Caravaggio and the Painters of the North
From 21 June to 18 September 2016
The Portrait of Elfriede Hausmann, together with the Bust Portrait of Felix Stiemer (Berlin, Nationalgalerie), dated in 1918, are considered early masterpieces of Conrad Felixmüller. Born seventeen years after Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, this artist is included in what is known as the "second generation" of German expressionists. Felixmüller's precocious talent was already revealed during his training years under Carl Bantzer in the Königliche Kunstakademie of Dresden, his native town; his print album Lieder des Pierrot Lunaire, inspired in a homonymous composition by Arnold Schönberg, dates from 1912-1913. Upon finishing his studies, in the summer of 1915, he moved to Berlin and lived in Ludwig Meidner's studio; there, he met the most active writers and artists on the Berliner expressionist scene, such as Raoul Hausmann, Theodor Däubler, Walter Rheiner, Johannes Baader and Wieland Herzefelde. He also met the publisher and art dealer Herwarth Walden, who invited him to work for his magazine Der Sturm and organised exhibitions of his works. In 1916 he began a long collaboration as illustrator in the weekly publication Die Aktion, published by the socialist writer Franz Pfemfert. Shortly afterwards, he founded in Dresden the art and literature magazine Menschen, with the publisher and book dealer Felix Stiemer. From the first years of his career as a painter, the execution of portraits played an important part in Felixmüller's activities.
Portrait of Elfriede Hausmann represents his friend Raoul Hausmann's wife, the violinist Elfriede Schaeffer. It clearly reveals the assimilation of stylistic components typical of Cubism and Futurism, two artistic movements divulged through the exhibitions organised by Herwarth Walden in his gallery Der Sturm. In April 1912 Walden presented the first important exhibition of Italian futurists, previously shown in Paris and London. The startling novelty of these works stirred up an extraordinary scandal in Berlin. The first Deutscher Herbstsalon, organised by Walden in 1913, also included paintings by futurist artists, as well as French cubists such as Léger, Metzinger and Marcoussis, and works by Robert Delaunay. Walden carried on promoting the diffusion of new art even during and after World War I. A great number of young artists, like Kurt Schwitters and particularly Felixmüller, assimilated the new style, which they blended into the elements of expressionism. Raoul Hausmann was one of the first artists that gave body to the synthesis between the cubo-futurist language and the aesthetic aims of expressionism. In fact, in the Portrait of Elfriede Hausmann we find a representation formula similar to what could be considered typical of a language exclusive to the Berlin circle of Felixmüller's friends. There is, for instance, a clear correspondence between his painting Lovers (Uebigau) (private collection), 1918, and the untitled composition with a similar subject, executed by Hausmann in 1915, which belongs to the Parisian collection of P. Trigano. In both cases, the figures of the man and the woman are strongly contrasted: the red hues are dominant in the latter and the blue ones in the former, and the composition shows intermingled flat and angular shapes creating a rhythmical faceted pattern. Although both pictures reveal affinities with the cubo-futurist trend, the violence of the contrasts and the emphasis on tormented shapes reveal the way in which this tense and disturbing kind of painting was indebted to expressionism, which, during the decisive years of World War I, insisted on the aesthetics of anxiety.
In 1917 Felixmüller also wrote the manuscript entitled Postulat; in it he described the aims of the cubo-futurist language itself, to which he accorded a liberating dimension, identifying it with an "absolute figuration": "The absolute painter began with the destruction of his objects. A shattered nature, as he himself was. Each body part in relation to its space part, all interrelated, reciprocally and indistinctly mixed, produced as a consequence this result: redemption".
The Portrait of Elfriede Hausmann interprets the disintegration of shapes by conceiving the face as a prismatic architecture. The broken face and the decomposition of the forms reflect the discontinuities and effects that characterise a crystalline mineral construction. The complex inert organisation, typical of crystals, replaces the model's organic physiognomy. The formal angular elements and the superimposed secant planes penetrate each other; the interwoven shapes suggest an optical movement. Thus, the artist achieves a sense of dynamism in the construction of the picture similar to what became the decisive formal point of reference for art in those years, that is, the shape of the crystal. This was one of the main topics of reflection for, for example, the writer Paul Scheerbart and the architect Bruno Taut, both linked to the group Der Sturm. Unlike the representation of organic life, crystalline figuration used its own organisation of what is inert, establishing a correlation of reality according to the inorganic quality of pictorial matter. An expressive and decisive chromatic contrast is added to the prismatic architecture of the face. The yellow areas of the face and neck gleam with force, standing out over the blues, greens and blacks. New disjunctions emerge from the play of gradations and reflections experienced by the colours. In this portrait Felixmüller evokes a new reality, immanent to the image, born of the reunion of many fragments of shapes but resulting mainly from a strictly pictorial, inert order, in the sense that it gives life with dead materials.
In the wood engravings Felixmüller made in those years, we observe the same strong revitalising characteristic the artist applies to the indolent disintegration of the organic shapes through the construction of the architecture of the figures with a typically mineral faceting, in this case using the contrast between black and white planes, which reduces the drawing in order to enhance the carving of polymorph volumes. A woodcut published in 1918 in Menschen with the title Feeling Depressed in the Studio (Bedrüctsein im Atelier) is a self-portrait which recalls the Portrait of Elfriede Hausmann. Beside this particular case, the abrupt outline of the shapes and the complex directions of the planes and foreshortenings in the wood engravings, which somehow echo those by Kirchner and Heckel, repeat the complex plane geometry that we find in Felixmüller's painting. The intentional harshness of the expression dominated Felixmüller's oeuvre as a portraitist in the years when he cultivated his suggestive and acute interpretation of the cubo-futurist expressive means.
The artist integrated in his painting the abovementioned elements as swiftly as he deserted them, namely with the proclamation of the Weimar Republic. As from 1919, the year in which he founded with Otto Dix the Dresdner Neue Sezession Gruppe 19 and joined the Berlin Novembergruppe and the German Communist Party, he adopted an expressive realism with a stronger political purpose, which would be his style in the years to come. Line and detail became increasingly important, both in his graphic works and in his paintings. But the mid-1920s saw a much more radical change in his painting. He began to offer a more pleasant and individualised representation of real physiognomy, with a realist approach mainly in the execution of portraits. The friendship that grew between him and the writer and art theoretician Carl Sternheim from 1922 onwards greatly contributed to his distancing from the experimental path he had followed in his painting. On the back of Portrait of Elfriede Hausmann he painted in 1929 a Portrait of Young Scottish Lady, which follows the realist principles of Felixmüller's new art, whose enthusiasm for realism led him down the path of the "new objectivism". Thus, the painting in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection offers the two faces of the German painter, the harsh and the soft aspect of the portrait, the figure adjusted to the ideal of the crystalline inorganic matter and the pictorial representation of the organic modelling which he offers in the second portrait.
Magdalena M. Moeller y Javier Arnaldo