Hermann Max Pechstein

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Hermann Max Pechstein

Hermann Max Pechstein (1881-1955) was a German painter and graphic artist and, as a member of the artist group "Die Brücke" (The Bridge), was one of the early Expressionists.

Born on December 31, 1881, in Eckersbach (a suburb of Zwickau in Saxony, Germany), Pechstein went through the required schooling and in 1896 began a four year apprenticeship with a decoration (house) painter. Having passed his examination, he began his studies at the School for Applied Arts in Dresden. After two years he entered the Academy of Fine Arts, where only one year later he became a "master-student" of Professor Otto Gussmann, who also assisted him in obtaining his first commissions. Wall paintings and designs for stained-glass windows and mosaics were successfully completed even before he graduated in 1906 with the Saxon State Prize.

In the year of his graduation he painted a number of ceilings and an altarpiece for the Third German Crafts Exhibit in Dresden. (Later, another painter had to paint a thin coat of white over Pechstein's ceiling because the colors were considered too bright!) During this exhibit he met Erich Heckel, one of the founders of the famous artist group "Die Brücke" (The Bridge), in 1905. Heckel introduced him to members Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, who welcomed him as a friend. Shortly thereafter Pechstein made his first trip to Italy, where works of the Etruscans and the early Renaissance artists impressed him most. On his return he stayed for some months in Paris, where he looked at the new art and met, among others, Kees van Dongen, who introduced him to the other members of the Fauve group which had formed around Henri Matisse.

In 1908 Pechstein settled permanently in Berlin, which promised greater opportunities and more commissions than the staid Dresden. By this time he had perfected his graphic techniques (he made over 800 graphic works, with lithographs the most numerous, followed by approximately 270 woodcuts) and had begun to make sculptures of figures and heads, following the example of his artist friends. During this period he was the most popular of the Expressionists and was considered the leader of the Brücke group. In 1911 his Brücke friends also moved to Berlin, and he opened with Kirchner a short-lived art school, called MUIM Institut (Moderner Unterricht in Malerei, or modern instruction in painting). When Pechstein's paintings were rejected by the jury of the Berlin Sezession exhibition organization, he and a number of the other rejected artists decided to form a Neue Sezession (new secession), which had its first exhibit at the Galerie Macht. At this time Pechstein also made contact with Kandinsky, Marc, and Macke of the Munich Blue Rider group. While the largest part of the public and many of the critics still opposed the new style of abbreviation of forms and freedom of colors, others began to realize and recognize the talents and abilities of these young painters. When Pechstein exhibited again with the old Sezession, the Brücke members dismissed him from their group.

Pechstein managed to obtain a number of commissions, and after a successful retrospective exhibit of his works at the Gurlitt gallery he received financial assistance from the gallery owner to travel to the Palau Islands in the Pacific (which at that time were still in German possession). Most of Pechstein's main motifs had always been figures in nature, the human form in natural surroundings. He hoped to find that simplicity of natural life which he had tried to imagine earlier in his works on the islands. This attraction of a "primitive" life had already led to the discovery of the expressive powers of Oceanic and African art (in the ethnographic museums) not only by the young Expressionists but also in France (Picasso's attraction to these arts is the best known). However, Pechstein's stay in the Palau Islands was shortened by the outbreak of World War I and Pechstein's subsequent internment by the Japanese. He finally made his way back—in part as a coal stoker on a steamer—through Manila, San Francisco, and New York. On his return to Germany he was immediately drafted and served in the war until 1917.

A period of outstanding creativity began. Painting his experiences in the Pacific based on his sketches, he made a number of woodcuts which were issued in portfolios. He also illustrated books and designed stained-glass windows and mosaics. Shortly after the end of the war he became active, together with a number of other Expressionist artists, in trying to assist the public acceptance of the new German Republic and at the same time assuring that the arts could truly participate in the creation of a new society. He became the co-founder of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers' Council for the Arts) and of the Novembergruppe, the two most active artist organizations. They set examples for the artists in other cities in Germany. When the hopes for a new society began to fade, Pechstein's intensity and spontaneity began to wane.

He spent most of his summers either on the shores of the Baltic Sea or in small villages in the province of Pommerania, painting and designing windows—in 1926 he created a series of windows for the International Labor Office in Geneva—but for a time abandoning his graphic arts. He received many commendations and prizes, among them ones from the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and from several states in Germany. He was appointed professor at the Prussian Academy and had great success as a teacher. When the Nazis took over power in 1933 he encountered difficulties, and in 1937 his art was declared "degenerate." He was prohibited to paint, dismissed from the Prussian Academy, and had to witness the removal of 326 of his works from the collections of German museums. He stayed most of the time in Pommerania until 1944, when he was drafted for a short time to perform forced labor. After a short internment by the Russians, he returned to Berlin. His apartment and his studio had been destroyed and many of his works lost. He was appointed professor at the Academy of Fine Arts and concentrated on his teaching duties until his death on June 19, 1955.

Pechstein's career as an artist falls into three periods. The first creative phase was closely tied to his friendship with the Brücke group and lasted until 1912. The second phase began with his return from the Palau Islands and lasted until 1924. During this period his colors became softer and his compositions more balanced. Prevented from working between 1933 and 1945, he began to paint again after the war—mostly watercolors. Today most of the larger museums own some of his works, his graphic works being highly treasured.

Further Reading

Pechstein wrote his memoirs (edited by L. Reidemeister; Wiesbaden, 1960). Excerpts from his diaries from the Palau Islands were edited by H.-G. Sellenthin (Feldafing, 1956). The first monograph on Pechstein was published in 1916 by Walter Heymann (Munich, Piper) and the first partial oeuvre catalogue of his graphic works was compiled by Paul Fechter (Berlin, 1921). In 1950 and in 1981 two films on Pechstein and his works were made in Germany. Exhibition catalogues provide valuable comments and introduction to biography and works. Pechstein's first exhibit in the United States was at the gallery Karl Lilienfeld (1935, New York); later exhibits were held at the gallery Van Diemen-Lilienfeld, New York, and at the gallery Dalzall-Hatfield, Los Angeles, and in New York by Helen Serger/La Boetie. The standard texts on Expressionism in general are Bernard S. Myers, The German Expressionists, a Generation in Revolt (New York, n.d.) and Peter Selz, German Expressionist Painting (1974). A small paperback by John Willett (1978) is a general introduction to this period. □

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