The unknown Walter and his School
Stella Pelše, Art Critic
"Between the Baltic and Berlin: Painter Johann Walter-Kurau (1869-1932) as an Artist and Teacher"
07.02.-16.04.2009. Ģederts Eliass History and Art Museum, Jelgava (Latvia)

Johann Walter-Kurau (downplaying his German background, until now better known as Jānis Valters) together with Janis Rozentāls and Vilhelms Purvītis constitute, on the one hand, the canonical trio of ground-breakers in national art, and their names should be familiar to any school leaver. Indeed, Walter's Jelgava Marketplace (1897), Ducks (1898) or the numerous versions of The Bathing Boys are icons of the neo-romantic vision at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, differing by their unpretentiously poetic close-ups of nature and people from Ro-zentāls's experiments with the international arsenal of Art Nouveau and symbolism, and from Purvītis's consistent preference for monumental landscapes.  

Walter's biography is also different: as early as 1906, he left Latvia and spent the rest of his life in Germany. In the context of Soviet ideology, his early realistic impressionism period, studies at the St. Peters-burg Academy of Arts, activities in the Rūķis (Gnome) group and in Jelgava were acceptable, but later, however, as the authors of the [Soviet] period wrote, "living in Germany, Walter gradually defects to the modernist camp, ends up with his art at a dead end and dies in Berlin in 1932" (Lapiņš, A. Eglītis, A. Jānis Valters. Rīga: LVI, 1953, p. 28). What substitutes can we find for these anecdotal assertions about a "dead end"?

Much has been accomplished, for the art historian Kristiāna Ābele has been researching Walter for over a decade now, working together with the successors of Walter and his pupils, as well as with collectors. This year, on the artist's 140th anniversary a comprehensive monography is to be published, at long last consolidating his fragmented life story into a psychologically, biographically and artistically justified entirety. The exhibition in the Jelgava Museum is one of the publicly accessible fruits of this research process - the Walter we have not yet seen in this country.

Johann Walter-Kurau. The Castle of Pottenstein. Oil on cardboard. Early 1920s. 22x26,5cm. (C)Sabatier Galerie and Kunsthandel KG, Verden
Namely, these are works by Walter and his pupils from private collections abroad. The exhibition, which was put together in association with the Sabatier Gallery (Sabatier Galerie & Kunsthandel), will also be on show at the Spandauer Zitadelle museum in Berlin from 18 September to 29 November, 2009; meanwhile yet another meeting with Walter can be expected in autumn - at the National Museum of Art in Riga.

The works shown in the artist's town of birth Jelgava are both from his early period (until 1906), as well as the Dresden (1906-1916) and Berlin (1917-1932) periods, the time spent in Dresden being represented most extensively. The works of the end of the 19th century and of the turn of the century still echo the academic brownish colour scheme, the cautious attempts by the Barbizon school to revive nature (Brook at the Forest Edge - Summer Mood, 1890s) and portraits of poor people typical of the iconography of realism (Girl with a Rake in Front of a Peasant House, 1896), however, not launching into any social criticism at the expense of artistic qualities.

When one compares the works of the Latvian and of the Dresden periods, an abrupt change cannot be detected, rather there is a gradual adaptation of post-impressionistic impulses, increasing flatness and decorativeness, as well as a transition from the softly greyish colour scheme to more vibrant colours. When looking at two almost identical motifs (Birch Grove in Winter, 1890s, and Birch Grove, c.1910-1912) it can be seen how the illusion of depth and plein-air chiaroscuro effects are being reduced, instead increasing colour intensity and the self-assuredness of the mosaic-like brushwork. The dynamics of the elongated brush strokes even reminds us remotely of Vincent van Gogh's manner, only in a more serene, harmonious version (Corn Shocks, Clouds over a Landscape with Green Meadows, c. 1912-1914; View of Dresden with Zwinger, c. 1914, etc.).

Johann Walter-Kurau. Birch Grove in Winter. Oil on cardboard. 1890s. 23x29,5cm. (C)Sabatier Galerie and Kunsthandel KG, Verden
In about the 1920s, Walter's personal style grows more dramatic, hinting at the influence of Cézanne and expressionism. His palette becomes darker and more turbulent (Wall in Hildesheim, 1918; marking the once so hated "defection to the modernist camp", that grew apace during the Berlin period.

His Seated Nude (early 1920s) compared to Model in Studio (c. 1910-1913) reveals the devlopment which has taken place: dense paintwork suggesting depth, an easily discernible source of light and clearly defined proportions of dark and light areas have been replaced by pulsating strokes of various tones enclosed by vibrating contours, and these strokes, it seems, are seeking to break away from the surface of objects.

Some of Walter's paintings of the early 1920s (Castle of Pottenstein) involuntarily makes one recall Wassily Kandinsky's works of 1909-1910,  in which the "scraps" of various familiar objects were still adrift (for instance, roof contours) in the scenic motifs, and were dominated by dynamic, upward-moving compositional solutions. Although Kristiāna Ābele has already provided conclusive evidence that the hypothetical Walter-Kandinsky friendship was a myth generated in the commercial interests of foreign gallery owners, the bizarre positioning of planes in the space that hovers between a realistic and an abstract image (which, in Kandinsky's case, was much more short-lived) has led to fairly comparable results.

In the works by Walter's pupils (mostly women pupils) his stylistic legacy is apparent - moderate transformations of nature impressions by accentuating colour, shape and brushstroke - but individual differences can also be discerned. Paintings by Minna Köhler-Roeber call to mind crude mosaic work, sometimes approaching the unrestrained colourfulness of the Fauvists, Else Lohmann is more inclined towards expressive cezannism, but Eva Langkammer favours subtler shades of green and grey, and more delicate and nuanced brushstrokes. 

One is intrigued by the sight of a double signature under a number of works: Hans Zank and Willi Gericke. Is this a case of collective creation, analogous to the Soviet era team painting?  Not quite, but a totalitarian context, however, has its role here, although a different one - as these artists were a couple, in order to avoid repression under Nazi rule for their lifestyle they had set up something like an artel or a workshop, which is where their legacy also merged in the long run. Works by Zank and Gericke differ by their industrial motifs, as well as an expressive sketch-like manner and a tendency to set off dark lines against a background of homogeneous sheets of colour.

The Jelgava Museum also has available a comprehensive catalogue in three languages with a biographical survey prepared by Kristiāna Ābele, and a study on Walter's pupils by the art researcher Dr. Ralf F. Hartmann (Berlin).

/Translator into English: Sarmīte Lietuviete/

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