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German Impressionism at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

German Impressionist Landscape Painting
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Through December 5, 2010

Post by Leslie Thompson

The word “Impressionism” often conjures up images of Renoir’s bourgeois fêtes or Monet’s water lilies. But what is little known to the general public is that Germany experienced its own phase of Impressionism, twenty years after the movement’s beginnings in France.  The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston brings together three of the leading German Impressionist painters in this first-ever U.S. exhibition on the subject.

The “triumvirate” of German Impressionism includes Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, and Max Slevogt.  Like their contemporaries, these three men began their careers in the German tradition of Realism.  Upon entering the exhibition, viewers experience a progression toward Impressionism as Liebermann, Corinth, and Slevogt transition from tight, realistic representations to loosely brushed compositions.

Introductions aside, viewers can then proceed to the climax of German Impressionism as the continuing galleries spotlight each artist. In addition to paintings, these in-depth studies include timelines of the artist’s life and actual footage demonstrating the artist’s technique.  While their style is very much like French Impressionism, Liebermann, Corinth, and Slevogt’s canvases emanate German spirit.

The final stop in this journey presents the late works of each artist, as the three men push Impressionism to its limits. Liebermann grows increasingly expressive in his brushwork, concentrating on the landscapes around his villa in Wannsee, a practice reminiscent of Monet’s compositions of his Giverny garden. Corinth, on the other hand, progresses towards a loose form of abstraction, as evident in his depictions of Walchensee, where he spent much of his later life. And Slevogt, focusing on the Rhine Valley, produces lyrical landscapes with animated skies and vibrantly pulsing hues.

Conveniently enough, the MFAH has organized a small exhibition featuring the drawings of Lieberman, Corinth, and Slevogt across the hall, creating a dynamic dialogue with the paintings.  The grouping includes sketches, notes, and preparations for paintings, as well as prints for public journals and books.  These works on paper allow viewers to observe the artist’s creative process.

Likewise, the drawings reveal how the smallest changes can make a significant difference, as Liebermann demonstrates in his composition for Beer Garden in Leiden. The drawing presents a scene in which a lone man sips his beer at an open-air garden restaurant. In the painting, which can be seen only a few galleries away, Liebermann has added a woman and young girl to accompany the man at his table. The alteration between drawing and painting leads the narration in an entirely new direction.

Whether examining the drawings or enjoying the beautiful brushwork of the paintings, these concurrent exhibitions offer visitors the unprecedented opportunity to experience German Impressionism at its finest. Say auf Wiedersehen to the domination of French masters. German Impressionism is the new vogue.

Restaurant Garden-Beer Garden in Leiden or In den Zelten by Max Liebermann, 1900

Restaurant Garden-Beer Garden in Leiden or In den Zelten by Max Liebermann, 1900

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