Erich Heckel - Watercolours from 1917 to 1962 - Landscapes and some still lifes

(Text to exhibition from 31.3. until 21.7.07)

Calm after the storm – restrained forms – delicate colours – inner glow

What is it that so fascinates us human beings in general and the artist in particular about the outer surface of the Earth's crust, that part of the Earth on which we live, its landscape in other words? What is it that has forever inspired artists to paint still lifes? Why did Erich Heckel, after the First World War, devote himself to these two themes, and in watercolour above all else?  Three questions the visitor to this exhibition simply cannot help asking himself, and three questions about which so much has already been written.  In purely statistical terms, the iconography section of any art-historical library will show that mythology and religion, which are by far the largest thematic complexes in the history of art, are then followed, with roughly equal status, by history, nude, portraiture, landscape and still life.  Even in the special literature on Erich Heckel, more comprehensive attention is meanwhile paid to his works produced after the First World War than to his Expressionist works.1 Nevertheless, a few further observations will certainly not be amiss.

Landscape has been one of the themes of painting ever since antiquity. Indeed, in some of the cultural epochs and centres of antiquity it even had preference over the others. There was a similar development in literature. Both developments led to a multitude of art-historiographical publications and texts on the theme in general and to just as many iconographical, geographical, historical or artist-specific observations from individual sources.  The most comprehensive overviews to have been produced during the last few decades are probably those published by Erich Steingräber in 1985 and, more recently, by Nils Büttner.2  Particular attention, both in the actual representation of the landscape and in relevant art-historical research, has always been given to its "heroes", namely the mountains and the trees, and also to the water that shapes the landscape in the form of rivers, lakes and seas.        

The Earth's landscape is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for thinkers, poets and painters.  One reason for this may be the fact that it represents, and clearly visualizes, the latest state reached in the Earth's cosmogonical evolution. It owes its infinite variety of forms and colours to the imperfection of the universe, to the "irregularities" that prevented a steady, uniform expansion of matter.  These "irregularities" were, and still are, responsible for the differences in the evolution of galaxies, stars, planets and the Earth's crust, though always as a function of the unifying tendencies of natural laws. Hence the endless diversity within a clearly superordinate oneness that we experience whenever we look at a landscape, at the visible product of the interaction of nature's creative forces – and because these forces are "creative", they hold a fascination for the creative among us.  A cosmos it most certainly is, yet one created in a boundless multitude of variations through just a tiny pinch of chaos.         

"Created", too, in all its dramatic variants, in the steepest mountain or – as the creation of the landscape progressed with the evolution of flora and, later, fauna – in the most massive, most storm-swept tree, but also in the epic expanse of the plain or the ocean, in which the "landmarks" have been placed by nature (trees) or by man (ships, towers or lighthouses). Although the "Brücke" painters had a relatively undramatic landscape at their disposal in the environs of Dresden and Berlin or on the North Sea and Baltic coasts, they nevertheless represented it in compositions of wildly exaggerated colours and forms, compositions in which their main subject matter, the human being in all his natural nakedness, exists in passionate, likewise gesturally exaggerated unison with the landscape, drawing a parallel, perhaps, with the artists' own coexistence, however dissonant, with the cultural landscape of the city. In Kirchner's case, this "storm" of colour, form and gesture could be readily adapted to the dramatic mountains and forests of Davos.  Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Max Pechstein thrived for decades – though in different ways – on the achievements of "Die Brücke", which had been disbanded in 1913.  For Erich Heckel, on the other hand, a fundamental change took place in his view of the world and life during the years that followed.

The "storm" in the life and work of Erich Heckel had been a twofold one: from 1905 until 1913, from the age of twenty-two to the age of thirty, he had been one of the influential forces that shaped the violently expressive style of "Die Brücke", the peak of all the Expressionist tendencies of European art; from 1914 until 1918, from the age of thirty-one to the age of thirty-five, he had witnessed day after day the horrors of the First World War as a medical orderly in Flanders, where several millions of soldiers were killed on its battlefields alone. As an initial reaction to this horrific experience, Heckel became an active member of the "Workers' Council for Art" and the "November Group" in Berlin, but the resulting disappointments caused him, as early as 1919, to give up all organizing activities – his years with "Die Brücke" had shown him to be an excellent organizer – and to devote himself entirely to his art and to his circle of Berlin friends, who in turn were grouped around the circle around Stefan George.  He bought a new studio in Berlin and a house for the summer months in Osterholz on the Baltic coast.  His art gradually lost its violence of expression, its form became calm, magnificently restrained.  His colours became delicate, at times fragile.  Light, which in Heckel's work had never served as illumination, and never would, mutated into an inner glow, especially later, during the Second World War.

As Heckel was fortunate enough to come out of the First World War and return to Berlin physically unscathed and his countless works produced during the war years, whilst depicting the wounded and the dead, had none of the brutal veristic quality of a Beckmann, Dix or Grosz, the art historian Markus Krause assumes that Heckel was not all that critically disposed towards the war and ascribes the changes in Heckel's life and work less to his experiences of the war than to the influence of the Stefan George circle.3  In response it must be said that Heckel's work during the First World War counts among those works – and above all those contemporary works – that concerned themselves most intensively with the war, and that Heckel's art, even during his "Brücke" years, always maintained a relatively high degree of personal distance to the subject matter, representing events through symbols, taking stock and drawing conclusions – one has only to think of his scenes from Dostoyevsky's novels.  It must also be said that Erich Heckel, supposedly so indifferent towards the war, had since 1914 been a friend of Franz Pfemfert.  As the only committed opponent to the war in Berlin, Pfemfert had succeeded, for the entire duration of the First World War, in making his anti-war commitment publicly known through his magazine "Die Aktion".4  Indeed, without such a critical disposition towards the war, Heckel's active participation in the "Workers' Council for Art" and the "November Group" would hardly be explicable.  Nonetheless, the one cannot be viewed separately from the other: the medical corps, to which Heckel belonged in Flanders, had been under the command of the art historian Walter Kaesbach, who was a great admirer of Stefan George, and also counted among its members the poet and George disciple Ernst Moritz, with whom Erich Heckel made friends.  Thus it was that Heckel familiarized himself with Stefan George's ideas only indirectly, but the experience was enough to bring about a fundamental paradigmatic change in his life and art, and one of such lasting effect that, when commissioned in 1922/23 to paint a comprehensive series of murals for the Angermuseum in Erfurt, he paid an outstanding artistic homage to Stefan George, for the focal point of these numerous scenes representing the artist's views and experiences of life that had been so strongly influenced by the poet and his followers is Stefan George himself, surrounded by the members of his circle.5 What is surprising about this homage is that Heckel himself was never granted an audience by this prince among poets, for the latter detested Expressionism, remaining unconscious of the fact that Heckel had meanwhile developed beyond this movement towards his own special form of "New Objectivity". For Heckel this development had been, both in his art and in his life, a change from a vita activa to a vita contemplativa, a retreat to the essential and the permanent. Logically, the status of the landscape in his art rose considerably.

From 1921 until the end of his life, between his regular winter sojourns in Berlin and his summer sojourns in Osterholz, Heckel travelled widely, mainly throughout the whole of Germany, the Alpine regions, France, Italy and Northern Spain.  He drew and painted everywhere, and always en plein air.  The result was a virtually complete visual documentation of the landscapes and cities of the regions through which he journeyed, above all in watercolour, a technique that had begun to take up more and more space in his oeuvre, while the expressiveness of his printed graphics, hitherto so important, now receded into the background.6  Not just the form, but the colour, too, gradually became more and more subdued.  It was precisely that apologist of Expressionism, Max Sauerlandt, who sang the praises of Erich Heckel's first watercolours of the Flensburg Fjord in a text written in 1921 for the Munich magazine "Genius", pointing in a direct comparison with Heckel's pre-war work to what was new and different about them.7  Not only Heckel had changed, but the whole world had become a different place.

However, Heckel's extensive travels were disrupted by the seizure of power in Germany by the National Socialists and its terrible consequences.  Firstly, there was the shock of being forbidden to paint, which was followed in 1937 by the confiscation of 729 of his works in German museums as "degenerate art".  The climax of the tragedy came at the end of the Second World War, when countless works and documents were destroyed in his Berlin studio in 1944, and paintings he had put in storage in Thuringia were destroyed in 1945.  But Erich Heckel was a man of great patience and perseverance. He and his wife Sidi, who had been at his side since 1910, were able to survive  these terrible events in their lives, moving in 1944 into a small house in Hemmenhofen on Lake Constance and retreating into the special enclave of "inner emigration" that existed there.  Even during the war years, from 1940 until 1942, they had managed to make several trips to the Salzkammergut and Carinthia.  The oil and watercolour landscapes painted – in supposed safety – during these trips come alive through what seems to be an inner glow, more unreal than real, as though the painter knew that the semblance of peace and tranquillity was bitterly deceptive.

Following the first few years of consolidation after the war, there began for Erich Heckel, now in his sixties, a period of reverence and retrospect in the form of a professorship in Karlsruhe and numerous exhibitions of his works in art museums. He also travelled again throughout Europe, drawing and painting wherever he went, fascinated above all by the Engadine's barren mountain landscape of rocks, snow, ice, water and scant moss and, by contrast, the gentle undulations of the landscape of Lake Constance. Thus it was that, in painting a good half of Europe, he completed his orbis pictus, from which around 30 watercolours are now being exhibited here. Forming an entirely opposite pole to these "world views" are a few intimate still lifes produced by Heckel in the seclusion of his studio.

Now one might readily assume that still life would hardly have a place as subject matter in an artistic development that led to the violent style of the "Brücke" painters and that in Heckel's case it would not have made its appearance in his oeuvre until after he had embarked upon his tranquil, more contemplative phase following the First World War. But this is by no means the case.  Heckel was already painting his first still lifes by 1907, perhaps initially as fortuitously found arrangements of objects and flowers on tables, later certainly staged more deliberately. Indeed, it was in his still lifes that Heckel distinguished himself as a "stager of reality", a quality – often kept secret – of all visual artists and not just of the painter.  Here he is in complete control. Logically, the still lifes in Heckel's oeuvre grew in number after the First World War in pace with his landscapes, above all among his watercolours.8  They, too, are plain and reserved in their arrangement and execution.  Often revered as a deeply sensitive and spiritual painter by his contemporaries, Heckel required very little to realize his art, very little to visualize with great reserve and poetical feeling the things that were important to him. But these things were by no means few in number, indeed they were all things visible, the changed and changing landscape, the human being that inhabits it in cities and towns, houses, workplaces and studios, and, in the latter, the small, arranged objects, the symbols of creativity, the still life: orbis pictus.        

Wolfgang Henze

Translated by John Brogden, Dortmund


1 Admittedly, the reason for this also lies in the fact that more than half of the works produced by Heckel up to 1919 were destroyed and have not even survived as photographs. Whilst the quality of his pre-war work is known to us, the negligible quantity of surviving works has led to considerably fewer monographic representations in literature and exhibitions than in the case of Kirchner, for example.

2 Erich Steingräber, Zweitausend Jahre europäische Landschaftsmalerei, Hirmer Verlag Munich 1985, and Nils Büttner, Geschichte der Landschaftsmalerei, Hirmer Verlag Munich 2006. Both books give references for all further reading.

3 Markus Krause: ’Das ist doch famos, wie sie sich da über die Misere heben können’ Erich Heckel im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Erich Heckel. Meisterwerke des Expressionismus, edited by Magdalena M. Moeller, Munich 1999, pp. 55-62.

4 Cf. Erich Heckel und sein Kreis. Dokumente, Fotos, Briefe, Schriften, Karlheinz Gabler, Stuttgart 1983, p. 149.

5 Cf. Mechthild Lucke/Andreas Hüneke, Erich Heckel. Lebensstufen. Die Wandbilder im Angermuseum zu Erfurt. Berlin/Amsterdam 1992.

6 Cf. Magdalena M. Moeller: Zu Heckels Werk der 20er Jahre, in: Erich Heckel – Sein Werk der 20er Jahre, edited by Magdalena M. Moeller, exhibition catalogue Brücke-Museum Berlin 2004/05, pp. 211-225. – Special literature on the watercolours of Erich Heckel: Max Sauerlandt: Erich Heckels Aquarelle von der Schleswigschen Ostseeküste, in: Genius, Zeitschrift für werdende und alte Kunst, Munich 1921, pp. 73-77, reprinted in: Erich Heckel. Farbholzschnitt, Zeichnungen, Aquarelle. Ausstellung zum 90. Geburtstag, exhibition catalogue Graphische Sammlung Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 1973/74, p. 76f. – Heinz Köhn, Erich Heckel. Aquarelle und Zeichnungen, Munich 1959. – Paul Vogt: Zu den Aquarellen von Erich Heckel, in: Erich Heckel, exhibition catalogue Kunstverein Braunschweig 1985, pp. 9-13. – Erich Heckel. Aquarelle vom Bodensee, introduction and selection of works by Hans Geissler, Munich-Zürich 1981. - Heinrich Ragaller: Einführung, in: Erich Heckel 1883 – 1970 Aquarelle und Zeichnungen, exhibition catalogue Städtische Galerie Würzburg 1983, pp. 5-9 (n. p.). – Werner Meyer: Aquarelle von Erich Heckel, in: Erich Heckel 1883 – 1970 Aquarelle, exhibition catalogue Hans Thoma-Gesellschaft Reutlingen and Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden 1988/89, pp. 7-13. Ibid.: Maria Müller: Erich Heckel – die Landschaftsaquarelle, pp. 15-21.

7 Cf. Note 6

Cf. Janina Dahlmanns: Erich Heckels Stilleben – Positionen der 20er Jahre in: Erich Heckel – Sein Werk der 20er Jahre, edited by Magdalena M. Moeller, exhibition catalogue Brücke-Museum Berlin 2004/05, pp. 211-225.

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