From Art as Life to Blood and Soil

'While between 1895 and 1945 the German debate over how to be modern resulted in a global killing-field, a group of artists in Worpswede set down their visions for a 20th century of artistic sensibility and material living'

The Worpswede artists’ colony in north Germany embodied all the tensions in turn-of-the-century German society and yet it is barely known abroad. Above all its place in national history seems strangely neglected by historians. In a Germany that was growing explosively, young artists, long held back by a stifling academic tradition, rediscovered nature and natural living. 

About 20 miles north-east of the Hanseatic city of Bremen, Worpswede was then a village reached by horse and coach. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was among the luminaries who visited the painters in their heyday, around 1902. He remembered: “In Germany particularly after the war of 1870-71 a widespread materialistic way of thinking and dealing with life made itself felt in the towns that were suddenly growing at a raging pace. The idea was to counter this with a life and an artistic productivity in surroundings that encouraged self-awareness and guaranteed the greatest possible space for that intuition which, whether rightly or wrongly, was felt to be the source, and essential point of departure, for all artistic and generally human freedom.” What encouraged that self-awareness was the endless flat moorland, the product of an 18th-century marsh reclamation scheme, and the mean living the peasants could scratch there, in high winds and moody light.

The first artist, Fritz Mackensen, arrived in 1894, followed by his friend Otto Modersohn. Next to find refuge was the painter, craftsman, architect and illustrator Heinrich Vogeler, destined to become North Germany’s William Morris. By the time Paula Becker joined the community from Bremen, Worpswede was set to become “a world-village devoted to art”. Where their merchant-class parents based in the city had got rich off a belligerent Prussia’s 1870 victory over France, the privileged children were in rebellion. Their parents’ money freed them to devote themselves to an art extolling the simple life in the countryside.

With half a dozen contrarian personalities working in diverse styles, Worpswede was never a collective movement, except as a forerunner of the 1920s Youth Movement, with its love of the open-air life. Yet, as each artist defined something new, Worpswede briefly became a rare asylum in German culture, counterposed to the bad taste and militaristic-urban extravagance of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Mackensen created images of artisan life set in landscapes reminsicent of early van Gogh. Paula Becker’s portraits of village children were Gauguinesque, while Vogeler, an adept Art Nouveau craftsman, designer and architect, painted privileged social lives in a stylised pre-Raphaelite manner otherwise foreign to Germany, where painting had resisted innovation for a century. While down south in Munich the first German Modernist painting was belatedly emerging, in the well-known European style of Die Brücke, the painters of Worpswede offered a quieter version of what could have developed into a modern, but still rather conservative German style, or styles. They offer to my mind several versions of what might have been. 

Imagine in Britain a hangover of narrative Victorianism mingling with the last of the pre-Raphaelites and the first of the Bloomsberries, those free-living painters and handworkers who also had their Sussex countryside. Worpswede was a Wahlheimat, “a home region of choice”, which remained untouched by politics as the well-off newcomers enjoyed it.

And then the German tragedy happened. If ever a play needed to be written about the early 20th-century German soul torn apart, friendships broken, families and homes lost, and so much of that conflict doubly invested in art and architecture, its title would be Worpswede. Not Worpswede as the “world-art village” which makes it the minor tourist attraction it is today, but Worpswede as the site of fateful historical and artistic testimony. While between 1895 and 1945 the German debate over how to be modern resulted in a global killing-field, Mackensen, Becker and Vogeler, these three in particular, set down their visions for a 20th century of artistic sensibility and material living. 

The latter two were consciously in flight from those posturing old devotees of heroes and battles in the name of the nationalist art, the Academy. Paula Modersohn-Becker, as she became known after marriage to the older Otto Modersohn, was as a woman anyway excluded, and revelled in her freedom to paint from nature. Village childen, friends and old women posed for her. Avowing a fundamental “tendency towards the primitive” that she found in early Modernism, on a trip to Paris she discovered van Gogh in his French phase, the later Gauguin, and classic Cézanne. Rilke who ardently admired Cézanne’s still-lifes, portraits and landscapes, helped her find her way around artistic Paris. He detested her portrait of him because she caught his self-absorbed character so well. Paula’s coolly knowing, psychologically acute self-portraits are probably her greatest legacy. With hints of an Expressionism to come she modernises Nordic beauty. Her individualism and love of human oddity earned her a place in Hitler’s Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937: just one of those events that helps place Worpswede more widely in German history. 

The Nazis confiscated her 1905 Worpswede Peasant-Child from Bremen, where much of her best work is on display today. It was a token of their disapproval of a painter who was international in outlook, Modernist in style and, above all, her own person. She was in embryo everything a Germany geared to defend the interests of the peasantry and  the aristocracy against the cosmopolitanism of the expanding cities would soon curse. Artistically driven, she struggled with the demands of domestic life. See her Self-portrait with Swollen Belly, painted on the sixth anniversary of her marriage, which will go on returning the gaze of independent women indefinitely. She died suddenly in 1907 from an embolism after giving birth.  She was 31.

Heinrich Vogeler’s inheritance from his father allowed him to turn a rundown Worpswede farmhouse into a grand villa which became the early centre of the art community. Vogeler created an idyll, in conscious imitation of William Morris’s Red House at Bexleyheath, designing gardens, furnishings, ceramics and jewellery. Life at his Barkenhoff was projected as a perfect symbiosis of life and art. In his Jugendstil paintings — a mixture of pre-Raphaelite and Art Noveau, ornate, religious and mythical — Vogeler placed The Annunciation and The Three Kings in a recognisable Worpswede setting. He portrayed himself as a medieval knight, bidding farewell to his weeping lady. According to Martha Vogeler her husband idolised her and their life at the Barkenhoff. When the marriage broke down he was devastated. 

The Great War confirmed his change of direction. Sent to Italy and Ukraine as a war artist, he compiled visual reports in fractured Expressionist style, with results that, when he focused on human suffering, were unusable as propaganda. In 1917 he sent the Kaiser a story begging him to behave as “the dear God” and bring peace to the world. The authorities confined Vogeler to an asylum for 67 days and dismissed him from service.

Vogeler became a Communist, never for long affiliated to any German or Soviet party because he was too independent-minded. He turned the gorgeous Barkenhoff of his Arts and Crafts years into a school for poor and parentless children, and for a few years ran it as a self-sufficient commune. From the period heralded by his overtly Expressionist Dawn of a New Age (1919), with its mothers reeling from world conflict, photographs survive of naked boys and girls working in the kitchen garden. Anti-capitalist murals decorated the interior walls and a red flag flew from the roof.

With his second wife, Sonja, daughter of  a prominent Polish revolutionary, Vogeler went to Moscow, where he taught history of art in a university for Western expatriates who like him were Communist sympathisers. Having drawn on Kropotkin’s theory of self-help for his now failing school, and perhaps remembering Rilke’s infatuation with the Russian soul, Vogeler held a deep Romantic faith in the Soviet Union’s power to live up to its self-declared humanist promise. Vast telescopic canvasses survive from his constant travelling about the Soviet Union, showing public and private scenes from life crystallically linked and sweeping upwards to a catch-all golden star. In the Hitler years Vogeler made radio broadcasts appealing to German artists to wake up to their freedom. In 1942, aged 69, he was deported with other German nationals to Kazakhstan on Stalin’s orders, following Hitler’s Russian invasion. Money failed to reach him from Moscow and his local hosts stopped feeding him. He starved to death.

Vogeler was a Morris-like aesthete whose socialism became a dream of Communism for Germany. Paula Becker was a turn-of-the-century Nietzschean individualist fortunately never put to the political test. Opposed to them was Fritz Mackensen, who wanted Germany to continue living in the 19th century, with its population rurally rooted and its morals steadied by the church. 

Mackensen sprang to fame from poor beginnings after his painting Church Service in the Open Air won Germany’s top international art prize in 1895, ahead of Manet and Corot. Mackensen worshipped Rembrandt, and an obvious line back through early van Gogh links him to François Millet, that wonderful religiously-imbued French painter of peasant life. The artists’ village in Barbizon founded by Millet was, alongside the influence from Morris, another inspiration for Worpswede. 

Mackensen’s own style was a religious realism of the soil. In The Ploughshare, a vast, Dutch-hued oil painting of two women hauling a plough, a devout blind man scatters the seed behind. Elsewhere a craftsman fashions clogs as dusk descends on the moor, while in the famous Madonna of the Moor a massively drawn young mother hushes her child. 

The sparse land with its grid of narrow canals, occasionally punctuated by thin birch trees and sailing barges carrying the peat that was the only means of local livelihood — all the Worpswede painters painted this intense, sky-filled Low German landscape. Perhaps among the traditionalists none was better than Hans am Ende, of whom Rilke said the result was music. With Fritz Overbeck the mood became more overtly expressive. The Weyberg hill, beneath which the village sheltered, inspired Paula Becker to go still further and turn fields and farmhouses into blocks of abstracted colour.  

Mackensen resisted all that was modern. If the faintest touch of the new hovers over his post-van Gogh The Sower, it must have crept in during a weak moment. The Modersohns called Mackensen and am Ende the “painter-officers” because of their patriotic conservatism, and the personalities clashed. Mackensen, mean-minded, envious and boastful, objected to Modersohn painting his wife naked in the garden. When Vogeler defended Modersohn there was nearly a duel. 

The rule-bound, backward-looking Mackensen, whose best work has a distant affinity with Repin, begrudged Becker and Vogeler their capacity to pass him by. He was the one Worpswede artist who did not come from a wealthy background. In the postwar upheaval he denounced the “red” Vogeler to the authorities and formed a “Stahlhelm” veterans’ group to combat the socialist influence in the village. Later the steel helmet-wearers happily donned brown shirts. 

Hans am Ende fell in the Great War and Overbeck died early of natural causes, which left the solitary Otto Modersohn painting 19th-century landscapes 50 years beyond their time, and Mackensen, with his huge and vulgar house obscuring the cherished Worpswede view, clinging to backwoods tradition. The Nazis made good use of both men, heaping them with honours. Mackensen was appointed head of the Bremen “Nordic” art school, delivered speeches with a Hitler salute and painted pictures he carefully destroyed after 1945. He was a kind of Heidegger in oils, his mindset full of cultural pessimism and compensatory Bodenständigkeit (rootedness), driven by a wish for art and society to stand on national ground.

The rich human and political story of Worpswede bears out the idea that the young German art historian Nikolaus Pevsner brought to Britain in 1933, when he directly connected German Modernism in architecture and design with its art-as-life beginnings in William Morris. Pevsner, the Jewish refugee who had briefly been a Nazi enthusiast, has been despised for his thesis ever since, but in Worpswede you begin to see what he was getting at. 

A controversy of the 1920s was the Expressionist war memorial, the Niedersachsenstein, built on the Weyberg in Worpswede by Bernard Hoetger, a sculptor-admirer of Paula Becker. Mackensen et al wanted it pulled down, but Vogeler marshalled big “internationalist” names such as Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to save it. The 18m-high brick bird poised for flight is still striking today.

“Tradition” was on the side of the Nazis, against the likes of Becker and her admirer Hoetger. But was it ever so simple? The Art Nouveau and Expressionist elements in Worpswede painting (and in Hoetger’s architecture that became today’s arts centre), responded to the values of nature and home far more subtly than did Nazi propaganda. Hoetger’s gallery, the Kunstschau, is a beautiful low-level building with an inverted dome to filter the light and walls, now corn, the colour of a peasant parlour, now grey with the Worpswede sky.  

What Worpswede, with its gripping life stories, shows is how tricky the relationship to land, nation and the new century was in the wake of the rapid industrial modernisation of German cities, and how an embryonic Modernist art focusing on individual feeling and a back-to-nature conservatism were two contrasting responses. 

The British art historian, sometime Master of the Queen’s Pictures and Communist spy, Anthony Blunt, once declared that an alternative 20th-century European school of painting was in the making in the 1920s. With hindsight, one might argue the fascist art of the 1930s began with Millet and early van Gogh. Men like Mackensen, Modersohn and am Ende seem by this token to be caught up in the fascist story of art, busily denying Post-Impressionism. But I don’t find them guilty as painters. Even as they worked, their styles were being ideologically instrumentalised beyond their control. The same is true of Becker, the irony that her utterly different qualities also owed much to the late work of van Gogh.

Worpswede was a compellingly diverse search for new ways to live, with appropriate art forms, for the European 20th century. It’s there for all of us to understand, in our quest to understand Germany. 

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