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EXPRESSIONISM – The Best Art on View in Switzerland

Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938) was one of the best painters of her day and a titan of Expressionism.  The daughter of a Russian military commander, Marianne was a student of Ilya Repin, the great realist painter.  At age 28, her career was hindered by a crippling bullet wound to her right hand during a hunting accident.  Marianne met Alexej von Jawlensky in 1896 and, together, they relocated to Munich where she initiated a Salon that would change the history of Western modern art by integrating the Russian and German avant-garde movements.  You may view several of Marianne von Werefkin’s psychologically powerful paintings (below) at the Kunst Museum Winterthur/Reinhart am Stadtgarten, located 20 minutes by train outside of Zurich. 

Atmosfera Tragica, Empressionism
Marianne von Werefkin, Atmosfera Tragica (1910)

Marianne von Werefkin was a Pioneer of Modernism & Expressionism

In Munich, through persistence and years of practice, Marianne von Werefkin improved the use of her right hand. She devoted many years to developing the career of Alexej von Jawlensky, her lover and protégé, and in 1906 she returned to drawing and painting. Inspired by the art of Gauguin, Anquetin and Munch, as well as Japanese printmaking and the Nabis painters, Marianne developed her own Expressionist style marked by simplified forms and psychological content. Throughout 1908, Marianne and Alexej frequently traveled to rural Murnau to paint in the open air alongside another romantic couple, Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter. These four painters were founders of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM) group of artists in Munich.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following five paintings are on view at the Albertina Museum in Vienna as part of the Batliner Collection.

Stormy Night, Empressionism
Marianne von Werefkin, Stormy Night (1915-1917)
Expressionism, Taut at an Angle
Wassily Kandinsky, Taut at an Angle (1930)

Kandinsky was a member of another group (Lukasbruderschaft) founded by Marianne and, on New Year’s Eve in 1911, Kandinsky met Franz Marc in the home of Marianne and Alexej. These associations between the Russian emigrants and the native German painters August Macke, Marc and Münter (and the Swiss-born Paul Klee) would lead to the formation of the highly influential Der Blaue Reiter movement from 1911 through 1914. Marianne von Werefkin exhibited with the Blue Rider group before the outbreak of World War I. When the Great War began, Marianne and Alexej immigrated to Switzerland. The couple separated by 1918, and Marianne moved alone to Ascona on Lake Maggiore where she continued to paint her colorful landscapes for the next 20 years until her death in 1938.  

Expressionism, Night Prowler
Marianne von Werefkin, Night Prowler (1920)

Do Not Miss the Exhibition on Expressionism in the City of Winterthur

Through January 16, 2022, the Kunst Museum Winterthur/Reinhart am Stadtgarten in Winterthur is presenting a delightful special exhibition entitled “Expressionismus Schweiz”, featuring more than 120 paintings, including landscapes created in all regions of Switzerland by Philipp Bauknecht, Hermann Scherer and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, among others. Bauknecht (1884-1933) was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 26 and moved from Stuttgart to Davos, the Swiss spa town, for his health. The Swiss Alps inspired Bauknecht to create landscapes depicting rural village life and the surrounding mountains. Four years after his death in Davos in 1933, the Nazi government in Germany declared his oeuvre “degenerate art.”

Expressionism, Roter Berg Dischma
Philipp Bauknecht, Roter Berg Dischma (1919/1920)

Hermann Scherer (1893-1927) was born in the district of Lörrach, Germany, near Basel. He admired the style of Expressionism championed by Die Brücke and, like Marianne von Werefkin, his paintings were strongly influenced by the 1922 exhibition of Edvard Munch’s work at the Kunsthaus Zurich. During that time, Scherer befriended Kirchner, whom he would join in Davos between 1922 and 1924 for long painting excursions. After Scherer died in 1927 following a serious illness, the Kunsthalle Basel commemorated his passing with a display of more than 200 sculptures and paintings.

Hermann Scherer, Landschaft im Mendrisiotto (1926)

A towering figure in 20th Century art, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) suffered a nervous breakdown after enlisting in the German Army during World War I and, in 1917, made his first visit to Davos, where he viewed an exhibit of paintings by Ferdinand Hodler. Having suffered years of depression, and addiction to morphine and alcohol, Kirchner was despondent in 1937 when 639 of his paintings were removed from German museums and 25 were displayed in the Degenerate Art Exhibition organized by the Nazi Party. Following the Nazi annexation of Austria, Kirchner feared a German invasion of Switzerland and died by suicide in 1938.

Expressionism, Sertigtal
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Sertigtal (1924)
Expressionism, Davos im Schnee
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Davos im Schnee (1923)

Winterthur is Blessed with Fine Museums

While in Winterthur, you will have an amazing opportunity to explore culture and nature. With more than 100,000 residents, Winterthur is the 6th largest Swiss city by population. Located northeast of Zurich, not far from Germany, this city boasts a famous Rosengarten with hundreds of rose varieties on a hilltop overlooking the Old Town and also the famous Swiss Science Center Technorama offering an experimental environment for children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. For art lovers, there is the abovementioned Reinhart am Stadtgarten building — the first private museum in Switzerland — housing the Swiss, Austrian and German art acquired by the famous collector Oskar Reinhart and the temporary exhibition entitled Expressionism Switzerland. In a separate building, within a few minutes’ walk, you can enter the Kunst Museum Winterthur/Beim Stadthaus and enjoy a first-class collection of paintings by the artists who most inspired Marianne von Werefkin’s body of work, namely the Post-Impressionists and members of the group known as Les Nabis.

The primary painters who formed Les Nabis include Félix Vallotton, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard (see images above). The Kunst Museum Winterthur possesses Paysage de Montagne from 1912 by Bonnard (below), in addition to the portrait of postman Joseph Roulin and the painting of wheat fields entitled Soir d’été, both from 1888, by Vincent van Gogh (bottom).

EDITOR’S NOTE: Before leaving the City of Winterthur we urge you to visit Am Römerholz, the old house where Oskar Reinhart resided, which is now a museum housing the finest collection of Old Master and French Impressionist paintings in Switzerland.

Kunsthaus Zurich

To gain a more encyclopedic view of the art movements that led to Expressionism, we recommend a visit to the Kunsthaus Zurich which opened in 1910 and will double its space before 2022 by adding a new building designed by David Chipperfield this autumn.

The collection at the Kunsthaus Zurich offers a first-rate introduction to Romanticism with stunning landscapes by the Norwegian master Johan Christian Dahl (above) and the Parisian Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (below left), in addition to Amor und Psyche (1810) by Johann Heinrich Füssli (below right).

Neoclassicism & Realism

Do not miss Profile of the Bearded Man by the French Neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (below left) and the lovely portrait of Bertha Schlatter by Rudolf Koller, the Swiss Realist (below right).

The display of Impressionist paintings housed in the Kunsthaus Zurich will in the near future be enhanced by the addition of the incomparable Emil Bührle Collection. At present, the strength of the Kunsthaus’ collection dates back to the late 19th Century when Symbolism was best represented in paintings by Arnold Böcklin (below).

Symbolism in Switzerland

The detailed and unembellished style of Realism so well expressed by Corot’s depiction of nature and Koller’s portraiture gave way to Impressionism, a popular movement characterized by loose, visible brushwork and an emphasis on the accurate depiction of changing light and movement as crucial elements of human understanding. From our perspective, Impressionist art is realistic and, therefore, a logical extension of the visual art that preceded it. The images painted by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), however, represent a break from Realism through his introduction of allegorical and mythological figures into his compositions. Even though Böcklin was clearly influenced by Romanticism, his symbolist use of imagery derived from legends led to the creation of fantasy worlds on canvas which would later inspire Surrealism. See The Awakening of Spring (1880) by Arnold Böcklin (below left) and a 1935 painting by Salvadore Dalí (below right).

Ferdinand Hodler & Symbolism

View to Infinity Hodler
Ferdinand Hodler, View to Infinity (1914)

Please note: at this time face masks are required throughout the Kunsthaus Zurich!

Symbolism, in general, was a reaction against Realism. Though Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) began his career by painting Alpine landscapes and portraits with a vigorous realism, by age 37 his artwork was chiefly influenced by Art Nouveau and Symbolist imagery, emphasizing the rhythm and symmetry Hodler believed formed the basis of human society. Hodler grouped women symmetrically in poses suggestive of dance or ritual, for example, because he viewed womanhood as the embodiment of human desire for harmony with nature.

Edvard Munch & the Height of Expressionism

If Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is the Father of Expressionism, then the artistic accomplishments of Edvard Munch (1863-1944) mark the pinnacle of Expressionism in the visual arts. The Kunsthaus Zurich holds the largest collection of art by Munch outside of Norway. Like the Symbolist movement before it, Expressionism was a reaction against Realism and Impressionism — because the Expressionist wishes above all to express himself and to express the world from a subjective perspective to evoke ideas and moods, and to convey the meaning of emotional experiences. We know that artists such as Marianne von Werefkin and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner were deeply impressed by the paintings of Edvard Munch and, as a result, they strove to break away from a purely literal representation of nature. Werefkin and Kirchner evolved a much more personal style of painting to explore dramatic themes, laden with emotions, and perhaps to celebrate nature with an hallucinatory intensity.

Thank you for reading our article on Switzerland. Your comments are always most welcome.

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