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Van Gogh to Kandinsky

Impressionism to Expressionism, 1900-1914
From October 11, 2014, to January 25, 2015

The art produced by the French and German avantgarde between the end of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War I is widely celebrated today. Its creators include such renowned artists as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne and Kandinsky. Their works, distinguished by their originality, power and beauty, are considered among the early masterpieces of modern art. When art history chronicled this fascinating era, two discrete critical discourses emerged, positing distinct French and German movements. Thanks to the extensive research of Timothy O. Benson, curator of the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), this exhibition – exceptional by the importance of the works on loan – provides us with a broader understanding of the complex cross-cultural influences during the period, which gave rise to this phenomenally rich and compelling artistic production.

The political context of this prewar era informs the way we view this remarkable period of creativity and exchange between French and German artists. One hundred years after the outbreak of World War I, we consider the particularly cosmopolitan atmosphere in Europe that set the stage for this period of artistic ferment, as well as the circumstances that brought it to a dramatic halt when war was declared in 1914. The exhibition will follow the trajectory of Expressionism, from its roots in Paris in 1900 – the universally acknowledged centre of the arts at the time – to Germany in 1914, when several exponents of Expressionism responded to the call to arms.

Exhibition Layout


Paris in 1900

Capital of the Arts

The exhibition opens with a thematic gallery featuring Paris in 1900: a view of the Exposition universelle and a glimpse of the galleries and cafés where artists discovered and discussed the latest in modern art. Fiftyone million people attended the Paris World’s Fair. At the brand-new Grand Palais and Petit Palais, visitors could see art from France, the colonies and beyond, as well as the Palais de l’Électricité, a technological triumph lit up by five thousand multicoloured incandescent lights. The World’s Fair gave people an opportunity to discover the world: visitors were transported by a moving sidewalk to see the sites, with pavilions from numerous countries lining the Seine. Souvenir photo albums, architectural drawings, documentary and stereoscopic photographs, as well as short silent films, will give Museum visitors an appreciation for the cosmopolitan atmosphere that greeted artists upon their arrival in the City of Light at the turn of the century.

In the ensuing years, the cafés of Montmartre and Montparnasse continued to welcome painters, sculptors, novelists, poets and students from all around the world in an atmosphere of great cultural and social freedom – often in vivid contrast to their homeland. Art galleries like Durand-Ruel and Bernheim- Jeune held exhibitions that sealed the reputation of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists as the pre-eminent artists of their time. Paris attracted all those eager to absorb the lessons of the newly crowned avant-garde. The exchange of ideas – facilitated by travel, books, art periodicals and exhibitions – would influence the art produced by the artists who came to be known as Expressionists.

Impressionism to Expressionism

While Germany did not have a single art centre like Paris, the cities of Berlin, Dresden, Cologne, Mannheim, Munich and Essen all hosted exhibitions or important collections that provided artists with the opportunity to see works by the French and European avant-garde. Many French paintings in the exhibition have an exhibition history or provenance that can be traced to Germany before 1914 or were shown in major exhibitions in Paris, where artists visiting the city had the opportunity to see them. An unparalleled internationalist attitude prevailed in progressive circles in Germany. A number of collectors, gallery directors and art historians played a significant role, due to their demonstrable openness in supporting modern art from outside the country. For example, in 1897, Hugo von Tschudi, the director of the National Gallery of Berlin, was responsible for the first purchase of a Cézanne painting by a museum, an acquisition that generated much controversy in France. And it was in Munich, during a visit of the first great international exhibition of Islamic arts, that Matisse became aware of the importance of Asian and Middle Eastern art for his own aesthetic.

The Color of Emotion

It is in this social and political climate, where artists were highly aware of an international avant-garde, that the emergence of Expressionism should be considered. Thus, the exhibition examines the reception of Cézanne, Van Gogh, the Neo-Impressionists, the Fauves, Matisse and the Cubists in relation to the German Expressionist artists of Die Brücke [The Bridge] and Der Blaue Reiter [The Blue Rider]. The early works by Die Brücke artists Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rotluff, shown juxtaposed to Fauve works by Derain, Dufy, Braque and Matisse, will highlight how these contemporary German and French groups were concurrently inspired by the Neo-Impressionists, Gauguin and Van Gogh. They sought to use vibrant, non-naturalistic colour in their paintings as a means to freely express their emotions. The exhibition’s unfolding narrative will demonstrate the influence of Cézanne, and then of Cubism, on the Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter artists. Led by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, this informal group developed a vocabulary of abstract forms and prismatic colours, searching for an expression of spiritual values in their painting.

  • Paul Cézanne
    Three Bathers
    1879–82. Oil on canvas
    Petit Palais, musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

    Paul Cézanne, Three Bathers (detail), 1879–82, oil on canvas. Petit Palais, musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
  • Vincent van Gogh
    Restaurant of the Siren at Asnières
    1887. Oil on canvas
    Paris, Musée d’Orsay, bequest of Joseph Reinach, 1921

    Vincent van Gogh, Restaurant of the Siren at Asnières, 1887, oil on canvas. Paris, Musée d’Orsay, bequest of Joseph Reinach, 1921
  • Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Artist Marcella
    1910. Oil on canvas
    Berlin, Brücke Museum

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Artist Marcella (detail), 1910, oil on canvas. Berlin, Brücke Museum
  • Alexei Jawlensky
    Girl with Purple Blouse
    1912. Oil on paper laid down on canvas
    Cologne, private collection

    Alexei Jawlensky, Girl with Purple Blouse (detail), 1912, oil on paper laid down on canvas. Cologne, private collection
  • Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
    Otto and Maschka Mueller in the Studio
    1911. Oil on canvas
    Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection, gift of the estate of Anne R. Fischer

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto and Maschka Mueller in the Studio (detail), 1911, oil on canvas. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection, gift of the estate of Anne R. Fischer
  • Alexei Jawlensky
    Portrait of Marie Castel (front)
    1906. Untitled (back)
    Oil on canvas. Michigan, Flint Institute of Arts

    Alexei Jawlensky, Portrait of Marie Castel (front), 1906, oil on canvas. Michigan, Flint Institute of Arts
  • Cuno Amiet
    Portrait of the Violinist Emil Wittwer-Gelpke
    1905. Oil on canvas
    Kunstmuseum Basel, Birmann-Fond 1975

    Cuno Amiet, Portrait of the Violinist Emil Wittwer-Gelpke, 1905, oil on canvas. Kunstmuseum Basel, Birmann-Fond 1975

Rising Nationalism

The support of French art, however, was not universal in Germany. In 1908, Kaiser Wilhelm II eventually dismissed Hugo von Tschudi as director of the National Gallery because of his support for the French avantgarde. In 1911, the acquisition of a Van Gogh painting at the Kunsthalle Bremen provoked a vehement reaction by a number of German artists – although even more came to the defence of the gallery’s director, Gustav Pauli. Strong nationalism was also seen in France, where Matisse’s reputation suffered because his art was avidly collected by Germans and because his Parisian academy was attended by a great many foreign students. The increasingly nationalistic debates pertaining to art signalled the end to the utopic cultural exchanges that characterized the first decade of the twentieth century.

The Great War

The exhibition closes with a gallery devoted to World War I, providing a tragic conclusion to a period of exceptional creativity. A series of recently discovered photographs documenting the war in France and Germany, as well as postcards, maps and stereoscopic images, will chronicle the four-year conflict. Excerpts from letters and personal journals written by artists in the exhibition, some of whom were active participants in the war, will give the viewer an intimate perspective of the period. Photographs of some of the exhibited artists as soldiers – two of whom (Franz Marc and August Macke) perished in the war – will provide a vivid testimony of the harrowing conflict.

Visit the exhibition in connection with: From Van Gogh à Kandinsky
The Patriotism of Death
Propaganda posters from World War I

Van Gogh struck modern art like lightning

Die Brücke

The First Expressionism Movement

Today the term Expressionism is widely considered to designate a distinctly German movement. In its beginnings in the early twentieth century, however, Expressionism was not assigned to a specific nationality. The movement evolved within a lively cosmopolitan atmosphere in Europe, where German and French artists responded to new developments in modern art with brightly coloured and spontaneously rendered canvases. Where did Expressionism come from?

“Van Gogh struck modern art like lightning,” a German observer once said about the influence of this pioneering modern artist’s work on artists in Germany in the 1910s. The work of Vincent van Gogh – who died in relative obscurity fifteen years earlier – was finally becoming widely available due to a network of cultural exchange between Germany and France in the form of exhibitions; burgeoning public and private collections; trade on the art market; and travel by artists, dealers and museum directors.

The avid collecting and exhibition of works by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and others were complemented by lively critical discussions in illustrated art periodicals and books, notably publications by art critic. German art dealers such as Wilhelm Uhde and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler opened galleries in Paris and were instrumental in introducing Henri Rousseau and Pablo Picasso to the larger public. In Berlin, the forward-looking director of the National Gallery, Hugo von Tschudi, started buying modern French art, while Paul Cassirer was among the first to exhibit Van Gogh’s works in Germany at his commercial gallery. Cassirer organized numerous exhibitions that also travelled to other German cities such as Dresden. It was there that the exhibition of Van Gogh’s work was shown at Galerie Arnold in 1905, generating great excitement among the artists of Die Brücke, the first Expressionist group, founded only a few months before the exhibition opened.

Der Blaue Reiter

Founded in 1911 in Paris

Soon the Fauves were being exhibited in Germany, including in an exhibition in Dresden, in which Die Brücke artists also participated. Kirchner and Pechstein saw the 1909 Berlin exhibition of Matisse’s work (hung by the artist himself) at Paul Cassirer and informed Heckel via a postcard that it was “wild.” Indeed Kirchner must have been overpowered by Matisse’s experimentation with composition and space.

Der Blaue Reiter group, established in 1911, was well aware of current artistic trends in Paris. The group’s founding members – Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Münter and Marianne Werefkin – frequently sojourned in Paris and presented their works at the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants. The spectacular colours of Fauvism first found their way into their art beginning in 1908, when the group started to spend their summers in the alpine village of Murnau, where they responded to the subtle atmospheric light of the region. This palette is reflected in Jawlensky’s, Münter’s, Werefkin’s and Kandinsky’s flamboyant landscapes. None of these paintings is imaginable without the experience of Murnau, nor would they be possible without Fauvism. Yet, each original work was created by a mature artist who took a fully independent direction…

The development of Expressionism took place in the cosmopolitan milieu of artists, galleries and museums in both France and Germany in the early twentieth century. The founding of groups nearly synonymous with the term Expressionism – Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter – came at a heightened moment during which artists working in Germany were paying close attention to the styles developing in France. This exhibition seeks to bring together French and German masterpieces accompanied by their essential historical context – when and where they were exhibited, collected and seen by artists – so that they may be enjoyed again by us while also capturing the moment when the artists that made them were inspired by one another.

Credits and Curators

The exhibition is organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Kunsthaus Zürich, in collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibition curator is Timothy O. Benson, curator, Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies at the LACMA, with the assistance of Frauke Josenhans. At the MMFA, the exhibition is organized under the direction of Nathalie Bondil, Director and Chief Curator, with Anne Grace, Curator of Modern Art. The exhibition layout was designed by Gilles Saucier of Saucier + Perrotte, Architectes. The exhibition is presented in Montreal by Fiera Capital in collaboration with Metro, the Volunteer Association of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Air Canada, Air Canada Cargo, the Goethe Institut and its partner, the German Federal Government, Bell, Richter, Tourisme Montréal, La Presse and The Gazette. The exhibition has also received support from the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canada Travelling Exhibitions Indemnification Program. The international exhibition programme of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts benefits from the financial support of the Exhibition Fund of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Foundation and the Paul G. Desmarais Fund.



On top
1. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Pollard Willows at Sunset, 1888, oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. Otterlo, The Netherlands, Kröller-Müller Museum
2. Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, about 1887, oil on canvas. Hartford, Connecticut, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art,. gift of Philip L. Goodwin in memory of his mother, Josephine S. Goodwin
3. Paul Cézanne, Peasant in a Blue Smock, about 1896–97, oil on canvas. Fort Worth, Texas, Kimbell Art Museum
4. Paul Gauguin, Faaturuma (Melancholic), 1891, oil on canvas. Kansas City, Missouri, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, purchase, William Rockhill Nelson Trust
5. Maurice de Vlaminck, The Seine and Le Pecq, 1906, oil on canvas. Kunsthaus Zürich, Collection Johanna and Walter L. Wolf © Succession Maurice de Vlaminck / SODRAC (2014)
6. Paul Cézanne, Three Bathers, 1879–82, oil on canvas. Petit Palais, musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
7. Henri Rousseau, The Wedding, 1904–05, oil on canvas. Paris, musée de l’Orangerie
8. Wassily Kandinsky, Arabian Cemetery, 1909, oil on cardboard. Hamburger Kunsthalle © Succession Wassily Kandinsky / SODRAC (2014)