“I’m now in the thick of it and with some good pieces have even managed to impress,” Heinrich Campendonk reported to his future wife Adda in November 1911. The previous month, just shy of his twenty-second birthday, Campendonk had left his native Krefeld and moved to the Bavarian hamlet of Sindelsdorf, where his friend Helmuth Macke was sharing a studio with Franz Marc. There, Campendonk fell under the influence of Marc’s vividly colored and heavily abstracted paintings of animals, which, the two artists believed, had spiritual values that could countermand the materialism of the modern age. In December 1911, at Marc and Kandinsky’s invitation, Campendonk participated in the now-legendary first exhibition of Der Blaue Reiter at Thannhauser’s Moderne Galerie in Munich, launching him on the international avant-garde stage.
Both Campendonk and Marc were mobilized when the First World War broke out; Marc was killed in action in March 1916, and Campendonk was discharged for illness shortly thereafter. Profoundly affected by his experience at the front, Campendonk retreated to rural Seeshaupt on Lake Starnberg and immersed himself in work, melding the intense color and expressive surface of the Blaue Reiter with a new interest in the folk traditions of Bavaria, where the Brothers Grimm had gathered their fairy tales. “It was only after his return from the war that he became an important painter in his own right,” Peter Selz has written. “Campendonk’s subject matter consists of the most elementary objects of country life...but he dismembers this ordinary world and reassembles it into a magic, dream-like place” (German Expressionist Painting, Berkeley, 1957, pp. 308-309).
Painted at Seeshaupt in 1917, Bergziegen depicts a trio of blue and red mountain goats that gambol weightlessly through a rocky landscape strewn with delicate wildflowers–an idyllic, primordial vision in which animals, unlike modern man, live in harmonious communion with nature. Translucent planes of color overlap in a complex, cubist-derived space that lends the scene a whimsical, floating quality. The dark, jagged silhouettes of the encompassing vegetation, however, hint at a looming menace–the hungry troll that awaits the Three Billy Goats Gruff beneath the bridge, perhaps, or the devastations of twentieth-century warfare.
The first owner of Bergziegen was the German artist Pauline Kowarzik, who gifted the canvas to the Städtische Galerie in Frankfurt in 1926. In 1937, the Nazis confiscated the painting and included it in the exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art)–a virulent attack on modernism, intended to clarify by defamation and derision exactly what sort of art was anathema to the Reich. Campendonk had fled to Amsterdam by this time, where he died in 1957; the present painting subsequently entered the collection of the Guggenheim Museum.