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Impressionism – Expressionism: Art at a Turning Point

Berthe Morisot, The Cheval Glass (1876). Oil on canvas, 64 x 54 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid 

The Alte Nationalgalerie can expect major hype for its summer exhibition. The inclusion of superstar artists (Monet, Degas and Van Gogh to name a few) means that Impressionism – Expressionism: Art at a Turning Point is certain to draw visitors. But the curators believe that what they are doing is more groundbreaking than a straightforward crowd-pleaser. The exhibition aims to compare the movements, showing how they shed light on each other when presented side-by-side.

But visitors hoping to see iconic works by the most famous artists may be disappointed. The one Van Gogh painting on show is rather unexceptional, and the exhibition features none of the super famous Impressionist paintings countlessly reproduced on tablecloths and tea towels. This is the exhibition’s strength, however. No particular artwork or artist dominates the exhibition. It is the relationship between the two movements that remains its focus.

The comparison between the movements works particularly well for some artworks. Berthe Morisot’s The Cheval Glass (1876) and Karl Schumidt-Rottluff’s Girl Before a Mirror (1915) both show a woman poised before her mirror. Positioned next to each, viewers are offered a striking contrast between Morisot’s pleasant haziness and Schumidt-Rottluff’s harsh outlines. Meanwhile, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Bather with Loose Blonde Hair (c. 1903) and Max Pechstein’s Seated Girl (1910) take the same alluring subject: the female nude. Yet positioned next to each other, viewers have a unique opportunity to compare their severe differences. Renoir’s bather is sumptuously soft, whilst Pechstein’s is unforgivingly brash.

Sometimes the similarities and differences between the Impressionist and Expressionist artworks are obvious enough for them to simply be placed next to each other without further explanation. The exhibition does not suffer from an overload of information, even if you pay the extra 4€ for an audio guide. Each of the exhibition’s twelve rooms dedicated to different themes has a written introduction. But other than that, viewers are left to their own devices.

Max Pechstein, Seated Girl (Moritzburg) (1910). Oil on canvas, 80 x 70 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Photo: bpk / Roman März. © 2015 Pechstein Hamburg/Tökendorf

There are, however, points where further information is desired. Sketches, prints and woodcuts also feature in this painting-dominated exhibition. Some of these are rather remarkable. Edvard Munch’s charcoal drawing Separation II (1896) is unnervingly moving, whilst Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s woodcut version of Frauen am Potsdamer Platz (1914) has a lively immediacy to it. But these lack any explanation. Placed in a smaller side-gallery, their importance is relegated. The opportunity to emphasise that these artists excelled in mediums other than paint is missed.

The sparseness of information leaves questions hanging. Similarities and differences between the movements are clear, but little is said on the actual relationship between them. Did artists from the different movements interact? What did they take from each other? The curators are cautious about forcing their own slant upon the artworks, leaving it up to the viewers to form their own opinions. But it means that the thought-provoking ideas that must have been behind their decision to pair these two movements together are sadly hidden.

Impressionism – Expressionism is nevertheless an achievement. The show could have relied on big showstoppers, giving audiences something they already know they like. The quality of the artworks is high, and some are extremely captivating. Here is not only an opportunity to see two of the most influential and popular art movements juxtaposed, but also to be introduced to some highly enthralling art.

‘Impressionism – Expressionism: Art at a Turning Point’ is on at the Altenational Galerie (Bodestraße 1-3, 10178 Berlin) until 22 September.

Hazel is a an arts and culture writer based in Berlin. Classical music might be her speciality, but all things artsy, cultural and interesting also fit her palette. Follow her on Twitter with @hazel_rowland or read her blog here.

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