'Our Dresden years were filled with free and fanatical work on the naked figure - either in a meager studio (a store) or at the Moritzburg lakes. This constant work finally brought results and the solution, with new means, to the problem of representing, naked figures, free in the great outdoors of Nature. In unbroken colours, blue, red, green and yellow, people’s bodies now glowed in the water or between the trees.'
(Kirchner, 1925, quoted in Die Badenden Mensch und Natur im deutschen Expressionismus, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Bielefeld, 2000, p. 46).
Badende am Waldteich is one of the masterpieces of die Brücke art. It was painted during the joyous golden summer of 1910 when everything came together for the Dresden-based painters Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Pechstein, who spent it living and working together, with their girlfriends and other models, on the lakes of Moritzburg.
A dynamic, spontaneous and swiftly executed depiction of the Brücke group and their girlfriends cavorting together naked amidst the fields, trees and sun-filled shoreline of Moritzburg, Badende am Waldteich is one of a pulsating series of pictures that Heckel, Kirchner and Pechstein executed during this last and consummate summer that the three artists spent together. More than any other Brücke group paintings, it is their Moritzburg pictures of nudes living free in the landscape that best encapsulate their collective ideal and shared aesthetic. As such, these works also stand as one of the great icons of the German Expressionist movement as a whole. For, alongside their paintings of the metropolitan life of the Grossstadt, the subject of the nude in the landscape is the key German Expressionist motif. These two key themes are, of course, integrally related. One is a troubling symbol of modernity, its exhilaration, stress and difficulties; the other is a representation of its idealised opposite: man living free and harmoniously within nature - a timeless and atavistic image of Arcadia.
Formerly in the collection of that great patron of die Brücke art, Dr Carl Hagemann, Badende am Waldteich is, along with Badende im Schilf (now in the Kunstmuseum, Dusseldorf) one of the finest surviving examples of all the paintings Heckel made in Moritzburg. From the composition, with its distant view of the lake and the shady trees encroaching from the right of the picture, it would appear to have been painted in direct conjunction with Kirchner’s Spielende nackte Menschen unter Baum. As many of the group’s Morizburg paintings attest, it was often the artists’ practice to set up their easels side-by-side. Max Pechstein remembered of this idyllic summer, ‘we had luck with the weather, not a single rainy day... We painter folk set out early every morning heavily laden with our gear, the models trailing behind with pockets full of eatables and drinkables. We lived in absolute harmony, working and bathing. If we found ourselves short of a male model, one of us stepped into the breach. ...Each of us was producing many sketches drawings and paintings’ (Pechstein, quoted in Max Pechstein: Erinnerungen, Wiesbaden, 1960, pp. 42-43).
Attempting to live in closer harmony with nature by returning to a deliberately simple and consciously more primitive existence, the summer of 1910 became a crucial turning point for all the Brücke artists. Living and working together in the open, outside of the confines of their studios and the metropolitan environment of Dresden led, for the first time in their work, to the emergence of what could truly be called a group style. Like the example set by their predecessors Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in Arles, in Moritzburg the Brücke artists’ shared subject matter and vigorous, free, energetic approach to their work, with its insistence on the use of raw colour, simple form and the spontaneity of painterly response, led to a gradual convergence of style.
For Heckel, it was this intuitive and immediate process of working itself that was more important than the results it attained. ‘We were just working for the sake of working,’ he later recalled ‘That the optical result was also powerful was not necessarily our intention, it was something that came out of the laws governing the way in which we were working. With regards to the external conditions - landscape, people, fluidity - all this stimulated the eye for colour and contributed to a pictorial vision that ran counter to that of the Impressionists and concentrated on the essential elements of picture-making – things more important than just the motif, the viewpoint or the momentary conditions’ (Heckel, 1966, quoted in Die Badenden Mensch und Natur im deutschen Expressionismus, exh. cat., Bielefeld, 2000, p. 36).
As Badende am Waldteich shows, the foremost characteristic of the Brücke artists’ ‘Moritzburg’ style is a vitality and pervasive sense of immediacy in the surface of these works that appears to reflect the adventurous and uninhibited nature of the group’s plein air activities. In this way both the style and the ideal of die Brücke’s aesthetics seem to become one. Figures, radiant and colourful in the sunlight, are integrated with the ‘natural’ forms of the landscape in a way that suggests the supposedly symbiotic relationship between man and nature - an idea that underpinned many of the die Brücke’s atavistic aims and their Nietzschean ideal, from which they took their name, of forging a ‘bridge’ to a ‘new age’ of the spirit.
The directness and immediacy in the Moritzburg paintings reflected their belief that man’s true response to nature and his environment could only accurately be conveyed through his instincts and intuition. Such a raw and direct response to their environment, like that of so-called ‘primitive’ man would, they believed, encourage each artist to perform and create without recourse to the cultural conditioning of modern life. The success of their own experiences at Moritzburg only encouraged this belief and forged a sense of togetherness and of group identity that, despite their many years of group activity, had hitherto often been lacking in their art. It is essentially for this reason that the Moritzburg paintings are often thought to represent the pinnacle of the Brücke group’s achievement.