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Exhibition review: Christian Rohlfs at The Red House

25 September 2020

Jonathan Evens visits Aldeburgh for an exhibition of work by an artist denounced by the Nazis and connected to Britten and Pears through his widow

© Britten Pears Arts, from the Britten Pears art collection

Return of the Prodigal Son (1916), woodcut, by Christian Rohlfs

Return of the Prodigal Son (1916), woodcut, by Christian Rohlfs

CHRISTIAN ROHLFS is the forgotten artist of German Expressionism. He wasn’t part of the two main Expressionist groupings. He was also an older statesman of Expressionism and a friend of Emil Nolde, with whom he shared some stylistic traits, but without sharing Nolde’s anti-Semitism. All these have, perhaps, contributed to the fading of Rohlfs’s star relative to the rest of the Expressionist gang.

It wasn’t always so. Rohlfs had a long and distinguished career, beginning as a skilled Impressionist and continuing as a valued Expressionist after his encounters with the radical artists of Die Brücke in the early 20th century.

In 1924, he was elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts and, in 1930, a museum dedicated to his work was opened in Hagen. Then, with the rise to power of the Nazis, he and many others were designated “degenerate artists”, their works were removed from public collections (412 in his case), and some were lost or destroyed. Rohlfs died in 1938, one year after the infamous “Degenerate Art”exhibition in Munich, in which 740 modern works, including his work, were exhibited by the Nazis to defame the art and artists.

Yet, with the post-war rehabilitation of German artists, Rohlfs’s work was exhibited once again and gained new admirers, in part through the advocacy of his widow, Helene. It was her advocacy that led to this exhibition. In 1959, a friend of Helene’s, Margaret Hesse, became President of the Aldeburgh Festival, which had been founded by Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Eric Crozier in 1948. Through her friend, Helene came to know and develop an affectionate friendship with Pears and Britten.

© Britten Pears Arts, from the Britten Pears art collectionDer Gefangene (The Prisoner) (1918) by Christian Rohlfs

Many postcards and letters were sent, gifts were exchanged (some causing Customs complications), and visits were made. Britten’s music was used in a film about Rohlfs’s work, and an image by Rohlfs was chosen for the cover of a Britten recording. Britten is “dearest Ben”, and Pears is “darling” and “adored” Peter. Helene died in 1990, and the Lion, as she called her husband, would seem in need of rediscovery outside of Germany, now that his advocate is no longer with us.

The main long-term result of this friendship is an art collection containing 85 works by Rohlfs. No other collection in the UK is equivalent; the closest is probably Leicester’s German Expressionism Collection, which has seven examples of his work. As a result, this small, but well-chosen and representative, display of his work at The Red House is the best opportunity any of us is likely to have here to see work that is, by turns, delicate and powerful, humorous and beautiful, profound and folksy.

There are prints, watercolours, and sketches: primarily studies, impressions, and ideas possessing immediacy and representing a wide range of moods and techniques. Rohlfs’s intense Expressionist prints reveal the impact of the First World War, which, as with The Prisoner, in the jagged gouges used to make distorted forms exemplify the harrowing desperation of those troubled times.

Yet his response to this conflict also led him to the redemptive biblical themes seen here in Return of the Prodigal Son and Mountain Sermon. His humorous appreciation of German folk culture can also be seen in gouache sketches and bookplates.

© Britten Pears Arts, from the Britten Pears art collectionSonnenuntergang Ascona (Ascona Sunset) (1937) by Christian Rohlfs  

Watercolour flower studies and land- and seascapes reveal his sensitivity to the infinite nuances of light and the mix of transparency and depth found throughout the natural world. With Ascona Sunset, from time spent with Helene on annual trips to Lake Maggiore, light has materialised into colour and becomes a catalyst for the artist’s inner response to the natural world around him. Here, light beams from within the scene, while, with Flowers and Still Life with Fruit, it is the interplay between light and the colours of the objects on which it falls which creates an abstract skein of light and colour.

What Rohlfs took from the Expressionism of the Die Brücke artists was the hieroglyphics of expression, as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner called it: the response of creative instinct to the created world. “Creating art grows from an inner instinct, and who would undertake to explain this?” Rohlfs declared.

With paint, the architectural portrayals, flowers, landscapes, and biblical scenes disintegrate and dissolve, becoming more visionary and immaterial, almost abstract, as Rohlfs seeks to capture his imaginative and spiritual responses. In the woodcuts, gouges and blocks seek the stamp of powerful restorative emotions within the image: compassion, empathy, pity, and peace.

The theologian Paul Tillich believed that the expressive element in art was able to represent directly the ultimate (“an original encounter with reality below its surface”) and, as a result, was “adequate to express religious meaning directly, both through the medium of secular and through the medium of traditional religious subject-matter”. In the work of Rohlfs, we can see why this might be so.

Pears and Britten displayed work from their collection throughout The Red House in a way that is similar to that of the Edes at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Britten Pears Arts maintains the house and grounds as it was, based on a room inventory and recollections from people who knew the house at that time. Striking works by Geoffrey Clarke, Georg Ehrlich, and John Piper, among many others, could be seen when I visited. The library and a former kitchen are now the main exhibition spaces.

Pears was principal collector for a collection that is as relational as the house, being based primarily on friendships. Its idiosyncrasies mean, as with the number of works by Rohlfs, that Britten Pears Arts can share with the public substantive work by currently under-regarded artists and explore themes that feature less in other collections.

© Britten Pears Arts, from the Britten Pears art collectionMountain Sermon (1925), charcoal, woodcut, by Christian Rohlfs

Among works by William Blake, Eric Gill, Sidney Nolan, and Ceri Richards within the library, the centrepiece of the current temporary exhibition is a stunning portrait of Pears by the Goan-born artist F.N. Souza. Again, the collection has a significant holding of work by this expressive artist, including two crucifixion images.

Spirituality is a theme yet to be explored explicitly within the temporary exhibition programme at The Red House, but, with works by Blake, Clarke, Ehrlich, Gill, Piper, Georges Rouault, and Rohlfs in the collection, it is a feature, as it is in Britten’s work.

For now, those who love Expressionism would be well advised to visit this beautiful corner of Suffolk with all that it offers at Aldeburgh and Snape Maltings near by, though mostly to encounter Rohlfs’s radiant images of light-infused beauty and Christ-like compassion.

“Christian Rohlfs” is at The Red House, Golf Lane, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, until 1 November. Visits must be pre-booked: phone 01728 687110 or email boxoffice@snapemaltings.co.uk

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