by Rasmus Sjöbeck
ART REVIEW The flat landscape of the moor stretches out. Rows of birch trees rise from the ground swirling up towards the sky. To the right you see a desolated cottage where the residents have turned the lights on. What we are looking at is a transition. The sun is about to settle and in a short while day will turn into night. The painting Evening in the moor (1896) by Fritz Overbeck depicts the moorland of Worpswede, a couple of miles outside of Bremen, and it communicates that primitive, rural atmosphere which captivated the artists exhibited in “Paula Modersohn-Becker and the Worpswede Artists’ Colony” at Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde, Stockholm.
The artists’ colonies became a European phenomenon in the late 19th century. It was a way for artists to distance themselves, both physically and aesthetically, from the art academies which in their opinion had become monolithic in their art practice. The painting en plein air became the new way of painting in Europe. The allure of Worpswede was discovered by Fritz Mackensen in the 1880’s and it was together with his artist colleagues Otto Modersohn and Hans am Ende that he in 1889 decided to move there permanently. More artists would soon follow and a colony was born.
Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde has since 2013 continually explored several artists’ colonies in Europe. The colonies are a compelling exhibition concept as you show the artists together and let their art interact. The visitor will both notice their common inspiration (in this case the moorland) as well as their differences in expression. The Worpswede colony consisted mostly of landscape painters of the generation born in the 1860’s, Fritz Overbeck included. These artists were deeply rooted in the realism which was so much in vogue in the 1880’s. Paula Modersohn-Becker, born 1876, on the other hand was of a younger generation and her style clearly departed from that of her male colleagues’. Modersohn-Becker, the most famous artist from the Worpswede colony, is considered a pioneer in expressionism and is mostly famous for being the first female artist to portrait herself in the nude.
Visitors who expect an exhibition on Paula Modersohn-Becker (and that will not be a few) will probably feel disappointment at first. This is not an exhibition where one artist is more central than the other. Many of her masterpieces were painted after she left Worpswede which explains their absence in the exhibition. Still, you see where she is headed. Many of her works in the exhibition explore new aspects of the human, often honest and ugly. This is evident in Boy by the Water (1904) where you see an intimate depiction of a boy observing nature. With a naïve style she depicts the boy with thick and and bold brushstrokes. In an unidealized way she highlights the reddish tone in the German farmer boy’s pale face.
Even though the 1860’s generation radically changed the art practice they couldn’t depart entirely from their background in the academia. They still had a traditional conception of beauty and naturalism that younger artists like Modersohn-Becker didn’t share. The art academies were also a privilege not accessible for women at the time which meant that Modersohn-Becker lacked an academic education in painting. In a way this makes her art more ahead of her time than that of her academic colleagues’. The same is usually said about August Strindberg who also never went to an art academy and who’s art today seems extremely modern in its abstract qualities.
Another artist that I find particularly interesting is Heinrich Vogeler. He became a part of the colony in the middle of the 1890’s and built himself a mansion there which he called Barkenhoff. This would become a total work of art created entirely by Vogeler. Vogeler chose to depict his house with its elaborate garden in several of his paintings (not unlike Monet who often chose motifs from his garden at Giverny). It is a shame that these paintings are not in the exhibition since Barkenhoff became important for the whole Worpswede colony.
Vogeler, just like Modersohn-Becker, is born in the 1870’s and his style also differs from that of his older colleagues. The styles he used were first and foremost art nouveau and symbolism. It is amazing that Waldemarsudde could borrow one of his seminal works namely Spring made in 1897 (shown here above the article). In the painting he uses the Worpswede landscape to create something otherworldly. The woman in the scene looks like she has wandered off from a fairytale with a medieval dress. She observes a bird high up in the birch trees with solemn curiosity while holding a flower in her hand. The stillness together with the combination of naturalism and fiction reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelites that he was inspired by.
A key aspect that Karin Sidén, museum director and curator, wants to highlight is the Worpswede artists’ connection to Nordic art. She has especially focused on the cloud studies which bear striking similarities to the famous paintings that Prince Eugen made of the same subject. Waldemarsudde was originally home and studio for the prince and it is his art collection that the museum is built on. This makes it particularly interesting to see these parallells in this specific space. I find other aesthetic similarities with Nordic art. The austere realism in the central piece of the triptyk Grieving family is close to that of Finnish painters such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The skillful depiction of light in Village Street in Worpswede by Otto Modersohn recalls that of Anders Zorn.
The title Paula Modersohn-Becker and the Worpswede Artists’ Colony may be misleading but Waldemarsudde has still given us a generous invitation to the fascinating universe of the Worpswede colony, an art collective fairly unknown in Sweden until now. That is more than enough for me.
Rasmus Sjöbeck is a master student in Technical Art History at the Stockholm University and works at the Thiel Gallery and the Hallwyl Museum.
(Featured image: ‘Spring’, Heinrich Vogeler, 1897. Photo: Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung und Waldemar Koch Stiftung. Deponerad vid Heinrich Vogeler Stiftung Haus im Schluh Worpswede)