its iron grip on German art loosen forever. Firstly, a travelling exhibition of the paintings of Edvard Munch - the artist behind The Scream and other Expressonist works - came to Berlin. The academy representatives, naturally, were at the opening… and they were so shocked and appalled by the looseness of Munch's brushstrokes, the heartbreaking reality of his expressionist explorations, and his bold and outrageous use of colour, they promptly shut the exhibition down before it had barely begun.

Secondly, artistic plaudits for Kathe Kollwitz and Walter Leistikow were withdrawn by the emperor. Why? Because Kollwitz, despite her artistic vision, was a woman, and Leistikow's blue and purple trees outraged the sensibilities of the academy. For progressive artists in Berlin, already organised in a group then known as the Group of Eleven, these occurrences were the final straw: war was declared, and battles lines - between the progressive modernist creatives and the conservative academy - were scored deeply across the city.

Against the Grain: The Fight for Artistic Freedom

May the 2nd, 1892 saw the coming together of no less than sixty-five artists in the Berlin area, each keen to follow in the footsteps of likeminded souls in Munich and Vienna. A new artists association was formed - the 'Berliner Secession' - and Max Liebermann, one of Germany's greatest artistic talents, was elected president. Other founding members included Ernst Barlach, Edvard Munch, Kathe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, Lovis Corinth, and dozens of other hugely influential painters and sculptors, each determined to shake up the Berlin art scene and usher in a new century of expression. The first dedicated Berlin Secession exhibition (a huge and vibrant showcase of modernist art, featuring 300 paintings and 50 sculptures) took place two weeks later, demonstrating the fervent creative nature of the group. Following this, two Berlin Secession exhibitions were scheduled for every year, and their place in history was assured.

Despite the dedicated attempts and huge volume of work produced by the Berlin Secession group, the movement and the establishment of the arts retained a deeply uneasy coexistence. Indeed, the latter maintained the overall predominance, even in a rapidly changing Europe. However, the rebellious Secession had the wave of history and the curve of international tastes on their side; the world was ready for new movements right across the continent, and demand for work which explored the soul, broadened their brush strokes, and depicted man, society, and nature in new and colourful ways didn't cease to grow. Over time, the Secession became a familiar and accepted aspect of the German art scene, prompting Liebermann to ironically predict the future of the breakaway counterculture, proclaiming "Yesterday's revolutionaries are today's classical artists!"

The Enduring Influence of the Berlin Secession

Fascinatingly, albeit somewhat predictably, the pace of changes in the European art scene generally - and the Berlin art scene specifically - saw the more radical members of the Berlin Secession soon start to break away from the group that had helped foster them. Just as the academy had seemed stifling to Liebermann and his acolytes, before long, the Berlin Secession's many manifestos began to appear restrictive to those seeking to rip up an entirely new rulebook. Liebermann himself rejected several paintings of Expressionist artists, most notably Max Pechstein, leading to the creation of entirely new schools in opposition and in reaction to the original rebels. Before long, Die Brucke was all the rage, and the Neue Secession were launching rival exhibitions designed to show the Berlin Secession to be yesterday's news.

While tensions rose and tempers exploded for a short period around the turn of the new century, history looks back at this period somewhat differently. The Berlin Secession may not have been perfect, and they certainly weren't offering the last word in modern art. However, they bridged a division between the stale and dusty old guard of neoclassicism, and paved the way for countless new movements, new ideas, and new perspectives. Once that gulf was crossed, once those glass windows had been smashed, bright and original ideas could begin to flow freely, and the pace at which modern art moved forwards dazzled the world. For this, we should all be thankful for the courage, the vision, and the relentless rebellion of the Berlin Secession, and their determination to build their city's art world anew.

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