“Into the cold sea, floundered about, bathed and then painted,” Pechstein wrote to a friend in July 1911, during his second sojourn in Nidden (then in East Prussia, today Nida, Lithuania), a fishing settlement about half-way down the long, narrow Curonian Spit that separates a vast lagoon from the Baltic Sea. “Everything now is copulating, the roebuck is after the doe, the cock pigeon is cooing, on the street the rooster is strutting among his harem; so why not we humans, after all, it is the sensuality within us which creates...we owe it our lives and our work” (quoted in B. Fulda and A. Soika, Max Pechstein: The Rise and Fall of Expressionism, Boston, 2012, p. 106).
Pechstein first summered in Nidden in 1909; he painted Drei badende Frauen am Meer during his third stay there during September-October 1912, his last before the First World War, following which he returned several more times. The scores of canvases of that he painted in this locale, showing the Curonian fisherfolk, their dwellings, the windswept landscape of dunes and fir trees, and especially the scenes of bathers, exult in that primal, elemental connection with nature he experienced there. These paintings fueled his pre-war ascendancy, in the critical and public eye, as the leading figure in the new German painting. A Pechstein canvas figures in an anecdote that came out of a jury session preceding the Berliner Sezession, probably in 1910. When someone asked the art dealer Paul Cassirer if this entry qualified as Impressionism, Cassirer reputedly replied “No–Expressionism!” By the time of the Berliner Sezession summer exhibition of 1911 the name had stuck–the artists who strongly advocated “Anti-Impressionism” had become the Expressionisten (ibid., p. 104).
Among these painters–including Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff, Pechstein’s colleagues since 1906 in the group Die Brücke–Max Deri wrote in Pan, 30 June 1912, that he regarded Pechstein as the “strongest messenger.” Taking Gauguin, Van Gogh and Munch as their precedents, these young artists likewise exercised “the right...to use every artificial, if you wish, even anti-natural, form, color, proportion, or arrangement to express a valuable emotion and transmit it to the viewer.” In comments transcribed for an article published in the same journal, 25 April 1912, Pechstein declared his aim “to present the mood content of the color, to use color purely as a means of expression” (in R.-C. Washton Long, ed., German Expressionism, Berkeley, 1995, pp. 19-20 and 34).
The naked bather, sand and sea became the arcadian theme of Pechstein’s largest and greatest work, the five paintings on canvas comprising the decorative mural scheme he completed in 1912 to adorn the walls of the dining room in Hugo Perls’s Berlin villa, which the architect Mies van der Rohe had designed (Soika, no. 1912/40). The panels incorporate thirty-eight nearly life-size nudes, male and female, rhythmically composed within a Curonian landscape. Perls presented the murals to the National-Galerie Berlin in 1926. Following their rise to national power in 1933, the Nazis confiscated these paintings in their campaign against entartete Kunst–“degenerate art”–and presumably destroyed them in 1939.
Max Pechstein, mural decorations for the dining room of Hugo Perls, Berlin, 1912.