Fritz Winter - from Klee to Kirchner, works from 1928 to 1934

(Text to exhibition A51 from 17.5. until 23.8.03)

Fritz Winter was born in 1905 in Altenbögge, a small mining community situated near Hamm in the industrial valley of the River Ruhr, and died in 1976 in Herrsching am Ammersee, near Munich. As with most of his fellow artists of his generation in Central Europe, his career followed a course dictated primarily by the historical events of the time:

Following in his father's footsteps, Fritz Winter began his working life as a miner. By the age of 19, however, he was politically motivated enough to seek a freer life, subscribing to that international vagabondage that had gained such enormous cultural significance during the 1920s. From there it was but a short step to art. Having rapidly studied all the stylistic developments in art since 1880 (Cf. fig. 1 – 7), he then applied himself at greater depth to more recent developments, studying at the Bauhaus under Kandinsky, Klee and Schlemmer from 1927 until 1930 and working in close collaboration with Kirchner in Davos between the years of 1929 and 1932. Fritz Winter had already set his mind on abstraction, and it was abstraction that he was to practise untiringly until his death. However, after having made very promising beginnings as a artist, with teaching posts in Berlin (where he made the acquaintance of the sculptor Naum Gabo) and in Halle from 1931 until 1933, Fritz Winter escaped, in that fateful year of 1933, into an "inner emigration" in Allach, near Munich. Indeed, for Fritz Winter, this situation was tantamount to being "exiled" and from then on he simply painted "for the storeroom", as he himself once put it. One glimmer of hope, albeit a deceptive one, came in 1936, when an application for his admission to the Reich Culture Chamber was approved, but this was obviously a mistake, for artistic compromise was the last thing he would be prepared to accept, with the result that he was finally forbidden to paint in 1937. He continued to paint clandestinely, but then he was conscripted in August 1939 and – except for just a few periods of leave and occasional respites in military hospitals – was forced to experience the entire drama of the Second World War at first hand until May 1945, when he was captured by the Russians and detained in a prisoner-of-war camp until May 1949.

After his release, he immediately began to paint again and his works already caused an international stir at the 1950 Biennale in Venice. Fritz Winter became a very successful protagonist in the fierce "abstraction debate" during the years that followed, reaching the zenith of his success in the second half of the 1950s with countless exhibitions and commendations. His success was soon overshadowed, however, by the developments in the art scene of the 1960s, which not only went quite different ways but, through their garish, large-format simplicity, achieved success far more easily (the age of the trade mark was dawning). At the height of his fame, Fritz Winter's considerable financial success was accompanied by a long-standing teaching post in Kassel, a great many awards and accolades and a multitude of catalogues and monographic publications. However, like all the other artists of his generation, he did not live long enough to see the comprehensive monograph of his life and work published, or the many large retrospective exhibitions that have meanwhile been mounted in his honour. Gabriele Lohberg's monograph and catalogue of paintings was published in 1986, and the last and most comprehensive retrospective took place in Stuttgart in 1990, when the collection of the Zürich collector Konrad Knöpfel was shown. Konrad Knöpfel collected the works of virtually just one artist, namely Fritz Winter, but in their hundreds. He has meanwhile donated them to the City of Stuttgart.

Fortunately, our gallery was – and still is – able to draw not only on the many works by Fritz Winter which the former Marbach Gallery in Berne collected during the 1950s – perhaps the proximity of the Paul Klee Foundation also had a part to play in this – but also on a good part of Fritz Winter's estate. This present catalogue of Fritz Winter's early works is the first in a series of special catalogues devoted to the artist's oeuvre. Fritz Winter's early works synthesized completely opposing artistic approaches: the spiritual tendencies of Bauhaus abstraction at the one extreme, represented by Kandinsky, Klee and Gabo, and, at the other, the extremely physical and powerful pictorial language of Braque, Picasso and, above all, Kirchner of the late1920s. These works were veritable artistic "squarings of the circle", their conflicting elements also finding expression in the many vastly differing formats whilst being united by the predominantly sombre colours – browns, greys and blacks – so typical of those early years. Only seldom were there highlights in red or white. These characteristic colours of Winter's works, which upon close or lengthy scrutiny are exceedingly nuanced, may well be ascribable to his mining origins, but they might just as easily be a reflection of the increasingly gloomy circumstances prevailing at that time.

The history of these works is a very special one: at the beginning of the 1930s, Fritz Winter painted on paper, and mainly on packing paper, for canvas was beyond his pocket, and certainly in the quantities required for his countless variations on the same abstract "theme", once found. As he was not allowed to exhibit after 1933, these works in oil on paper began to pile up in his studio in Diessen am Ammersee. When he was finally forbidden to paint in 1937, he bricked them up in a wall in order to save them from possible confiscation. Not until he returned home from the Russian prisoner-of-war camp did he retrieve them from their hiding place. He spent the 1950s gradually mounting them on canvas. The paintings were first shown in 1964, at the 3rd Documenta in Kassel. One of these paintings was a very large work of vertical format entitled Ineinander (Into one another) (Cat. 50), in which natural forms, and the laws that govern them, emerge from an amorphous, colour-defined space, at first still shapeless and awkward and then gradually developing into precise forms as they come closer to the viewer. Or are they completely different, already existing, real "lattice structures"? Difficult to believe that we are still in 1933, and that neither art nor its interpretation is one-dimensional.

No matter how we might see them, these works were born of a "different age", an age prior to the years from 1939 to 1945, that period of history which brought with it "total war", 60 million dead, the complete destruction of all the cities of what was once a great, civilized nation, the genocide of millions of Jews and, finally, the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Only a few years, but years so dreadful that they still distort our view of the period that preceded them. These works were indeed created in a different age, long before Fritz Winter had to soldier his way through the war years from beginning to bitter end and, if that was not enough, spend a further four years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Russia.

At that time, as his fellow Bauhaus students confirmed, Fritz Winter's enormous self-assurance was still unbroken. He openly criticized the work of some of the Bauhaus teachers and championed the complete freedom and autonomy of painting. He also freely, and quite openly, borrowed from other artists – Arp, Braque, Gabo, Kandinsky, and above all Klee and Kirchner – and integrated these borrowings into his own works so skilfully that Roland Scotti recently wrote: "What fascinates the viewer of today above all else is the freedom and masterliness with which the artist [...] combined the influences [...] and brought them into line with his own artistic intentions."1

Fritz Winter's relations with Klee and Kirchner have in recent years been examined in many exhibitions and publications.2 Recently published, too, was precisely that volume of the catalogue raisonné of Paul Klee which illustrates all the works painted by Klee during Fritz Winter's time as his student at the Bauhaus, namely from 1927 until 1930.3 Moreover, Kirchner's hitherto hardly known, not to say completely unknown, late abstract works were presented for the very first time in an exhibition mounted in 1999 and accompanied by a catalogue.4 Although Winter had spent several working periods in Davos between the years of 1929 and 1932, and for several weeks each time, and although it was a foregone conclusion that any artist working in Kirchner's proximity would inevitably succumb to his influence, Roland Scotti's essay in the catalogue of the 2001 exhibition "Klee – Winter – Kirchner, 1927 – 1934" is entitled "Fritz Winter and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, A friendship without influence". Indeed, all authors, including Scotti, refer merely to an indirect "primitive" influence through Kirchner's works, primarily in the very few wooden sculptures which Winter produced in Davos. (The excessive study and treatment of primitivism during the past several decades has not been without its consequences.)

Kirchner himself, however, had already written the following about Fritz Winter on 7th August 1929: "My work has left a very strong influence in his work, though it has naturally undergone a transformation. The same has happened in his work with Klee and Kandinsky. What is actually his own is of course there, too, but it is still a very young and delicate seedling [...] There is much about him today that is good and genuine and simple."5 Scotti bases his essay, in which he gives an account of the friendship between the two artists and of the opinions they shared on theoretical questions, on those works which Winter actually produced during his periods of stay in Switzerland and which are today kept at the Kirchner Museum in Davos.6 Might it not be the case, however, that Kirchner's influence remained dormant and did not take full effect until much later, during the years that followed?

The works presented in this catalogue are but an excerpt from Fritz Winter's early oeuvre prior to 1939, not least because many of them, as chance would have it, have been sold. And not all of the groups of works catalogued in Gabriele Lohberg's monograph will be found here either.7 Nonetheless, the selection is large and varied enough to show the diversity of possibilities which Fritz Winter had at his disposal during those early years. Just as the diversity of stylistic borrowings and possibilities in Winter's works of those years was enormous, so too was the intensity of expression of these works, ranging from the most sensitive frottage at one end of the scale to huge areas of colour applied with the palette knife at the other. The difference in formats is equally extreme, beginning with the smallest possible and ending with the largest possible. But not only that. Winter used every conceivable technique, and in ever new combinations: oil crayon drawing, frottage, collage, stencil, encaustic painting on crumpled paper, poker work, and doubtless a great many other techniques as yet unrecognized. Winter's strength of will and creative energy were akin to those of Kirchner's. Whilst this affinity united them, it inevitably separated them, too.

Fritz Winter's beginnings at the Bauhaus are exemplified by the pencil drawings, oil crayon drawings, frottages and monotypes illustrated at the beginning of the catalogue. Here Winter frees himself from the representational, in delicately drawn lines and gently modelled shapes, but returns tentatively, again and again, to the human figure. Despite the tendencies of not just the Bauhaus towards abstraction but of the time generally, e.g. Abstraction-Création in Paris, this quest for the human being in art ultimately brought him to Kirchner in Davos. Although Kirchner, too, sought to meet the contemporary preference for abstraction, he was forever locked in combat with the human figure, right to the end. The themes of the works in this catalogue range from "Biomorphic ovals" through "Tectonic variants of elementary forms", "Geometrical compositions" and "Open angular structures" to the "Dissolution of existing forms" in the monotypes (Cat. 56).

But then those works that had started out in the usual small format of a drawing began to grow to enormous sizes, with widths and heights of well over two metres. During his years at the Bauhaus, Fritz Winter may possibly have learnt how to cope with such large formats from Oskar Schlemmer, who at that time was working on his Folkwang cycle, but what must have impressed him even more were Kirchner's equally huge paintings in Davos, works created in a completely different environment but commissioned by the very same client, the Museum Folkwang in Essen (Cf. fig. 8 - 13). If we view Kirchner's enormous compositions "abstractly", that is, purely in terms of form, the similarities between Winter and Kirchner become obvious: the areas of colour enclosed by gracefully sweeping lines, their accentuation through the use of parallel strokes, the way they move into and around each other, in short: their similar vocabularies of form – Winter's painting Der Grosse Bau (The Big Pit) (Cat. 55) being a particularly apt example. Unlike Kirchner, however, Winter had chosen abstraction. He also waived Kirchner's strong colouration. Nevertheless, between the years of 1928 and 1934, he ran the whole gamut of form and content, from Klee to Kirchner, from Bauhaus to Davos, from spiritual sensitivity to physical magnitude, integrating each individual approach into his own work and, in so doing, making a valid contribution to Abstraction-Création. He, too, was instrumental in building the bridge for abstraction between its beginnings around 1910 and its world-wide "realization" after 1948, when he himself was still able to play such an outstanding rôle.


Wolfgang Henze

translated by John Brogden, Dortmund

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1 Bibliography No. 96, p. 63f (quoted in translation).
2 Cf. Bibliography No. 11, 49, 54, 92, 96.
3 Catalogue raisonné Paul Klee, Vol. 5, Berne 2001.
4 Collective exhibition B 129.
5 Gertrud Knoblauch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Briefwechsel mit einem jungen Ehepaar, Elfriede DĂĽmmler und Hansgeorg Knoblauch, Berne 1989, p. 89.
6 Cf. Bibl. No. 95
7 Cf. Bibliography 53, pp. 36–64.

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