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Max Pechstein (1881-1955), Schwermut

Max Pechstein (1881-1955), Schwermut

This colourful, expressive and dynamic portrait was painted in 1910 and ranks among the highlights of Max Pechstein’s oeuvre during the period of his closest association with the artists’ collective Die Brücke. The thick brush strokes and lively colours demonstrate Pechstein’s exploration of colour and form, and illustrate his important stylistic contributions to German avant-garde. For many years, the only known traces of this work were an old black and white photo, a woodcut and a sketch, until it recently resurfaced in a private collection.

The square painting depicts a young woman with arms raised and hands resting on the back of her head. Her head is tilted to one side, supported by her right shoulder, as it were. The details of her appearance are relatively abstract and reduced to the basic features of a feminine face. Her eyes are shadowed, and the viewer cannot catch her gaze. The composition is placed such that it precisely and completely fills the square frame.

Based on the figure’s appearance, her full lips and dark skin tone, it is believed that the model for Schwermut was Charlotte “Lotte” Kaprolat. Pechstein met her in 1909, when she was sixteen, and he regularly used her as a model; the two married in 1911. There exists no further connection between the woman and the painting’s theme of melancholy; at the time of its creation, there was no cause for any feelings of melancholy with regard to their marriage. Lotte should therefore not be regarded as the painting’s subject: she is the model, and nothing more.

Pechstein was very pleased with the composition and execution of this painting. Not only did he include a sketch of it in a letter to Curt Glaser in 1912, he also made a woodcut copy of it for use as an illustration in the exhibition catalogue of the legendary and, as it would turn out, last Brücke exhibition in the Gurlitt Galerie on Potsdamer Strasse in Berlin. This exhibition marked Schwermut’s first public display.

The painting was later exhibited in Scheveningen (cat. no. 28, dated 1909/10), with an asking price of 1,300 guilders.  It is likely that the painting was also displayed at an exhibition in Hamburg in 1930, as the painting’s title, Schwermut, is listed in the corresponding catalogue under number 186. Based on this exhibition catalogue, the work may once have belonged to Dr Ludwig Schrader and Bettina Schrader-Eschershausen, from Hamburg. Schwermut was possibly also exhibited in Hamburg in 1917 under the title Träumerei, as the owner of this painting is also named as “Herr Baurat Ludwig Schrader".

When painting Schwermut, Pechstein employed a previously used canvas, as he often did in this period. X-ray photography has revealed that the canvas originally bore a different painting by Pechstein’s hand, on the side that now forms the reverse, depicting a young man with outstretched arm. Because the male figure is located at the edge of the canvas and only half of him is visible, we know that Pechstein cut the original canvas to a smaller size. In order to save on materials, he simply covered the old image with white paint; this was typical of his artistic practice in the years 1909 and 1910. In the middle of the painting’s reverse side, Pechstein wrote the painting’s title, Schwermuth, the number 300, and below that his name, in black.  

The woman’s posture and gaze betray a sense of schwermut, melancholy: a sad reflection on the past or an unfulfilled wish. The identity of the person in the painting was however, in this setting, less important to Pechstein than the execution of the composition, the expression of the portrayed figure’s emotional state, and the colour usage – the three primary elements of expressionism and, therefore, of Die Brücke. We may assume that the painting was created in Pechstein’s workshop at Durlacher Strasse 14 in Berlin-Friedenau, where he took up residence in late 1909. The expressive use of colour is typical of Die Brücke and of Pechstein, who joined the group of artists in 1906, shortly after its establishment. The influence of this group is most evident in Pechstein’s works dating from the year 1910, however.

Max Pechstein (1881-1955)
Pechstein was born in Zwickau, the son of an artisan who worked in a textile factory. An early acquaintance with the art of Vincent van Gogh sparked his interest in and development towards expressionism. After spending some time working as a decorator in his hometown, he applied to the school of applied arts and subsequently to the academy of the arts in Dresden. There, he became a student of Gussmann from 1902 onwards, until he met Erich Heckel in 1906 and was invited to join the art group Die Brücke.

Die Brücke was an expressionist group of artists founded in Dresden by young art students in 1905. The name was a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche, who coined the term to describe a bridge between the old and the new. The founding members of Die Brücke – Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel – were all architecture students with an entirely self-taught, deliberately primitive style of painting. Pechstein, who joined the group in 1906, was the only member with a formal education in the arts. While his artistic education and social upbringing was rather different from the other members, he shared their enthusiastic response to the raw colours and shapes that characterised their aesthetic freedom. Pechstein remained an active member of Die Brücke until 1910, and often collaborated with Brücke painters to create a homogenous style for this period.

Kees van Dongen
Influences from Kees van Dongen are visible in all aspects of the painting. The model’s posture, with her arms pointing up, is reminiscent of Van Dongen’s L’Idole, dated 1905, currently in the collection of the Courtauld Institute in London, and the colourful background and sharp contrasts are entirely in line with Van Dongen’s style.

In December, Max Pechstein travelled to Paris, where he rented a room in a small hotel in the Latin Quarter. Visiting the French capital gave him the opportunity to meet the Fauves and see their works in person at the Salon des Independents in March of 1908. He also visited a large Van Gogh exhibition, which was especially meaningful to him, as Van Gogh was the primary inspiration of the Die Brücke members. In fact, they had originally considered naming the group the Van Goghists. At Bernheim Jeune, he attended an exhibition of works by the Dutch/French artist Kees van Dongen, which must have made quite an impression, for Pechstein held him in very high regard. In an undated letter to Schmitt Rottluf, likely dating from October 1908, he wrote that Kirchner advised him to involve Van Dongen in the group. Pechstein supported the idea wholeheartedly, but was afraid that Van Dongen would not be interested, since he was already a very important artist in France. However, he concluded, if Van Dongen were to be interested, that would be fantastic. In the end, Van Dongen participated in an exhibition in Berlin.

The Femmes Fatales that Pechstein saw at the Parisian exhibitions would continue to occupy his mind for many years, as Schwermut shows. Consider for instance Van Dongen’s paintings of the model Fernande Olivier from 1907-1908, when she was somewhat distanced from her beloved Picasso. The New York Times correspondent who visited the same exhibition described these paintings as follows: “The women he paints are predominantly terrible creatures, yet possessed of such melancholic beauty that connoisseurs spend hours staring at them.”

Pechstein did not return to Dresden after his journey to Paris: he was one of the first of the Brücke group to make the momentous move from provincial Dresden to the bustling metropolis of Berlin, where he took up residence in a workshop adjoining Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner’s. The two began a close collaboration that undoubtedly served to encourage Pechstein to experiment further with colour and Fauvist techniques, although Van Dongen’s paintings portraying Parisian nightlife almost certainly played a role in these developments as well.

Neue Secession
After Pechstein’s paintings were categorically rejected for an exhibition with the Berlin Secession in 1910, he helped found the Neue Secession, serving as its chair. He subsequently found recognition for his decorative and colourful prints inspired by the art of Van Gogh, Matisse and the Fauves.
In 1912, after years of escalating tensions, Pechstein was expelled from Die Brücke after he independently exhibited a number of his works in the aforementioned Berlin Secession. Pechstein significantly outshone his Brücke peers in fame and recognition by this point, which had already caused a growing rift between them. As a result, Schwermut was one of Pechstein’s last works to be exhibited at the Neue Secession in the name of Die Brücke.

Pechstein’s later works grew more primitivist, with thick, black lines and angular figures. In search of inspiration he travelled to Palau, in the Pacific. When World War I broke out, Pechstein was interned in Japan and made his way back to Germany via Shanghai, Manila and New York. He was drafted into the army to fight on the Western Front in 1916.

Die Brücke played a key role in the development of modernism in Germany. Never before had there been a visual idiom so intense in its expressiveness and statement. It was a directly personal form of art based on feeling, intuition and emotion. The confident and visible brushstrokes, the bright colours and the expression of feeling that are so typical of the artistic approach of the members of Die Brücke in general and Max Pechstein in particular are particularly well represented in this work.  

Schwermut is noted in the Max Pechstein’s oeuvre catalogue by Dr Aya Soika as number 1910/71. A Gutachten by Dr Soika is provided with the painting.

Exposition Die Brücke, Gurlitt Galerie, Berlijn, 1912, Kunstsalon Fritz Gurlitt, Ausstellung von Künstlergruppe Brücke, 2. – 27. April 1912
August exposition of Expressionists, Scheveningen 1920, nr.28
Exposition Kunstverein in Hamburg, Kunst der letzten 30 Jahre aus Hamburger Privatbesitz, 29. Okt. – 17. Nov. 1930, Nr. 186. Schwermut (Bes.: Ludwig und Bettina Schrader-Eschershausen)
Exposition Badischer Kunstverein Karlsruhe, Aus Karlsruher Privatbesitz. Gemälde, Aquarelle, Zeichnungen 1790 – 1940, 25. Juni – 3. Sept., Nr. 128, Abb. 45

Aya Soika, Max Pechstein; Das Werkverzeichnis der Ölgemälde, Band I, 1905-1918, München, 2011, p. 283, no 1910/71


Max Pechstein (1881-1955), Schwermut
Price on request
Presumably Dr Ludwig and Bettina Schrader, Hamburg Private collection, Karlsruhe, 1930 Private collection, Hannover, 1961-1979 Auction at Hauswedell & Nolte, 7 to 9 June 1979, no. 1060 Private collection, Germany
oil on canvas
HMP 1910 [upper right], and: Schwermuth 300 M. Pechstein [verso]
65 x 65.6 cm

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