PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Like other major artists working in Germany at this time, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and George Grosz, Meidner was widely influenced by contemporary artistic developments throughout Europe, in particular Italy and France. Several crucial events and influences that played a central role in Meidner's development are reflected in his works of 1912 and 1913. In November 1912, Meidner's art was publicly exhibited for the first time at the legendary Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin, in a group show which included six of his Apocalyptic Landscapes. Several months earlier, in the spring of the same year, Galerie Der Sturm organized the first exhibition of Italian Futurist art ever shown in Germany, and one of the first of its kind outside Italy. Despite its low critical acclaim, the exhibition was extremely popular with the Berlin public, and exerted a strong influence on Meidner, who was fascinated not only by the displayed works, but also by the Futurist Manifesto printed in German in the exhibition catalogue. The impact of the Futurists on Meidner, in particular works by Umberto Boccioni, was immediately apparent in his canvases of 1912 and 1913, reflecting the artist's fascination with modernity and contemporary urban life. Meidner proclaimed: "Let's paint what is close to us, our city world! The wild streets, the elegance of iron suspension bridges, gas tanks which hang in white-cloud mountains, the roaring colors of the buses and express locomotives, the rushing telephone wires (aren't they like music?), the harlequinade of advertising pillars, and then the night... big city night"(quoted in The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Ludwig Meidner (exhibition catalogue), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1989, pp. 33 & 36).
Meidner shared with Boccioni and Robert Delaunay a fascination with the dynamism of modern urban life, which he translated onto canvas with vibrant colors, dynamic forms and metaphorical details. Juxtaposing the figurative elements with the cityscape, with its chaotic streets, buildings, chimneys and foggy sky, Meidner makes the crucial link between an emotional state and the environment he depicts. For many of the Expressionists, such as George Grosz and Otto Dix, the city became the prime setting for expressing both their anxieties and excitement that resulted from living in the Modern era of greater moral and social freedoms.
While sharing a preoccupation with the modern world, Meidner's vision differs radically from that of his contemporaries. While the Futurists celebrated the dynamic energy of the city and Delaunay marveled at the achievements and great monuments of modernity, such as the Eiffel Tower, Meidner's cityscapes present an atmosphere of chaos and apocalypse, and reflect his deep knowledge of and indebtedness to the Old Masters. In writing about his experience of painting the Apocalyptic Landscapes, Meidner invokes the names of his artistic forebears: "Call Bosch and Bruegel my favorite brothers. Tubes of umber are emptied in a flash. Vermilion rattles around the shaking heads of refugees diagonally across the picture and zinc-yellow lightning flashes crack the ribs of barren plains" (quoted in From Expressionism to Resistance: Art in Germany 1909-1936—The Marvin and Janet Fishman Collection (exhibition catalogue), Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, 1991, p. 205). Meidner’s landscapes are a continuation of the distinctly northern tradition in art to represent the real and metaphysical world with vast and often terrifying compositions—so rich in detail that their creator’s horror vacui is in itself a part of their menace. Paintings such as Dulle Griet by Pieter Bruegel the Elder enthrall the viewer with their devilish ingenuity, and startling brutality, but similarly to Meidner’s own work, their sense of completeness and shocking intensity are still vividly apparent today.
Reflecting on the time when he worked on the Apocalyptic Landscapes, the artist said: "I trembled...in front of canvases that seethed with all the fuming anguish of earth, in every patch of color, in every scrap of cloud, and in every cascading stream... My brain bled dreadful visions. I could see nothing but a thousand skeletons jigging in a row. Many graves and burned cities writhed across the plains" (quoted in The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Ludwig Meidner, op. cit., p. 65).
In the present work, the city under the night sky is illuminated by two volcanic explosions of red and orange flames, like the tails of meteors or comets illuminating the tumultuous cityscape. The night sky is torn by this violent eruption, while buildings collapse under the tremors of an apocalyptic earthquake. In the foreground, the artist depicts two men dwarfed by the destruction around them, running in horror from the chaotic scene into the viewer's space. The red-headed man runs towards us with arms outstretched, screaming in fear and disbelief.
During the war years Meidner continued to paint his apocalyptic visions, using an ever darkening palette, the bright yellows and blues replaced by somber browns, grays and blacks. His apocalypse takes on increasingly Biblical imagery, depicting crowds of people awaiting doomsday in horror. However, it is works such as this Apokalyptische Landschaft of 1912 which remain the masterpieces within this series, bearing testimony not only to Meidner's artistic mastery, but also to his visionary powers in the years preceding one of the most destructive and dramatic periods in human history. His revolutionary aesthetic continued to influence subsequent generations many years after their creation. In the aftermath of the First World War several proponents of Neue Sachlichkeit responded to Meidner’s heightened sense of expression and the devastating effects of the modern world on the body, and after the Second World War a whole generation of German artists, including Georg Baselitz, rediscovered his work and his visionary aesthetic.
In diametric opposition to Apokalyptische Landschaft's dramatic composition, the reverse of the present work is a delightful and assured portrait Junger Mann mit Strohhut, which shows an unidentified young man reading in a smart blue blazer and jaunty straw hat. This portrait captures all of the joie de vivre of the pre-war Edwardian era and forms a striking counterpoint to the horrors displayed on the other side of the canvas.
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