The Research Project
From the end of the 18th century onwards, the Orient fascinated Europe’s educated bourgeoisie and there was immense interest in spectacular events, discoveries and scientific findings. One particular event that help to kindle the fascination was Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1789, on which he permitted scholars and historians, as well as artists, to join him. In the heyday of colonialism, specific concepts of the Orient became platitudes: Whilst in the eighteenth century the Arabian continent was considered a magical place full of secrets, in the nineteenth century the fascination for foreign people and landscapes, for Arabian architecture and ornamentation found expression in literature and painting. A broad bourgeois public travelled to the Orient in increasing numbers and, alongside researchers and scientists, artists were at the forefront of this movement. For painters, the general preoccupation with the Orient and the findings emerging from it resulted in the demands of the observer becoming more exacting in terms of an accurate portrayal of buildings, costumes and locations. Around 1900 at the latest, however, it became clear that the mysteriously glorified Orient was a product of colonisers’ fantasies, and that, despite their accurate depictions of nature, the images Orient painters produced originated mainly in powers of imagination. At the beginning of the 20th century, the artistic approximation of the Orient changed, in that painting excluded the narrative element and instead sought solutions to problems of form and scene in the southern Orient. The modern artists largely distanced themselves from traditional orientalism and its academic-illusionist style of painting, hoping to find unknown sensual impressions and new sources of inspiration for their own creativity.
One of the research projects based at the Dresden State Art Collections’ Galerie Neue Meister focuses on the Egyptian travels of two important German artists from the beginning of the twentieth century: the impressionist Max Slevogt (1868–1932) and Bauhaus artist Paul Klee (1879–1940). Max Slevogt had already tackled the theme of the Orient in 1903 when, as an illustrator, he produced fantasy-laden, fairytale-like picture series for “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. During his meticulously planned journey through Egypt in the spring of 1914, which took him from Cairo to Luxor and on to Aswan, he met the people of Egypt and their culture with the eye of an outdoor painter who renders his visual impressions spontaneously and impartially. Slevogt concentrated primarily on the atmospheric colour effects under the influence of the bright sunlight, and he managed to create a series of travel images of outstanding pictorial unity, depth and authenticity. By closely linking painting and drawing, Max Slevogt managed to capture intense atmospheric impressions and scenes of everyday oriental life quickly and with remarkable certainty. The oil paintings he produced during this time were almost all acquired by Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie a short time later.
Paul Klee’s interest in Egypt also had its roots in 19th century Orientalism, and was anchored in a search for evidence of a mystical birth of mankind. As early as 1914, he discovered the Orient for himself on a trip to Tunisia, and visited Egypt in 1928/29. Klee, who had taught at the Bauhaus since 1920, was particularly interested not only in the mythological iconography of ancient Egyptian religion, but also in the laws of proportion and construction applied in temple structures and tombs. Yet he was also struck by the light and colour, something that stayed with him and led to a turning point in his later artistic creativity. In line with his artistic theory, according to which impressions of nature must be conveyed through the soul of the painter, Paul Klee’s Egyptian works – right down to individual sketches – only developed after his return. In his mathematically constructed layer patterns, the artist realises impressions of the Egyptian landscape, and later on in the 1930s too, Klee again took inspiration from his trip in his so-called “Balkenbilder”, the paintings based on bars of colour.
Taking the Egypt cycle, Max Slevogt’s unique “Apotheosis of Light”, as a starting point, within the context of the research project the artistic product of Slevogt’s travels, comprising around seventy paintings, plus documents like diaries, letters and photographs, is being reappraised and for the first time considered in relation to the imagery of Paul Klee. Here, Klee’s multifaceted transformation of his travel experience into over one hundred works is in dialogue with, and in contrast to, the perceptions immediately applied to canvas, wood and paper by the impressionist Slevogt. The aim is to make a contribution both to the comprehensive documentation of the two artists’ travels, and to the research into the portrayal of Egypt in German painting from the first half of the twentieth century, and in doing so, to take into consideration in particular the aspect of the change in artists’ ways of viewing things.
The results of the research project will flow into both a publication and an exhibition prepared jointly with the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, which was opened on 30 April 2014 in Dresden and will subsequently open in Düsseldorf.
More information on the project can be found on the Gerda Henkel Stiftung home page.
Dr. Hartwig FischerLocation
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden