Until 25th August 2019
A couple of months back, I was complaining that most of the Edinburgh National Gallery’s Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition was on loan from the Hunterian. It’s frustrating that with such an excellent collection, such a limited and often disappointing selection is on display at the gallery. The German Revolution goes some way to deal with this issue. It draws together a wide selection of work by Emile Nolde, Max Beckmann and Edvard Munch and their contemporaries alongside influential prints by Dürer and Goya.
You have to admire the ambition; this is an expansive exhibition for a small gallery drawn mainly from the Hunterian’s own collections. The topic is significant too. It’s taken a long time for 20th century German art to recover from post-war closed-minded nationalism. This exhibition recognises German perspectives on the Great War that have remained silent for the best part of a century. It makes for an impressive exhibition illustrating a forgotten experience of the horrors of the last century.
That said, this scope is also the exhibition’s greatest weakness. Despite the importance of its subject, it often fails to convince viewers of the importance of these works and print as a medium. These works are gathered from a group of very different artists from very different countries. In trying to tie their work into broad themes their individual voices are denied. How did Nolde, a devout anti-Semite, differ from the sensuality of Egon Schiele in more liberal Vienna? The responses to war and revolution were as distinct as the artists themselves. The exhibition’s failure to address this makes it seem messy and confused.
Information is the biggest problem. Not enough space is devoted to explaining the context of the period or the artists. The importance of print as a method through which ideas can be easily and widely spread is barely recognised. Not all these prints are masterpieces, but not all of them were meant to be. Often their scrappy style was a reflection of the contemporary chaos that the exhibition never quite conveys. The exhibition varies in style and substance without ever being clear.
Overall, for what the exhibition lacks in explanation and consistency, it is still a necessary and important set with some genuine highlights. Nolde’s Sturm, Kollwitz’s Das Volk and Munch’s Im Männlichen Gehirn are well worth the visit. However, if you really want to appreciate the work in context, go armed with some prior knowledge.
[Ruaraidh Campbell – he/him – @roux_campbell]
[Artwork credit: Käthe Kollwitz]