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Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (German, 1884–1976)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

German painter and printmaker. One of the main exponents of Expressionism, he was a founder of Die Brücke and one of its leading members. As a boy he got to know Erich Heckel at grammar school, following in his footsteps in 1905 when he enrolled as an architectural student at the Sächsische Technische Hochschule in Dresden; there Heckel introduced him to another student, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, four years his senior, and to Kirchner’s friend, the painter Fritz Bleyl (1880–1966). They all felt close in their artistic aspirations, perceiving their architectural studies as a front behind which they could train, largely by teaching themselves, as painters. Later that year, by which time Schmidt-Rottluff had annexed the name of his native town to his surname, they formed Die Brücke with the aim of creating an uncompromisingly vital art that renounced all traditions; the group’s name, derived from a quotation in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (1883) was suggested by Schmidt-Rottluff, although as something of a loner he was less active in the group than Heckel or Kirchner. It was, however, at his invitation that Emil Nolde briefly became an active member of the group in 1906. Schmidt-Rottluff also introduced the group to lithography.

From 1905 to 1911, when Die Brücke was based in Dresden, Schmidt-Rottluff’s sources and development were very similar to those of the group’s other members: their influences included Art Nouveau, Neo-Impressionism and the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse. By 1908–9 their use of flat areas of pure brilliant colours rivalled that of the Fauves; although it is possible to speak of a group style at this time, Schmidt-Rottluff’s characteristic works, such as Midday on the Moor (1908; Oldenburg, Landesmus.), were already distinguished from those of his colleagues by their especially calm balance of composition and monumental simplification of form, which together served to exaggerate their flatness in a particularly extreme way. Some of Schmidt-Rottluff’s most powerful landscapes, such as Manor House in Dangast (Berlin, Neue N.G.), were painted in 1910; their style was described by Kirchner in 1913 as ‘monumental Impressionism’, alluding to their source in nature and to the strength and independence of form with which his observations were conveyed.

The gradual dissolution of Die Brücke as its members moved one by one to Berlin in 1911, exacerbated by the dissension created by Kirchner’s chronicle in 1913, led to the group’s demise in the latter year. Their estrangement from each other was marked in each case by a deliberate move away from the strict principles that had united their work stylistically. In works such as Two Women (1912; London, Tate) Schmidt-Rottluff adopted more subdued colouring and placed greater emphasis in his pictures on draughtsmanship, drawing in clear outlines between forms rather than simply juxtaposing coloured shapes, as had previously been the case. As early as 1909 he was instrumental in reviving the woodcut as a powerfully expressive medium. Of all the Brücke artists who made such prints, he was again perhaps the most extreme in simplifying form and stressing the independence of the medium, for example by using the grain of the wood as a graphic device for emphasizing the surface in prints such as House behind Trees (1911; Schapire, no. H54); Nolde and Schmidt-Rottluff influenced each other in this respect. From 1912 to 1920 he adopted a much harder and more angular style in his woodcuts, for example Girl at the Mirror (1914; rs H159); this was reflected in paintings such as Nudes in Landscape (Three Women Bathing) (1913; Schleswig, Schloss Gottorf). He also experimented during this time with sculpture carved in wood, as with the powerfully chiselled forms of Green Head (1916–17; Schleswig, Schloss Gottorf).

From 1915 to the end of World War I Schmidt-Rottluff served as a soldier on the eastern front, but these experiences were reflected only indirectly in his art. He increasingly turned to introspective themes, as in 9 Holzschnitte (1918), a series of woodcuts based on the life of Christ published by Kurt Wolff Verlag in Munich (rs H206, 208, 211–16, 218). At the end of the war he became a member of the Arbeitsrat für kunst in Berlin, which saw itself as an anti-academic movement of German artists at a time of revolution. Schmidt-Rottluff’s angular graphic style became freer and more colourful in the early 1920s in paintings such as the Tower of Patroclus in Soest (1922; Münster, Westfäl. Landesmus.). In the mid-1920s, in works such as Still-life with Fruit (1928; Dresden, Gemäldegal. Neue Meister), he began to evolve his calmer late style using flat shapes with gentle outlines. He remained especially committed to landscape in a style that showed little development, in works such as Landscape with Dunes (1948) and Berth on the River (Maasholm an der Schlei) (1956; Schleswig, Schloss Gottorf).

The honours bestowed on Schmidt-Rottluff after World War I, as Expressionism officially recognized in Germany, were taken away from him after the rise to power of the Nazis. He was expelled from the Preussische Akademie der Künste in 1933, two years after his admission, and in 1937 his pictures were seized from German museums and art galleries on the grounds that they were ‘degenerate’ (see Entartete Kunst). In 1941 he was banned from painting. Much of his work was lost in the destruction of his Berlin studio in World War II. His reputation, however, was gradually rehabilitated after the war. In 1947 he was appointed professor at the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste in West Berlin, through which he again exercised an important influence on a new generation of artists. An endowment made by him in 1964 provided the basis for the Brücke-Museum in West Berlin, which opened in 1967 as a repository of works by members of the group.

Lucius Grisebach
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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