The first major Wilhelm Lehmbruck exhibition in the U.S. in more than two decades has reconfirmed his importance as one of the most progressive sculptors of the early 20th century. In fact, it leaves one lamenting that there has only been one American museum retrospective to date, at the National Gallery of Art in 1972. Like his contemporaries Auguste Rodin and Aristide Maillol, Lehmbruck had significant international impact, during his life and beyond. In 1986, for example, almost 70 years after Lehmbruck’s premature death, Joseph Beuys credited him as his main inspiration for taking up sculpture.
As a Modernist, Lehmbruck aimed to find a new visual language for expressing human emotions. Though he had a classic sensibility for structural harmony, his figures are far from idealistic. They are symbolic but rooted in life, abstract in that they depict not individuals but aspects of the human soul. Stylistically, Lehmbruck’s works are hybrids. Gothic and Romantic aesthetics can be traced, as well as an affinity for Mannerist forms. Elongated limbs that bestow a general sense of liquid physicality characterize his figures. Their necks, legs, arms, and hands are often pronounced, leaving them to appear both delicately fragile and iconic. At times, their heads tilt slightly to the side as if pondering the world as something impenetrable. A trace of longing simmers in their gazes, while their postures suggest melancholy. They seem to reflect on things past, with a fear of what is yet to come.
Lehmbruck, who was born in Duisburg in 1881, received a traditional artistic training. At the turn of the 20th century, he studied in Düsseldorf, first at the School of Arts and Crafts and later at the Academy. He never completely broke with the classical ideals of his education. However, when he encountered Rodin’s work in 1904, Lehmbruck began to reinvestigate form and means of expression. After settling in Paris in 1910, where he met Matisse, Brancusi, and Archipenko, among others, his figures became more fragmented and his materials, including cast stone and terra cotta, embraced the raw.
This exhibition, which aimed to provide an overview of Lehmbruck’s oeuvre, included works from the early 1910s, which show him still struggling to define his style. Indicating the early impact of his teacher Carl Janssen, these sculptures reflect a neoclassical aesthetic that feels dated. In contrast, a group of busts dating from 1914 to 1918 present Lehmbruck at the height of his maturity. In particular, Head of a Thinker (1918), which pays homage to Rodin’s Thinker (1902), is a striking rendition of loneliness and the physical confines that come with it. One of the most dramatic sculptures in the show was Mother and Child (1918), which not unlike Käthe Kollwitz’s drawings of the time, manifests as a powerful contemplation of loss. Considering that it was conceived shortly after World War I, it translates as a symbolic gravestone to a whole generation.
Lehmbruck gained recognition quickly. He exhibited throughout Europe and even participated in the Armory Show of 1913 in New York. The outbreak of World War I changed his life significantly. He moved back to Germany and served as a paramedic at a military hospital in Berlin, but soon began to suffer from severe depression and fled to Zurich. Some of his best-known works, including the existential anti-war sculptures The Fallen Man (1915-16) and Seated Youth (1916-1917), date from that period. Lehmbruck returned to Berlin after the war and took his own life in 1919 at the age of 38. Though he had much in common with other avant-garde artists of the time, he was never a member of any movement (despite the fact that he is often mis-labeled as a German Expressionist). Lehmbruck’s soulful figures, which encapsulate the wish for humanity in an inhumane world, address universal themes, and, in that, they remain timeless.