Modernism, Erich Heckel and Primitive Art

Categories: ArtModernism

The names Erich Heckel and Die Brucke are inseparable in the world of art. It is not without a fair amount of controversy that this artistic movement is regarded though. Heckel, and others were more interested in the primitive form of art which they thought to be purer than the more modern realistic style that had evolved in Europe at the time. But how did the ‘primitive’ art of Africa and other areas affect the style of this movement during a particularly restless political climate in Europe?

We will discuss this with reference to the work of Erich Heckel, one of the artists who contributed to the movement greatly during its short life.

Die Brucke (The Bridge) was an artistic movement that congregated before the first World War. It was founded by four architecture students in Dresden. Together with Die Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), Die Brucke represented German Expressionism which later was banned by the Nazi’s as ‘degenerate’ art [1].

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It was the national equivalent of the French Fauves who wished to present a more modernistic and free form of art.

It was in early Nazi Germany that degenerate art or ‘entartete kunst’ made Die Brucke a ridiculed artistic movement. Some of the artists banned from activity included Marc Chagall, Max Ernst and Wassily Kandinsky who were all particular members of the then German Expressionist movement [2]. The primary reason for this banning had been due to one aspect in its entirety: primitivism. In the case of Marc Chagall, his inspiration came from a certain spirituality that was involved in the process of creating art and primitive symbolism gave him just that link to spirituality he needed to express himself [2].

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Chagall, as one of the modernist painters had been born in Russia into a Jewish family and even though he was not German, he was exiled to the United States after Germany occupied France. Paul Klee was another of the German Expressionist who was ridiculed as an artist because of the primitive nature of his work. Klee was a Swiss born artist who was extremely serious about pushing the boundaries of art, something Nazi Germany definitely did not encourage. The primitive symbolism is particularly visible in paintings such as Fish Magic (1925), oil and aquarelle color [4: p 2834].

Klee uses the heavy stylization and cubism to convey an environment that is much more complicated in its meaning than its composition. There is an element of surrealism also conveyed in this piece, where a clock is displayed amidst the floating fish and cubist inspired people. A conjugation of cubism and surrealism is visible but there is also an aspect of Cezanne with the conical vases suspended around the picture. Death and Fire (1940) is another extremely primitive piece and has elements of the South American Indians such as the Inca [4: p 2841]. Franc Marc melded primitive figures with cubism and bright colors.

Tower of Blue Horses (1913), revealed a recurring theme in his work. For Marc, the color blue was a deep spiritual color while horses were a Biblical symbol of the apocalypse [5]. As a member of Die Blaue Reiter, his consciousness was fixated on animalistic painting which he believed depicted the organic structure of the world [5: p 2985]. Despite being declined as an artist in Germany, his work is extremely beautiful. Edvard Munch shifted from Norway to Germany but his exhibition was quickly shut down in Berlin. He could be seen as one of the forerunners to primitivism in art and therefore not popular in Germany.

Munch’s best known work is possibly The Scream (1893) whose primitive nature is extremely evident not only in the brushstrokes but also in the treatment of the subject itself [6: p 2352]. Some of his work, as opposed to Marc, is not beautiful, but grotesque and indicative of the tormented self. Wassily Kandinsky is possibly the most interesting of the ‘degenerate’ artists. He was not only affected by the Russian revolution, but later also the Nazi invasion. His version of primitivism came in his obsession with geometry, similar to Marc. Composition VIII (1923), is literally a composition of geometric shapes.

The colors are bright and dispersed around the entire picture. Some blocks of color are textured, but most of it is matte and smooth color. Erich Heckel, as a founder member of Die Brucke was born in Dobeln in 1883. Most of Heckel’s figures were in fact two dimensional versions of African sculptures. From equatorial Africa, down towards Southern Africa, sculptures was used symbolically most often for religious purposes. Heckel had been very interested in one particular room at the Brucke studio which was filled with cloths, wood-carvings and furniture obtained in Africa and the ‘South Seas’.

He began studying at the Museum of Ethnology in Dresden to increase his understanding of the ‘primitive’ art [9]. His woodcut entitled Women (1913), has traditional colors of red, white and black. The chiseled features are geometrically shaped and stylized to give the cut the same angularity of the carvings that originated in Africa. The same print style is visible in cloth artifacts that were also imported from the African areas and so-called primitive countries. Part of the rationale behind the primitivism work was an almost communist stance against the bourgeois sector of society [8].

There had been an increased interest in ‘visual metaphor’, pictures that expressed something from the inside: an innate spirituality. At this stage, modern art became profoundly political, shifting the meaning of art from simple decorative and esthetics to a complex vessel for expounding social interests. The modern world took on a different color during the early 1900’s, which led to the increased darkening of themes and images, but Heckel was a little different. The Expressionists, including Heckel drew inspiration from ‘primitive’ art for various reasons.

These reasons included: counter-revolutionary reasons; new found freedom of thought; anti-capitalist protest; seeking the purest, most honest depiction of spirituality; fascination with ‘otherness’; exploration of the spontaneous; external expression of the inner emotion and philosophical creativity. The Art Nouveau movement had taken its expression from the decadent nature of estheticism. It was art for arts sake and had been a depiction of the environment at the time, but Expressionism behaved as a counter-revolutionary protest against the capitalist or ‘bourgeois’ society [10].

The Expressionists felt that materialistic society had degraded spirituality and inner connection in people in general. Together with a new found freedom of expression introduced by the likes of Picasso and Miro, Dali and even Duchamps, the Expressionists now felt that they could express their own opinions via art. As a result, there was an increased need for internal examination that stripped away the ostentatious outer layer of the Baroque and Romantic era.

Primitive cultures had been particularly interested in the spiritual and found this spirituality in the simplest forms of art [10]. Arguably, the many layers humanity had added to themselves through material possession and fashion hid the inner emotional volcano the Expressionists wanted to uncover. The ‘primitive’ was largely unaffected by the material practices and therefore appeared to be a more honest way of expressing the suppressed emotion. It was also more based on instinct then on rationality [10]. The other key interest is in the concept of ‘otherness’.

The fact that this particular form of art was largely unknown to the ‘civilized’ world was a curious thing for Europeans to acknowledge [10]. It added a freshness or ‘newness’ to the high-browed European art world. Modern artist Shastri Maharaj describes the obsession with primitiveness as being an interest in the bold colors and sharp outlines usually associated with the tools used to form the images. Artists such as Modigliani were particularly interested in Polynesian images, while Heckel was interested in the so-called ‘Bantu’ style of woodcarving.

Either way they were both inspired by something that was new and unexplored [11]. Masks such as ‘death masks’ were images used in works that explored the nature of life and death, due in part to their austere beauty and also because they were unafraid of facing the inevitable. At this stage, psychiatry had also made a huge influence on society, with Sigmund Freud’s encouragement to face inner demons that include man’s inherent fear of death. What was termed ‘funerary’ art created a stir around the unknown and facing the unknown [11].

Ancestral worship had been an aspect of primitive art that was also seen as relatively unacceptable to Christian Europe. Robert Goldwater spent his life studying traditional art and the relationship between modern artists and their anthropological fascination with tribal and ancestral art. Even if one was to consider Salvador Dali’s depictions of animals and people with exaggerated limbs, we see an influence that it not unlike the North Eastern sculptures of Africa. Together with the Metropolitan Museum, they created an extensive resource of primitive art.

A closer look at ritual art reveals at the Metropolitan Museum reveals that the ancient work was either of stone, wood or precious metals were richly patterned and elaborately colored. The relationship therefore between the modernist painters and the ancient world is visible in the brightly colored depictions of the artists such as Marc and Chagall. That Heckel took his inspiration from the African component of primitive art is evident since the majority of African art was produced in wood and ivory as opposed to the gold that is associated with the South American Indians.

Some of the art was also indicative of the caste or rank of the people within the civilization and this proved to be a great difference in the material that was used by the individual artist during that time [12]. Ceremony was an integral part of their belief structure and could not be separated from their daily life in much the same way as the Greeks could not separate their idol-worship from their mere existence. It was this factor of belonging and having a purpose to life that the Expressionists found to be the missing link in European art. This was the factor they believed had distanced them from their own inner glory.

As the Metropolitan Museum also reveals there was a heightened collectivity about these primitive artists, that they functioned in some form of hierarchal unity that no longer existed in, for instance, Nazi dominated Europe [12]. Da Vinci had been responsible for exploring the inner functioning of the human body, its bones and muscles, but prior to that, the human body was depicted in much the same way the African sculptures portrayed it to be: relatively shapeless. Women appeared however to always be portrayed as nubile, voluptuous and well-endowed, which is probably the archetype but not indicative of the average woman.

These ‘fertility’ goddesses were presumed to bring good-fortune to child-bearing women and Heckel produced a number of lino and wood cuts bearing the semblance of these fecund women. As it can be perceived, the primitive world was one in which survival of a race, tribe of civilization was dependant on the amount of children born and even then, on how many survived. In modern Europe, the ‘race’ had already been established and the need to breed was not as great as the need to supplicate the need for material wealth.

Cultural difference therefore lay in the status of the country at the time and although many of the works that inspired the likes of Heckel are form the Sudanese area, it is also the area of Africa which is still fighting the oldest war in Africa. The survival instinct is still as alive as it had been in ‘primitive’ times. The Indian component of ‘primitive art’ is visible in almost all of the Expressionist work, particularly that of Klee, whose aforementioned piece called Death and Fire, reveals the common obsession with death and the possibility of life thereafter.

The Peruvian tribes such as the Moche provided artists with a clear glimpse into their entire grotesque world of death, burial and the afterlife. The Inca too, had profound images of death as well as the most famous sarcophagi of Egypt. The masks were meant to be a motif of the victim, but since the skill of copying the dead person was not quite as practiced as, Gainsborough or Lely, they were heavily stylized. Klee saw no reason to attempt to glamorize the process of death and going to hell in the way that perhaps Blake would have, but instead brought it down to what it really was: a primal fear.

Modigliani’s work is well known to have been influenced by the Polynesian realms, and this is also seen not only in his subject matter but also in his cubist approach to the subject matter. A cotemporary of Picasso, he did not quite stylize his subject to the point of pure abstraction but used brightly colored flowers and luscious physical arrangements in a time when that was considered not only ‘kitsch’ but also inappropriate. The question was, did it make any difference when compared to the works of the also ridiculed Goya or even further back to Rubens?

No, the problem was no the nude, but the nationality of the nude. The ‘otherness’ of the subject made them appear to be crude, basic and uncivilized to the Western eye, which of course, as they were not understood, could not have been the case. Similarly the work of Munch and Chagall were both based on religious iconography that was exhibited in the same way as perhaps the Bushmen cave paintings of Southern Africa. The pictures were bland except for the raw emotion that obviously courses through the paintings into the viewer.

Whether of not you like The Scream or not makes not difference when you look at it because it affects you regardless of whether you see it as a ‘master’ work or not. This was the point of Expressionism and indeed of all Modern Art, the inner connection and ability to feel emotion whether it was anguish, fear, love or lust. These are all very basic emotions and basic feelings. If one looks a step further at the Impressionists, the same volatility of nature was the expressive part of the movement itself.

It was beyond the self-obsessed need for fickle and wanton things, it was about capturing something; a time; a place that could never be seen in that way again. If we consider the art of ancient Greece, which could also be termed ‘primitive’, the effects it has had on modern art has been immense. It has not stopped instilling awe and wonder on the modern world, by its sheer ingenuity. Also obsessed with basic emotions, it made them not very different at all to the Aztecs of the Mayan empires, other than that it has been more widely preserved.

Apart from the philosophical arguments regarding modern arts fascination with the primitive, it also gives us a sense of preserving what we have been given in knowledge and heritage from whatever angle we approach it. The primitive has always been with us, right down to our involuntary fight-or-flight reaction that we can never ignore. The basis for survival was very different and the means of producing the works we call ‘primitive’ today, was not purely for decorative or entertainment value.

It had a specific purpose and part to play. As the modern human has become more in love with its own intelligence and more obsessed with its produce, it has begun to forget why it was put on earth in the first place. Artists, it could be argued are generally of the introverted, self-analyzing type and it could be that what modern art wanted to do, was to free them of the burden of emptiness. No doubt, the primitive instinct we find necessary for basic survival would kick in at some stage, but it doesn’t seem to be inherent anymore.

It can be concluded that the ostentatious lifestyles modern man had created over the years for himself had gradually dug him into a pit of artistic stagnation and the meaning of art itself changed completely. Picasso had stood up against the Nazi’s in 1933 at the Paris Universal Exhibition when he painted the anti-Franco/Hitler painting Geurnica (1933) and the sensitive artist suddenly became the political activist. This is why, in art, music, literature, philosophy and even in science, we will always come back to the same conclusion and to the same means: we think therefore we are.

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Modernism, Erich Heckel and Primitive Art. (2016, Nov 08). Retrieved from

Modernism, Erich Heckel and Primitive Art

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