Karl Schmidt-Rottluf (1884-1976)
The Wilhelm Niemeyer Collection
An historically important collection of the artist's graphic oeuvre, comprising a comprehenive survey of his prints from 1906 (S. L 1) to 1921 (S. H 269), containing 112 woodcuts (including one not recorded by Schapire), 47 lithographs, 28 etchings, 7 woodcut book plates and text- and title pages and all seven published volumes of the magazine Kündung (issues I-XII, 1921); on various papers, each of the prints signed, generally very good, early impressions, with wide margins or the full sheets, a small number with condition problems but otherwise in generally good condition.
A detailed inventory and condition report is available from the department.
When in 1907 Edvard Munch saw some woodcuts by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff for the first time, he expressed his shock with the words: "May God help us. Difficult times lie ahead of us." It was a prophecy to come true: Munch must have felt the tensions and crises of the early 20th century powerfully expressed and foreseen in these woodcuts. The next day Munch, still moved by the prints by the young artist, who was then only 23 years old, said: "I thought about these works all night. They really are very good."
The art historian and poet Wilhelm Niemeyer (1874-1960) would later - in a uniquely expressionist word creation - find a term to described the vehemence and radicality of Schmidt-Rottluff's works, which had so troubled Munch: Flächenwucht - the 'thrust of the picture plane'. Niemeyer first showed interest in Schmidt-Rottluff's work in 1910, when he invited Schmidt-Rottluff to contribute a painting to the exhibition of the Sonderbund Westdeutscher Kunstfreunde in Düsseldorf, where Niemeyer was a lecturer at the art academy. It was a groundbreaking exhibition which for the first time combined a large number of German expressionist works with those of the French avantgarde. Niemeyer later bought the painting and became one Schmidt-Rottluf's most dedicated supporters.
In 1911 Niemeyer - now a lecturer at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg - visited the artist in Dangast in Northern Germany. Schmidt-Rottluff had spent his summers there together with Erich Heckel since 1907, working and painting in the flat open land and under the wide skies by the North Sea. By that time Niemeyer must have begun to build what would come to be one of the finest and most comprehensive collection of works by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff ever assembled, including paintings, prints and decorative art objects (see lots 212-216). A visitor to Niemeyer's flat in Hartwicusstrasse in Hamburg later described what he had seen: 'Who ever entered the flat [...] had the chance to experience the power of images. A dark corridor led into a suite of three large, elegantly furnished rooms. On the walls painted in light-grey, perl-grey and dark green glowed the most beautiful early Schmidt-Rottluff's ever to be united in a private collection.' (Wietek, Schmidt-Rottluff in Hamburg und Schleswig-Holstein, p. 14 ff.)
It was in Dangast in 1909 that Schmidt-Rottluff began to work intensively with woodcuts, that most 'primitive' and immediate of all graphic techniques, one to which he would devote much of his effort for the decades to come and in which his art found 'its most crucial and lasting expressions'. (Wietek, Schmidt-Rottluff Graphik, S. 41) It was the technical and compositional requirements of the woodcut, its inherent monumentality and tendency towards reduction, which effectively inspired and shaped Schmidt-Rottluff's entire oeuvre - his paintings, drawings, lithographs and etchings. Whenever new developments occurred in his work, the first symptoms are to be found in the woodcuts, and it is the unparalleled breadth of the Niemeyer Collection that allows us to follow these changes step by step.
Some of the earliest, hand-printed woodcuts, which predate the friendship between the two, are present in the collection, including Dangast (S. 8) and Strandkörbe (S. 10). Another of these earliest woodcuts, Paar (S. 18), is one of the artist's first depictions of the nude, a subject that pre-occupied the artists of the Brücke like no other in those years. Two years later, Schmidt-Rottluff created his greatest expressions of the theme with the woodcuts Akte auf Teppich I & II (S. 73 & 74, ill.). These nudes and the monumental and highly abstract landscapes, such as Weg mit Bäumen (S. 69, ill.) or the later Dorfstrasse mit blühenden Kastanien (S. 248, ill.), led Gerhard Wietek to conclude that "Schmidt-Rottluff's woodcuts are amongst the most convincing creations of expressionist art as a whole." (Wietek, Schmidt-Rottluff Graphik, S. 42)
However, the earliest prints in the collection are to be found amongst the group of 47 lithographs, including eight of the thirteen printed at the Kunstanstalt in Dresden in 1906, precious documents of the artist's beginnings. Between 1908 and 1911, Schmidt-Rottluff created a sequence of lithographs which were all printed from the same stone, onto which he time and again would draw, take a few hand-printed impressions, and then erase the subject in order to re-used the stone for an entirely new composition. As a result, these lithographs are excessively rare and include some of his most spontaneous works, including the dark, brooding portrait of the Alter Sandhändler (S. 43, ill.) or the wonderfully light Mädchen auf Decke (S. 76, ill.), a nude in the best Brücke-tradition, in which Schmidt-Rottluff made the most of the fluidity of the lithographic medium.
The collection also includes some of the earliest etchings and drypoints, including his very first, created in 1907. At first Schmidt-Rottluff seems to have felt unsure with the medium and abandoned it until 1915, when he created radical and edgy works such as Badende (S. 13, ill.) or Egypterin (S. 17, ill.). It must have taken great courage and freedom of mind for Niemeyer to collect these works at a time when most critics were ridiculing them as 'chaotic' and unintelligible to 'people with normal eyes', and even more moderate observers would call them 'confused, unclear, unaccomplished'. (Quoted in: Wietek, Schmidt-Rottluff in Hamburg und Schleswig-Holstein, S.75 f.)
The collection concludes with work from 1921, a year that saw the closest collaboration between artist and collector. Schmidt-Rottluff worked on the design of the expressionist magazine Kündung (ill.), which Niemeyer published together with Rosa Schapire, and painted a portrait of his patron (now in the Nationalgalerie, Berlin) which he also turned into a woodcut. But, tragically, Niemeyer rejected the portrait and the friendship ended abruptly and in bitterness. His interest then turned to Franz Radziwill, whose work he would support and collect with equal intensity and dedication.
Niemeyer's collection was not simply amassed - it was the result of a ten-year relationship between the artist and the collector. Each purchase was preceded by long and penetrating conversations between two intelligent and intense personalities. In Dangast and Hamburg, Niemeyer witnessed Schmidt-Rottluff's creative powers at first hand; he saw the artist cutting, etching, drawing and printing, and chose sheet by sheet what to include in his collection. Under these circumstances, he was able form a collection that in itself is a creative achievement and an art historical document of utmost importance. The collection survived the time of persecution as 'degenerate art' and the devastations of World War II and stands today as a unique testimony to Wilhelm Niemeyer as a patron and to Karl Schmidt-Rottluff as one of the great printmakers of the 20th century.
We are grateful to Professor Dr. Dr. Gerd Presler, Weingarten, Germany, for his contribution to this catalogue entry. (201)