His attention was focused on the outsiders: In Berlin’s Brohan Museum, the painter Hans Baluschek is honored on his 150th birthday.
With Baluschek, the viewer sometimes has the feeling of participating in the scene Photo: dpa
There are paintings by Hans Baluschek that could be used to make an Advent calendar. The way the light shines from the windows into the snowy night, shines out from under icicles, and penetrates the dark smoke of the locomotives that cross the picture "Vor der Stadt" (1918) on top of a viaduct and on the rails below has something homey about it, despite all the cold and all the soot that is blown into the air in abundance here.
As if one could actually open the windows of the houses crouched under the viaduct and look into the living rooms. Hans Baluschek, the son of a railroad engineer, often painted the landscape of rails and chimneys, boilers and signaling systems at dusk, using watercolors and oil pastels, dipped in delicate, gray-veiled pastels.
Brohan Museum, through Sept. 27, Tues-Sat 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
There’s something sentimental about looking at these early industrial and urban landscapes, showing the violence of technology and delighting in the play of dark and light. He had a model railroad in his studio, reported a visitor to the painter. Perhaps that inspired him to build his paintings from various elements of reality as if from a model kit, reflected art historian Fabian Reifferscheid. He is the curator of the exhibition "Too little perfume, too much puddle," which the Musem Brohan is showing to mark the 150th anniversary of Hans Baluschek’s birth.
Today, Hans Baluschek, like Kathe Kollwitz and Heinrich Zille, who are incomparably better known than he, is assigned to a Berlin realism. The GDR held him up as a working-class painter, and the Markisches Museum in East Berlin collected him. In West Berlin, Karl and Margarete Brohan, founders of the Art Nouveau museum of the same name, bought paintings by him. From both holdings now comes the exhibition mainly.
Max Beckmann had called him a "painterly philistine," Fabian Reiferscheid recounts. He had a text in which the 50-year-old painter positioned himself against criticism of his art written on the walls of the exhibition: "They reproached me for my motifs, they accused me of violating the laws of beauty! They called me dry, brittle, unpainterly, a registrar, an exaggerator and forger.
The academician couldn’t get over me, because my painting was too wild for him! The Impressionist reprimanded that my painting was not painting." By extension, he is sure of the contempt of the Symbolists, Expressionists, and Dadaists; that he saw himself as such an outsider is surprising when one looks at his paintings today. Their narrative gesture pulls into the compositions.
Often, as a viewer, one becomes a participant in a scene that arouses uneasy feelings. Baluschek makes the viewer himself part of the staging, when in "Ein Verbrechen ist geschehen" (1894) he lets us look at a courtyard with people standing close together, talking excitedly, with curious people hanging out of the windows or peering over the wall of the neighboring courtyard.
He often painted the way home of workers, their end of work, in dark, graying colors, the faces tired and heavy, the bodies drained. Between the men and women playing children, boys scribbling on the walls. The scenes are anecdotal, narrative, but in doing so also often leave something open, hinting at a tension between the characters for which no easy explanation can be found.
Baluschek was not only a painter, but was also politically and culturally active in many offices. He belonged to the Berlin Secession, founded in 1899, and he taught with Kathe Kollwitz at the school of the Association of Berlin Women Artists. In 1920 Baluschek became a member of the SPD, he was involved in the founding of the Volkshochschule Berlin, he provided illustrations for social democratic magazines.
In 1928, the Schoneberg district provided him with a studio apartment in the new "Ceciliengarten" housing complex as a tribute. He was involved in the work, campaigning for artists in need and women in distress, until he was ostracized as "Marxist" in 1933 and had to leave the honorary apartment. He died in 1935.
In many pictures he devoted himself to outsiders, homeless people, tipple fates, prostitutes, drug addicts. Today, what makes his pictures interesting again is that he often focused on women as the main sufferers of social injustice. They are almost always in the foreground of the pictures, often in merciless portraits, while in the background those responsible for their misery or exploitation are scenically indicated.
Among these milieu depictions, one cycle, "Victims," from 1906 is particularly impressive, large paintings drawn with black chalk and charcoal. It is night or winter in the pictures, a life-weary woman bends backwards over the balcony parapet, a runaway boy must walk a long way through the snow with his hands tied, beside a uniformed man on horseback.
Body in the river
A corpse, fished out of the river, lies on a staircase by the water; a young woman, victim of a violent crime, lies with dislocated limbs on an embankment. For each of the sheets, one can imagine a novel, as written by Emile Zola, whom Baluschek held in high esteem.
These works on paper do not tolerate much light, so only three are shown at a time for a few weeks. But they alone are worth the trip to the Baluschek exhibition.