Rough Cuts: The Wood Culture of Brücke Expressionism

Symposium on European Modernism, 1895-1935

Dr Christian Weikop, Humboldt University, University of Edinburgh

17 October 2010

‘Arboreal Expressionism’ is a concept that I devised whilst attempting to encapsulate in English the meanings of two evocative German terms - Waldgefühl and Holzgefühl - which translate as a ‘feeling for the forest’ and a ‘feeling for the wood’ [as material] respectively.  In this process, the word ‘arboreal’ was given a more elastic definition, referring not just to visual representations of the German forest, but also to the utilisation of the forest’s raw material in woodcut and woodcarving processes.

A collective forest consciousness, in German, Waldbewusstsein, is rooted in a time–honoured understanding of Teutonic ethnic identity as being that of a Northern forest–dwelling race, a race of noble tree–venerating savages, an understanding first developed in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus, whose work the Germania (AD 98) was then later rediscovered and popularised by German humanists in the age of Albrecht Altdorfer.  This Waldbewusstsein took on an even greater significance in the work of the Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, who developed his own brand of arboreal symbolism as an expression of a desire for national unity, and often as a form of anti–French, anti–Napoleonic propaganda.

While the Brücke Expressionists frequently depicted the forest in their work as an integral part of their free-body culture, thus conveying a sense of unity with nature, they did not possess quite the same vested interest in representing the ‘native’ landscape as Altdorfer or Friedrich.  In the early twentieth century, the Brücke group understood that they could not simply reproduce what by then might be deemed as rather clichéd subject matter if they were to develop an authentic visual language.  In defining their new German art, they went far beyond the arboreal imagery of Friedrich’s work, and in their rough–hewn woodcuts and woodcarving the Brücke artists also went beyond the Biedermeier values of more intimate and precise German wood engraving that so often illustrated the ‘homely’ Gothic folktales of the Brothers Grimm and others, which presented the forest as Heimat in a manner that functioned as a culturally cohesive agent.

Alfred Roller (stage designer, 1864 – 1935) cover for the periodical Ver Sacrum (organ of the Union of Graphic Artists) January 1898.

This folk tale arboreal world would continue to preoccupy Jugendstil artists of the turn of the century who contributed woodblock prints to little magazines such as Ver Sacrum, the formative reading of those students of the yet-to-be-founded Brücke.  Arborealism was also conveyed by the cover image for the first issue of Ver Sacrum. Alfred Roller created a striking motif of a stylised tree sapling with its youthful strong roots breaking through the restrictive staves of an old wooden barrel symbolising a moribund arts establishment, and thereby anticipating Brücke’s own cult of dynamic youth as given in their woodcut manifesto of 1906.

However, the Brücke realised that they would have to detach themselves from the decorative linearity of art nouveau in order to achieve a higher material expression and to raise the status of the woodcut medium.  Their pathfinder is this respect was the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who had already been adopted as a ‘spiritual German‘ by a number of critics, and who had been approached on many occasions by the Brücke who attempted to recruit him for their group.

Motivated by Munch’s innovations in the medium, by stressing the grain, age-rings and irregularities of timber, it might be argued that the Brücke were connecting more directly with the forests of a mythic German past, shifting the matrix of cultural nationalism from the wood as symbol (a locus of German subjectivity) to wood as artistic material.  In other words, Romantic Waldgefühl was to become subsumed by Expressionist Holzgefühl

The Brücke also identified a spiritual ally in Paul Gauguin who famously referred to himself as a ‘barbarian’, imparting that term with some positive value, and who turned his back on Parisian high society. Following Gauguin’s example, the Brücke were drawn to the idea of art and life being more closely connected in ‘non-industrialized’ societies than in so-called ‘western civilization’. Gauguin’s woodcarving and woodcutting technique provided artistic stimulus for the Brücke from about 1909 onwards.  The strong connections between Gauguin’s appreciation of wood as a vital expressive material, and Brücke’s own rough-cut uncamouflaged surfaces should not be underestimated.

Between 1911 and 1912 Karl Schmidt-Rottluff produced a few highly distinctive mask-like wood reliefs of bearded men.  The organic material of these wood reliefs cannot be regarded as ‘crafted’ in any conventional sense as the woodblocks are left more or less in their original state.  The natural physical presence of these blocks is manifest, and ancient faces reminiscent of historical images of woodwoses, appear to emerge from the arboreal surface with the minimal intervention of tools. In 1920, when considering Schmidt-Rottluff’s use of wood as an organic artistic material in an early publication on the Brücke artist, Wilhelm Valentiner revealed a certain cultural nationalism:  ‘Since the oldest timberwork architecture of the Teutons, since the wood sculpture of the German Gothic and Renaissance, since the art of the woodcut of Dürer’s time, the German artist has preferred to use wood … It is as if the structure of the rough trunk, with its knotty, misshapen form that nevertheless submits to the passionate carving knife, were especially suited to the half-barbaric, half-sentimental, self-sacrificing German character …’ 

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880 – 1938) Woodcut: Portrait of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff 1909

Arguably it was Schmidt-Rottluff who first introduced Emil Nolde to the woodcut in 1906, and he took to the medium immediately, perhaps because of a certain Holzgefühl which he had developed as a carver and designer of furniture in Flensburg from the mid 1880s.  Nolde much preferred wood to linoleum for relief printmaking, as he felt that the latter had an artificial ‘deadening quality’, and like the other Brucke artists, he maintained an ‘organic’ understanding of his art, stating that he wanted his work to ‘grow forth out of the material, just as in nature the plants grow forth out of the earth’.

Max Pechstein also had an interest in the organic textural aspect of the woodcut, but this organic trait was not always evident as his more academic training meant that his mode of representation often conformed to certain criteria of balance and proportion.  This point notwithstanding, his series of prints of rugged fisherman produced in Nidden in 1911, do stand out as anti–academic in character.  For this series, Pechstein gave his printmaking a more ‘rough-cut’ quality through heavy gouging, and like Munch he used thin Japan paper to expose the grain and splinters.

Founding Brücke member Erich Heckel was perhaps the most experimental in advancing the group’s ‘wood culture’ in printmaking and sculpture between the years 1905 and 1907. He was able to initiate the process of divorcing Brücke from the stylistic predictability and decorative repetitiveness of Jugendstil, and started to emphasise the material aspects of printmaking. Heckel’s ‘rough-cut’ approach to wood sculpture was contiguous with his woodcut practice, and also reveals the artist’s enthusiasm for the Dresden Ethnographic Museum’s accession of Cameroon sculpture.

In Kirchner’s Chronicle of the Brücke of 1913, the artist stressed the ‘parallel’ between Brücke’s aesthetic direction and the tribal art and artefacts of Africa and Oceania. Chiefly, what Kirchner identified was a mutual love of wood as an expressive material. The practice of carving wood, the means by which both Cameroon tribesman and Palau islanders would visually define the life and mythologies of their communities, was also the essential practice that helped Brücke create a cohesive aesthetic that truly conveyed their Künstlergemeinschaft identity.   

There is no doubt that wood was a highly evocative material.  It both denoted the temporal and connoted the mythical.  Just as Brücke woodcuts were frequently marked with the tree rings of time, a visible reminder of the growth of ancient Teutonic forests, so their carved figures often seemed to ‘grow’ out of the wooden blocks that formed natural plinths.  There is a Pygmalion–esqe dimension to Brücke animated carvings, something also suggested in Kirchner’s drawings of their studio culture, although of course wood rather than ivory or marble, as given in classical mythology, functioned as the vital material of transformation. By carving figures out of raw wood and using intense colour that appeared to seep out of the fibrous material, they were challenging the prevailing notion of the aesthetic purity and superiority of white marble classical sculpture, an idea first developed during the Enlightenment and principally by Johann Winckelmann. This rejection of the ‘marmorealism’ of academic tradition is significant.

In his theoretical writings, Kirchner also argued in favour of direct carving as opposed to plaster or bronze casting, which lacked expressive immediacy.  And in the early 1920s, the museum director Max Sauerlandt suggested that it was Brücke’s carving method of non-concealment, that work processes were revealed rather than effaced, that was quite unique.  After the First World War, Kirchner continued to insist on the inherent power of wood to realise his vision.   In retreating to the Swiss Alps he was completed enveloped by the forest.  He deeply admired what he saw as the noble simplicity of the lives of  mountain dwellers and their ‘oneness’ with the earth, an honesty that he saw as revealing itself in their physiognomy.  In considering these mountain peasants which he never tired of depicting in woodcut, he stated: ‘Their strong faces, partly covered with large black hats seemed to form themselves out of the firs.’

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880 – 1938) Sketch for a Sculpture, 1912

After 1920, perhaps it was only Kirchner, working in relative isolation in the Swiss mountainside, who managed to truly elaborate on his vision of creative craftsmanship, in developing a Volkish modernism or Expressionist Heimatkunst inspired by the native ‘wood culture’ of the Swiss peasants and the surrounding landscape. Wood as an artistic material was used in cutting and carving, and the wood as place was represented in virtually all media including drawings, paintings, photography, and textiles. In Switzerland, Kirchner’s intensive experimentation with the raw material of his immediate environment truly constituted an arboreal Gesamtkunstwerk, perfecting what he had started in Dresden.