The exhibition, “Wilhelm Morgner - Blaze of Colour,” at the Chabot Museum in Rotterdam, gives us a wonderful taste of the work of the German expressionist, born in Soest, Germany in 1891 and who died at Langmark, Belgium in 1917. Wilhelm Morgner’s personal and artistic struggle, and the struggle of the Secessionist movement in general, is one that remains at the heart of contemporary society. The will to break free from all-too-confining social and academic structures is a characteristic of all new generations. A fight for human feeling, for what we consider to be truly humane, is a constructive part of Morgner’s work.
The gross industrialization that occurred in Germany in the early 20th century set in motion an aggressive depersonalization of the lower and middle classes. Next to the age of mechanized warfare, it became the age of merchandise. Now we see some of our more enlightened educators fight to keep traditions, protecting the existence of individual handwriting, teaching children to write, instead of exclusively typing and swiping or using the tablet.
I refer here to my great friend and highly-esteemed colleague, Robert C. Morgan, who spoke of this matter in a lecture “On Throwing Down the Key,” which he held at the VU Graduate School of Humanities in Amsterdam earlier this year. I’ll quote his most memorable saying: “To swipe is to forget and to write is to remember.” His saying corresponds with a more general assessment of the loss of humanity in our society, like robots tending to people in the hospitals or functioning as companions for the elderly and desolate.
Alain Berthoz, Professor at the College de France, convincingly demonstrates that it is precisely the infinite small abbreviations from the perfect line in an ellipse that activate our emotional and cognitive centers: “There is a linear relationship between tangential velocity and curvature…laws of production of movement also constrain perception…the distinction between action and perception as such is erased.” So a natural movement, a natural gesture, activates its memory and its recreation and experience within the beholder, as if he himself placed the brush upon canvas, created that color. As such, the beholder relives the whole creation of the artwork.
So to eradicate natural gesture, to mechanize it, is to kill off feeling, to remove empathy, to kill off individuality and personal and interpersonal experience. Of course, John Ruskin was the forebear of this notion, as he protested against standardization and routinized mass production. He protested against exploitation and alienation as early as the mid-19th century.
In this respect, Morgner’s work again becomes of great importance to us now, we who are indulged and conquered by modern day’s visually perfect entertainment. He shows us a personal conviction, a coming to life through his work of a “begeistert” unlimited being (ein materieloses Daseinswollens): “Ich träume von ganz ungeheuerlichen Farbwundern.”
Whilst depicting a figurative motif inspired by a personal experience of nature and the people in his environment, the painting becomes the creation of the artist’s inner experience. Through the mechanics of the stroke and its natural movement, he evokes the reconstitution of feeling. We, the observers, step into the rebirth of feeling, how the artist experienced nature as he stood in it, as the experience of nature created within him the feeling that would serve as a leitmotiv of his artistic concept. Nature becomes the seed of a sentient moment in time. The life of the artist is reborn and made to resound within us through color.
The paintings that are figurative, but arose from a more or less theoretical framework, within which a personal experience calls for a symbol, are much closer in nature to his abstractions. The experience of symbolic content demands a very different kind of identification, when you compare it to the type which the depiction of the grandeur of nature demands. The expression of the symbolic pushes toward the internalization of its content. You share in the feeling of the painter, with the way in which he shares his feelings, via the painterly image. One could feel oneself wandering in the expressionist landscape of color.
The experience of sensory perception is pushed backward. The imminent spirituality of the artist’s inner life comes into being as a phantasm in which colors are the bearers of the fundamental qualities of this inner world. It is color which constructs this world, and unlocks the void to experience one’s own emotionality bordering spirituality; as such, the impression of the artworks is one of exceptional sensibility. It is the portrayal of the artist’s feelings as a separate inner world that rises independent of the external world.
The referencing here takes place in the realm of the literary, religious and the symbolic. Figuration becomes a vehicle of its themes, even the more so, the symbolic, in its original sense, now functions as a metaphor for the dynamism of the artist’s life and suffering. Christ here really symbolizes a personal and general feeling of suffering: “Weltschmertz,” we may also read in this image a Nietzschian declaration of the death of God.
Although the astral and ornamental compositions are often based upon a figurative drawing, this is not the quality that comes to the fore. It is so because of the contrasts between the colors, colors read as purely chromatic shifts, tonal movements just for the fun of it, for the enjoyment of a painterly ballet. If a form comes on to you like a three-dimensional logically-constructed unity, it rather seems to be dissolved by the internal relations of its colors.
The close relations of all colors-in-play absorb each figurative reference, each suggestion of a real space with regular lighting. The light seems to behave independently from a steady source. The light expressed by the sparkling tactility of the brushstroke becomes a theme unto itself.
Henk Chabot (1894-1949), was a Dutch expressionist whose sculptures are displayed alongside Wilhelm Morgner’s colorful paintings in this remarkable exhibition. One such work shows a farmer with his tool, a sickle—representative of Chabot’s work. Thematically, this is where you’ll find most of the similarities in the oeuvres of these two artists: laborers and their tools, as they are engaged in their daily occupation, as in Wilhelm Morgner’s Woodcarver or The Potato Harvest.
As there are only few sculptures by Chabot on show, and none of his paintings, the exhibition as such doesn’t invite much of a comparison of their work. It really is a solo show of Wilhelm Morgner’s paintings and drawings that happens to be at the Chabot Museum. Similarities within their paintings are to be found when one looks over the catalogues of both artists, but the concept of the show doesn’t invite you to do so and, I must say, nor does it require that angle of approach.
The museum’s director, Jisca Bijlsma, perhaps said it best: “To me the most striking resemblances between the two artists are their quests for the source of life itself, with and in painting, to get beneath the surface of the quotidian and the ability to, time and time again, reassess their artistic findings.”
This is the sort of show that risks slipping beneath the radar of even avid museum-goers, as the artists in question are not household names. But often such shows offer the ripest fruits, the richest food for thought, and reveal fresh wonders for the intrepid visitor.
WILHELM MORGNER - BLAZE OF COLOUR / 21 JUNE - 25 SEPTEMBER