It’s clear from the first image, Portrait of Paris von Gütersloh, that this art is intense, anxious and difficult.

Storm and Spirit: The Eckhardt-Gramatté Collection of German Expressionist Art, which just opened at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, is not an obvious crowd-pleaser. It’s not a happy or pretty show. There will be no German Expressionist tea towels and coffee mugs in the gift shop.

Ernst Kirchner painting

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1908. Brush and black ink wash with gouache on beige wove paper. Purchased 1962. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. 9844 (Winnipeg Art Gallery)

But this exhibit of 88 paintings and works on paper is important, intelligent and well designed. With works by major Expressionist artists, including Egon Schiele, Wassily Kandinsky, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, it offers a focused, almost fierce sense of a highly influential moment in 20th-century art.

The style of German Expressionist art is often angular and jagged, the media often rough, harsh and deliberately crude. Common subjects include violence, crime, war, disease, death and poverty, and the mood—no surprise!—can be pessimistic, angsty and alienated.

But as curator Andrew Kear points out, the sense of despair seen in so much Expressionist art is often coupled with a righteous passion for social justice, a profound sympathy for human suffering, and a deep hope for spiritual rebirth.

The core of the show comes from a 2009 donation from the Winnipeg-based Eckhardt-Gramatté Foundation.  There are a few paintings but most of the works are lithographs, woodcuts and etchings. Printmaking is an often underappreciated medium, but these pieces convey its astonishing range of technical and emotional effects, from the nervy, neurotic energy of Schiele to the subtle sorrow of Kollwitz’s image of maternal loss.  

George Grosz Painting

George Grosz, Vollkommene Menschen (Perfect People), 1920. Lithograph. Gift of the Eckhardt-Gramatté Foundation. 2009-566 (Winnipeg Art Gallery)

Many of the pieces, like George Grosz’s vicious satires of Weimar Germany or Otto Dix’s haunted visions of suicide and rape, possess an aggressive misanthropy. But they can also be seen as a response to World War One and the sense that its cataclysmic horror had ripped open an anxious, uncertain modern world.  Many Expressionists fought in the war, and many suffered from what was then called shell shock, returning home scarred in mind and body.  

Some of these works are extraordinary. So too are the personalities of the people involved in their collection: Sonia Eckhardt-Gramatté, the musician and composer; her first husband, the German Expressionist artist Walter Gramatté; and Ferdinand Eckhardt, the influential Austrian-born director of the WAG from 1953 to 1974, whom Sonia married after Walter died of tuberculosis. Together these three knew a who’s-who of early European modernists, including artists, writers and composers.

The fact that Eckhardt and Eckhardt-Grammat é ended up coming to Winnipeg, living in a house on Harrow Street and contributing to our city’s cultural life gives these works a poignant connection to the WAG and to our town.

Storm and Spirit: The Eckhardt-Gramatté Collection of German Expressionist Art, continues at the WAG until December 8.  

This content is provided by Alison Gillmor.The views expressed do not express the views of CBC. CBC is not responsible for this content.