Max Pechstein
Biography of Expressionist Painter, Member of Die Brucke artist group.

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Young Woman with a Red Fan (1910)
Folkwang Museum, Essen.
By Max Pechstein.

Max Pechstein (1881-1955)


Joins Die Brucke
World War I and Aftermath
More About German Expressionism

Girl on a Green Sofa with Cat (1910)
Ludwig Museum, Cologne, Germany.
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An important contributor to Expressionism in Germany, Max Pechstein was a leading member of Die Brucke (The Bridge) (1905-13), a Dresden artist-group that was destined to play a leading part in the Expressionist movement in general, and German Expressionism in particular. Pechstein was one of the few Expressionist painters in Dresden to have received formal art training, and - due to his more populist style of painting - was the first member of Die Brucke to achieve public recognition. Influenced by the Parisian Fauvism movement - which had a major impact on the History of Expressionist painting - he was noted for his female nudes and landscape painting, typically executed in garish Fauvist colours. Like several of his Dresden colleagues, he was fascinated by African and South Pacific tribal art, and his work gradually became more primitivist, with thick black lines and angular figures. He was a founder member of several avant-garde groups, including Berlin's "New Secession" (1910) and the Novembergruppe (1918). He was also elected a member of the Prussian Academy of Art, and taught at the Berlin Academy for ten years (1923-33), until dismissed by the Nazis because of the so-called degenerate nature of his modern art. Reinstated in 1945, he was the recipient of numerous awards before he died in West Berlin at the age of 73. In addition to his decorative and colourful painting, he also excelled at printmaking, producing over 400 lithographs, 300 woodcuts and linocuts, and more than 150 intaglio prints, mostly etchings. In 2008, Pechstein's painting Zirkus mit Dromedaren (Circus with dromedaries) (1920) was auctioned at Sotheby's in London for a record £1.9 million.




Born in the Saxon town of Zwickau, in south-east Germany, Pechstein was apprenticed as a decorator from 1896 to 1900, before moving to Dresden where he studied art at the School of Applied Arts (1900-2), and afterwards at the city's Royal Academy of Art (1902-6). An early influence was the painting of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90).

Joins Die Brucke

In 1906 Pechstein was introduced to Erich Heckel (1883-1970) who invited him to join Die Brucke, an avant-garde group founded in Dresden the previous year, by Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Fritz Bleyl (1880-1966) and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976). As all the founders were former students of architecture, it meant that he was the only member to have received any kind of formal academic training as a painter.

Pechstein remained an active member of Die Brucke until 1910, moving between Dresden and Berlin, where the Berlin Secession movement was a major happening. He spent time drawing and painting in the Dresden studios of Kirchner and Heckel, and also went plein-air painting with them at the Moritzburg lakes near Dresden. Like his colleagues, Pechstein was inspired by the colour of Matisse, Derain and other Fauves, as well as the shapes and motifs of African sculpture and Oceanic art, all of which he used to create the raw style of expressionism for which Die Brucke became famous. However, compared to the others - who by 1910 also included Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Kees van Dongen (1877-1968) and Otto Mueller (1874-1930) - Pechstein was the most 'French' in spirit of the Die Brucke group, being less angst, less iconoclastic, but more decorative (and no less garish) than the others - a factor which undoubtedly led to his early recognition.

In 1908 he moved to Berlin where he was joined 3 years later by the other Brucke artists. In 1909 he participated in the art show organized by the Berlin Secession, but in 1910, after the rejection of his works by Max Liebermann, he helped to set up a breakaway body known as the New Secession (Neue Sezession), of which he became President. In 1911, together with Kirchner, he founded a private art school in Berlin - known as the MUIM-Institut - but it never really got off the ground.

Note: An important centre for modernist painters in Berlin, including Pechstein, was the Sturm gallery and magazine, owned by the artist and critic Herwarth Walden (1879-1941).

Then in 1912 he was expelled from Die Brucke - ostensibly for having exhibited some of his paintings at the Berlin Secession without the consent of the group, although a more plausible reason is their resentment at his increasing fame. He was already being described as the leader of Die Brucke, and was receiving regular commissions - including requests to decorate private houses and design stained-glass windows.

World War I and Aftermath

Like a number of modern artists, Pechstein was drawn to the Primitivism of tribal art, especially that of the South Pacific islands, whose sculpture he had studied in the Volkerkundemuseum in Berlin. And so in 1914, following in the footsteps of Paul Gauguin, he sailed to Palau in the South Seas where he painted natives and landscapes in a primitivist style. This idyll proved to be only temporary. By 1916 he was fighting for his country on the Western Front. Surviving the trenches, he became an active participant in two left-wing groups of artists formed in the wake of the German defeat in November 1918. They included the Workers Council for Art (Arbeitsrat fur kunst) (1918-21), an artist collective dedicated to making architecture and art accessible to the people; and the short-lived socialist body known as Novembergruppe, that campaigned for a radical reform of art schools, and the administration of the arts. The Novembergruppe dissolved in December 1918 when it merged with the Workers Council for Art.

In 1922 despite, or perhaps because of, his socialist sympathies, Pechstein was elected a member of the Prussian Arts Academy (Preussische Akademie der Kunste) and in 1923 took up the post of Professor at the prestigious Arts University (Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste) in Berlin. Unfortunately, in 1933 he was targeted by the Nazi cultural authorities on account of his so-called Degenerate Art (entartete kunst). As a result, he was dismissed from his teaching post and forbidden to paint or exhibit in public. In 1934 he was expelled from the Academy and afterwards went into seclusion in eastern Germany.

After the Second World War Pechstein was fully rehabilitated and reinstated to his professorship at the West Berlin Arts University. He also received a number of awards and honours. However, his late work lacked the vitality and edge of his pre-1914 work. Among his best expressionist paintings are the female figure portraits, vivid interiors and lakeside scenes with nude figures of 1909-10, such as Young Woman with a Red Fan (1910, Folkwang Museum, Essen) and Girl on a Green Sofa with Cat (1910, Ludwig Museum, Cologne).

More About German Expressionism

Another important centre of avant-garde art in Germany, prior to World War I, was Munich - the scene of the Munich Secession movement in 1892 - where the Russian emigrant Wassily Kandinsky (1844-1944) founded Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) (1911-14), as an offshoot of the larger New Artist Federation (Neue Kunstlervereiningung). Other members of Blue Rider included Franz Marc (1880-1916), the 'Russian Matisse' - Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), Gabriele Munter (1887-1914), Paul Klee (1879-1940) and August Macke (1887-1914). Although it lasted for less than four years, Der Blaue Reiter marked the high point of expressionism in Germany.

Paintings by Max Pechstein can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world.


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