Erich Heckel
Biography/Paintings of German Expressionist Painter, Die Brucke.

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Reclining Woman (1909)
Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.

Erich Heckel (1883-1970)

Contents

Biography
Early Life
Die Brucke Expressionist Group
Development as an Artist
Berlin
World War I
Degenerate Artist
Collections



Landscape Near Dresden (1910)
Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Biography

One of the leading figures of German Expressionism, the painter, sculptor and graphic artist Erich Heckel was a founder of the Die Brucke group in Dresden, along with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Fritz Bleyl (1880-1966), and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976). In his painting, Heckel was an admirer of Van Gogh, particularly for his ability to convey inner anguish, and was also impressed by how exponents of Futurism represented fractured light. Meanwhile his wood-carving was strongly influenced by African sculpture. Like his colleagues in Die Brucke, he also spent time mastering a number of printmaking techniques - notably, woodcuts, etchings and lithographs - as a way of producing low-cost art. His most powerful expressionist paintings (and prints) were produced during his early years. Typically he painted figures in landscapes and interiors using strident colours and thickly smeared paint. In 1937 his work was condemned as "degenerate art". After surviving the war in Berlin, he taught at the Karlsruhe Academy until he retired in 1955. Now seen as an important pioneer of Expressionism in early 20th century Germany, Heckel is best remembered for his female nudes and landscape painting, as well as his woodcuts, characterized by their simplified forms and unusual flat style.

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Early Life

Erich Heckel was born in Dobeln, near Dresden, in Saxony. He went to high school in Chemnitz, where he made friends with fellow student Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. We know very little about his early artistic training, or when he learned drawing, but in 1904 he went to study architecture at the design faculty of the Technical University (Technische Hochschule) in Dresden. Here, he was joined in 1905 by his younger friend Schmidt-Rottluff. At university, Heckel also met Bleyl and the older Kirchner, and the four students then formed the Die Brucke circle and decided to devote themselves entirely to painting.

Die Brucke Expressionist Group

The name of their group, Die Brucke (The Bridge), signalled their desire to create a bridge between past and present art, and to create a new mode of artistic expression. Thus they borrowed ideas from Old Masters from the German Renaissance, like Albrecht Durer, Matthias Grunewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder, as well as from modern art movements like Primitivism and Art Nouveau. They explored traditional media, such as woodcuts (and invented the printmaking method of linocut). Heckel himself focused on woodcut, lithography and engraving. Their painting was typically emotional and intense, and typically featured violent imagery and vivid colour. Heckel, who had an almost fanatical conception of friendship and artistic partnership, became the cohesive element in the group, as well as their manager and organizer. In 1906 the group was joined by the Swiss painter Cuno Amiet (1868-1961) and the German expressionist painters Max Pechstein (1881-1955) and Emil Nolde (1867-1956). As a whole, however, the group was united more by what it disliked in the art around them, than by any artistic program of its own.

 

 

Influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, and by the Jugendstil style in Germany, Heckel set up a workshop in Dresden where group members painted, carved and produce woodcuts, often collaborating on projects, in order to establish a greater connection between art and design and everyday life. Heckel and Kirchner made furniture and sculptures, as well as murals. At the time, Heckel's expressionism - and that of the other members of the group - was influenced by Oceanic art as well as tribal art, artifacts of which were on display at the Dresden Ethnographic Museum. (See his 1908 woodcut Sleeping Negress, and his sculpture Crouching Girl 1912, Heckel Collection, Hemmenhofen.) He also admired Van Gogh and the Synthetism of Paul Gauguin for the authenticity of their expressiveness. Lastly, the Brucke group was also familiar with developments in modern art, in Paris, where Fauvism was all the rage. A major show of work by Matisse (1869-1954), held in Berlin, confirmed their appreciation of Fauvist methods. The members of Die Brucke held several exhibitions - the first in 1906 and 1907, in a Dresden lampshade factory which Heckel designed, after which they succeeded in getting their work into several local galleries and travelling exhibitions.

Development as an Artist

However, Heckel very soon realized that for him, painting born from instinct alone could not lead to the discovery of form. In the summer of 1907 he had gone with Schmidt-Rottluff to Dangast on the North Sea for the first time. The experience of nature in its original state, linked with his own intellectual discipline, led him in 1908 to develop a more grandiose style. In Spring 1909 he travelled in Italy, spending the summer with Kirchner at the Moritzburg lakes, and in the autumn went to stay with Schmidt-Rottluff. His time in Italy brought about a clarification of his forms. He was especially impressed by Etruscan art, which confirmed him in his striving after rigour, simplification and increased spirituality. By 1910 he had perfected a flat style, in which areas of colour, delineated with jagged, angular contours are intertwined to form a completely compact composition. Yet his painting remained austere, barren and curiously harsh. He painted numerous landscapes at the Moritzburg Lakes and in Dangast, as well as urban views, nudes, bathing figures and music hall scenes. In 1911 Heckel painted at Prerow on the Baltic where the co-founder of Der Blaue Reiter, the expatriate Russian painter Alexei von Jawlensky, was also working.

Berlin

In the Autumn of 1911 Heckel moved to Berlin where most of the group now congregated, and shared a studio with fellow Brucke member Otto Mueller (1874-1930). This change did not interfere in any way with his artistic aims, as unlike Kirchner, he was not interested in the dynamism of the city. Indeed, from now on he was only interested in trends which were not subject to the moment. He directed his attention towards the variety in landscape and the passing of the seasons, and also the behaviour of men in their longings, joys and sufferings. Above all, his painting sought to express and reflect human compassion, using strong, rich colours. See, in particular, his masterpiece Sailing Ships in the Harbour (1911, Westfalisches Landesmuseum, Munster), in which deep orange sails are juxtaposed against the rich green of the land and the pink of the beach. The move to Berlin did however bring him into contact with other important modern artists including Franz Marc (1880-1916), August Macke (1887-1914) and Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956).

The following year, Heckel collaborated with Kirchner in the mural painting for the chapel of the "Sonderbund Exhibition" in Cologne. Then, in 1913, Die Brucke broke up, and Heckel mounted his first one-man-exhibition in Berlin. He began ordering objects in his pictures into a stable equilibrium. From now on he transformed his findings from Cubism into an angular, as it were, disjointed structure which enabled him to portray light in a characteristic way. He represented reflections as crystalline shapes so that, with the aid of this 'visible' atmosphere, the heavens, the earth, water and man fused into a single mode of expression. See, for instance, his Women by a Lake (1913, Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisburg).

World War I

In 1914, Heckel volunteered for military service and in 1915 was appointed to nurse the wounded in Flanders. Here he met Max Beckmann (1884-1950) and made friends with the Belgian symbolist James Ensor (1860-1949). Heckel and Beckmann were - along with other artists - under the command of art historian Walter Kaesbach, who so detailed their duties, that every other day was left free for artistic work. In 1918 Heckel returned to Berlin. Thereafter, his art became more melancholic but also more populist, with pastel colours replacing the more garish tones of his previous painting. For more about his contribution to expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).

Degenerate Artist

In 1937, like almost all the expressionists, his work was condemned as "Degenerate Art" by the Nazi government, who seized over 700 of his paintings and prints. Badly affected by air raids on Berlin during World War II, Heckel lost all his woodcut blocks and print plates, before finally losing his entire studio during a 1944 bombing raid. He then moved to Hemmenhofen on Lake Constance. In 1949 he accepted a Professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts (Akademie der Bildenden Kunste) in Karlsruhe, which he held until his retirement in 1955. During this period he became increasingly absorbed in still life painting, and his overall style of oil painting became tranquil and more lyrical.

In 1953, on his 70th birthday, and again in 1963 on his 80th, Heckel was honoured with numerous exhibitions and retrospectives, as well as several prizes. He continued painting until his death at Radolfzell in 1970. A major retrospective exhibition, Erich Heckel – His Work in the 1920s, was mounted at the Brucke Museum in Berlin from October 2004 to February 2005.

Collections

Works by Heckel can be seen in a number of the best art museums around the world, notably the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Kunsthalle, Hamburg; the Sprengel Museum, Hannover; the Westfalisches Landesmuseum, Munster; the Museumsberg Flensburg, Schleswig-Holstein; and the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.

• For biographies of other German expressionists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more details of Die Brucke or Der Blaue Reiter artist groups, see: Homepage.


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