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Erich Heckel (German, 1883–1970)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

German painter, printmaker and sculptor. He was one of the founders of the group Die Brücke and one of its most influential and active members. His work was central to German Expressionism.

Heckel began painting and drawing as a schoolboy in Chemnitz, where he became a friend of Karl Schmidt (later Schmidt-Rottluff). In 1904 Heckel went to Dresden to study architecture under Fritz Schumacher at the Technische Hochschule, where he met Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the artist Fritz Bleyl (1880–1966). In 1905 the four artists, united by common artistic desires and aims, formed Die Brücke. Heckel abandoned his architectural studies in order to pursue his creative work and to organize the group, although he continued to work as a draughtsman and site manager for the architect Wilhelm Kreis until 1907. In common with other members of the group, Heckel drew and painted life models, either in the studio or en plein air, and he furnished his studio with furniture and sculpture he had carved himself and with painted wall hangings. Heckel took part in the group’s summer holidays on the Moritzburg lakes near Dresden in 1909–11. He took on the role of ‘business manager’ for the group and, with his studio acting as the group’s ‘business centre’, he made contacts and negotiated exhibition possibilities. Heckel kept the group together, always staying on good terms with the members despite the occasional disagreements among them. He and Kirchner were the most active members in terms of their aesthetic input as well as organizational ability.

For all the artists of Die Brücke, prints, especially woodcuts, were of central importance, and Heckel was particularly extreme in emphasizing flatness and simplification of form. His coloured woodcuts from the Brücke years, for example Reclining Woman (1909; Essen, Mus. Flkwang), are among the most important prints of the 20th century. He also made woodcuts for the group’s invitation and membership cards (for illustration see Brücke, Die). Individual artists began moving away from the communal Brücke style only after 1911, when the group gradually moved from Dresden to Berlin. At the same time there was a general stylistic development within the group from the bright colours of the Dresden Brücke style to a milder palette, and the harsh contrasts of complementary colours were eliminated. Instead, the graphic element in their painting took on increased importance, and this change can be seen in Heckel’s style also (e.g. Canal in Berlin, 1912; Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Mus.).

In the period between his move to Berlin and the outbreak of World War I, Heckel carried out some of his most original works, for example the painting Two Men at Table (1912; Hamburg, Ksthalle), a scene inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot; the powerful triptych Convalescence of a Woman (1912–13; Cambridge, MA, Busch-Reisinger Mus.), with its combination of sophisticated and primitive motifs; and the painting Glassy Day (1913; Munich, Staatsgal. Mod. Kst), where the zigzag form of the landscape is balanced by the warm-coloured sculptural form of the woman and rocks in the foreground. Whereas models and landscapes predominated among the works of the Brücke period, Heckel at this point used more symbolic figural representations.

Heckel volunteered for military service at the outbreak of World War I. He spent the war in a medical unit in Belgium run by the art historian Walter Kaesbach (1879–1961), in which many other artists served, including Max Beckmann. A major work from this period is the Madonna of Ostend (1915; destr., see Vogt, p. 161). In Berlin after the end of the war, Heckel became a co-founder of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst and for a short time was also a member of the Novembergruppe. From 1922 to 1923 he worked on the mural cycle Stages of Existence for the Angermuseum in Erfurt (in situ), commissioned by Kaesbach, then the Director of the museum.

With the start of Nazi rule in Germany, Heckel suffered restrictions and persecution. His work was declared ‘degenerate’ (see Entartete Kunst) in 1937, and in 1941 he left Berlin for Carinthia. In 1944, the year in which he returned, his studio and its contents were destroyed by bombing, and he moved to Hemmenhofen on Lake Constance. From 1949 to 1955 he taught at the Kunstakademie in Karlsruhe, otherwise living in semi-retirement in Hemmenhofen, where he continued to paint. His later work was much calmer and characterized by his efforts to integrate the achievements of Die Brücke with more traditional treatments. Among the more successful later works were his watercolour landscapes (examples in Berlin, Brücke-Mus.).

Lucius Grisebach
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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