A former architecture student, Erich Heckel founded the artists' group Brücke (Bridge) in Dresden in 1905, together with Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The bold coloring and sharp angularity of his portraits, nudes, bathers, and cabaret performers helped define the German Expressionist aesthetic in painting and printmaking.
During his lifetime, Heckel completed more than one thousand prints, the vast majority between 1905 and 1923. He made hundreds of etchings and lithographs, but is most acclaimed for his woodcuts, which display a radical flatness and simplification of form. He created Fränzi Reclining by sawing the woodblock into pieces, inking each part separately, and then reassembling them for printing, a jigsaw-puzzle technique derived from Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter whose highly experimental approach to printmaking was emulated by Brücke artists.
Heckel's model, twelve-year-old Fränzi, was a favorite of the Brücke members; they responded to her awkward poses, so typical of adolescence and so unlike those of conventional models. The exaggerated masklike features of her face were inspired in part by the artist's study of African sculptures at the Dresden Ethnological Museum.
After moving from Dresden to Berlin in 1911, along with other Brücke artists, Heckel turned increasingly to themes of melancholy and isolation. By 1913 the Brücke group had disbanded, and in 1915 Heckel went off to war. Portrait of a Man, a gaunt self-portrait created in the difficult months just after the war ended, manifests a psychic weariness that may be interpreted as broadly symbolic of the German people at that time. Technically, it demonstrates Heckel's ongoing eagerness to experiment with printmaking processes. The colored areas were applied to the wood with a brush rather than with the more common ink roller. The thick brushstrokes create a painterly surface that contrasts with the deliberate flatness in his earlier work.
Director, Glenn Lowry: This is Fränzi Reclining by Erich Heckel, one of the four students who founded the Brücke artist group in 1905. Brücke means "bridge" in German; they picked the name to suggest their art would be a bridge to the future. Heckel's portrait is a woodcut print—a favorite medium of the Expressionists.
Curator, Starr Figura: It had a very rough aesthetic, which was the opposite of the refined painting that was going on in the academies. It brings this jarring, almost primitive look to the work. And that's what they wanted. In this particular work the model is a young girl named Fränzi, who was one of several young people who would hang around with the Brücke artists in their studios. They couldn't afford professional models, but they didn't want professional models. They wanted regular people who would assume very natural poses. Fränzi was one of their favorites. And you can see the way she's reclining is slightly awkward. The other thing about Fränzi is her face which looks like a sort of African mask. And in fact, the Brücke artists were very influenced by African and Oceanic tribal art, which they saw in the Dresden Ethnographic Museum where they lived.
Glenn Lowry: The founders of the Brücke were not actually trained as artists.
Starr Figura: The Brücke group was founded in 1905 by four very young architecture students in Dresden. They had studied architecture because their parents wanted them to have practical training so they could get decent paying jobs. And they ended up rejecting that, and instead decided to be artists. The Brücke artists really felt that by overturning the academic, codified approach to art that they could actually transform society itself and so they lived a very Bohemian lifestyle, which was quite radical at the time. They decorated their studios with strange, sometimes erotic carvings and wall paintings. They and their girlfriends would often take prolonged holidays relaxing and also painting or drawing in the nude.
After gouging the woodblock to create the figure of his model, Fränzi, Heckel then sawed it into pieces, inked the components separately in red and black, and finally reassembled them like a jigsaw before printing. Heckel’s flat, angular rendering of Fränzi’s adolescent body and her exaggerated masklike features were influenced by his interest in African sculpture.
Fränzi, shown here at the age of twelve, posed frequently for Heckel and other German Expressionists, who were drawn to the natural, yet awkward, positions that she assumed because they were so unlike the artificial stances of professional models. The woodcut medium was a perfect vehicle to express thick, angular outlines for her figure, with its distorted arm and jagged fingers, and exaggerated masklike features for her face. This bold new imagery found its source in African sculptures that Heckel had studied in the Dresden Ethnological Museum.
Heckel also took a cue from Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter much admired by Brücke artists, and employed one of his unusual printing techniques. Like Munch, he sawed the woodblock into pieces, cutting out the three red background areas, inking the components separately, and then reassembling them like a jigsaw puzzle before printing.