The industrial revolution of the 19th century brought drastic and sometimes violent changes to European cities. By the beginning of the 20th century, artists in Germany were responding to the time’s social struggles and political unrest through their revolutionary artistic style and new subject matter.
The German Expressionists were one such art movement that reacted to these changes. Turning to simplified or distorted forms and bold colors, these artists tended to focused on humanistic themes and high emotion.
German Expressionism is one of the strengths of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection, which includes multiple works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Street at Schöneberg City Park, 1912–13), Ludwig Meidner (Portrait of a Young Man, 1912), Käthe Kollwitz (Self-Portrait; from the deluxe periodical The Creators, vol. 5, no. 1, 1924), Emil Nolde (Roses on Path, 1935), and Max Pechstein (Calla Lilies, 1914).
In October 2010, the Museum added a new dimension to its early 20th-century German collection by acquiring a painting by the artist Hans Baluschek (German, 1870-1935), which has just been put on display in Gallery #12 with other European Modernism.
The work, called Arbeiterstadt (or, Working-class City), portrays a winter view of Berlin as a dark and dirty industrial city of 1920. The train tracks and railway signals are front and center while the houses of the workers huddle in the background. A dark, mysterious figure in a coat and hat—almost only a silhouette—stands on the rear platform of a train car with his back to the viewer. Smoke from the many chimneys of factories choke the air and make the night seem even darker. The few lights from the windows of the buildings seem lost in the gloom.
Baluschek uses a high vantage point to allow a sweeping look over this gritty working-class section of Berlin. This is Post-World War I Berlin, a city which not only must deal with the depressing conditions of modern city life but also a city reeling from a war that took a horrible toll on the young people of Europe—and which the Germans lost.
Working-class City is a powerful critique of what political and social issues can do to ordinary citizens.
Hans Baluschek certainly had sympathy for the working class. While studying art in Berlin as a young man, he found his subject in the city as a menacing and dehumanizing force.
In 1900, Baluschek became a member of the Berlin Secession, a group of artists that in 1898 looked for an alternative to the conservative exhibition and patronage policies of the state, represented by the Association of Berlin Artists. Although the Berlin Secessionists worked in different styles, they all supported a progressive approach to art. Baluschek is often grouped with German Expressionists because of his emotional style, but his is more a Realist in style and subject.
World War I inspired patriotic feelings for Baluschek, who painted a number of war-related subjects. After the war, he joined the Social Democratic Party and became involved in workers movements. In 1926 he helped establish an artist relief fund and later took on the directorship of the annual Berlin Exhibition. Denounced as a “degenerate artist” by the German Nazis who took power in 1933, Baluschek died in 1935.
Interestingly, the painting Working-class City was once owned by Crown Prince Wilhem of Prussia. The Museum purchased by means of a generous gift from Avis Martin Heller, a long-time supporter of the Museum, in honor of the Fine Arts Society.