Ludwig Meidner’s expressionist works are characterised by their spontaneous dynamic gesture and were consequently regarded by contemporaries as the epitome of Expressionism. "Everything he does is expression, outburst, and explosion.”
Meidner’s expressionist paintings and drawings centre on big city dynamics, as well as catastrophes and the end of the world. At the outbreak of World War I, as the imagined catastrophes of what are referred to as his Apocalyptic Landscapes seemed to become a horrible reality, Meidner increasingly turned to religious themes. His expressive figures hover between ecstasy and despair.
Expressionist works by Meidner
The distortion of the perspective creates the dynamics of the street scene. The vertical lines of the buildings become diagonals that seem to collapse into the centre of the picture, while rhythmically repeated lines suggest movement.
Ludwig Meidner, Street at Kreuzberg, Berlin SW, from the portfolio "streets and cafés", heliogravure after a drawing from 1913, Berlin 1918 © Ludwig Meidner Archive, Jewish Museum Frankfurt
The café was an important gathering place for artists and writers in Berlin. This also made it a favourite motif in expressionist pictures of big city scenes. Meidner’s drawing reflects influences from Cubism and Futurism. The motif nearly disappears in a tangle of dynamic lines.
Ludwig Meidner, Literary Café, from the portfolio "streets and cafés", Berlin 1918 © Ludwig Meidner Archive, Jewish Museum Frankfurt
From 1912, Ludwig Meidner was primarily known for his pictures of catastrophes, later referred to as the Apocalyptic Landscapes. These horror scenarios seemed to become reality with the outbreak of World War I.
With the War portfolio he created in 1914, Meidner was one of the first German painters to express his criticism of the war in an artistic manner. While he was already exploring the theme of the horrors of war in his cycle of works, the overwhelming majority of Germans, including most intellectuals and artists as well, were still caught up in a euphoric enthusiasm for the war.
Meidner created his hymn-like prose writings "Sea of Stars at my Back" and "September Scream" during his military service as an interpreter in a prisoner-of-war camp as of 1916. The texts and illustrations also reflect his in-depth exploration of religion. The images show people at prayer or prophets in ecstatic rapture or in desperate lamentation.
Meidner’s early religious images are still completely expressionistic. He sought religious guidance not only through reading theological texts but much more so at an emotional level. Meidner was searching for an intensive inner religious experience, which is also manifest in the animated figures of his religious images.
In the early 1920s, Meidner declared his renunciation of Expressionism. He wrote: "Yes, we have worshipped art too much, wooed it too passionately with our soul – now it is worn out and used up." He then confronted religion and art–"true art", which alone can provide answers to the whole question of meaning.
Despite his departure from the "false path of Expressionism", Meidner basically remained an expressionist his whole life. This means that even his later work continued to focus on the inner experience. Despite the fact that his stylistic means changed, dramatic and emotional moments are also found in his later art; little is composed and construed –everything is felt and experienced.
Ludwig Meidner, Eine autobiographische Plauderei, 1923
"There is nothing I enjoy doing more than filling large sheets with compositions of figures or occurrences from the sacred writings. Planting a corpulent Zealot in the space so that the little clouds float around his curly beard!"
Artist and Devout Jew
In the mid-1920s, Meidner’s religious search for meaning culminated in a return to Judaism. He organized his daily life in accordance with traditional rules and also explored the Bible and Jewish tradition more intensively in his art.
Prayer, that is, the individual encounter with the creator, assumed a key role in Meidner’s own religious practice and for his religious representations. His works focus fully on this inner encounter, whether he portrays headstrong prophets or fervent individuals at prayer in a religious service. Picturesque genre scenes or Eastern European shtetl motifs, in contrast, are fully absent from Meidner’s works.
Religious Works by Meidner
As of the 1920s, Meidner created numerous images of Biblical scenes. They depict prophets and people praying in personal communion with God. The artist conveys the figures’ emotion in the presence of God through their expressively exaggerated physicality.
The charcoal drawing renders the persecution of the prophet, who was arrested because he prophesied the fall of Jerusalem to the hostile Babylonians. The drawing can indeed be interpreted as autobiographical. Meidner felt the situation in Berlin in 1935, where he was known as a Jewish artist, as increasingly dangerous, and ultimately moved to Cologne.
Most of Meidner’s several hundred Biblical drawings are untitled. In many of the works depicting just a single figure without any narrative accessories, it is often impossible to say which Biblical scene is intended. However this picture clearly presents Moses and Aaron ascending Mount Sinai with the Israelites remaining behind (Exodus 19, 24).
Meidner’s exploration of religion is also reflected in numerous portraits. Many are quasi self-portraits, although only individual parts of the face have a clear resemblance to Meidner’s physiognomy. The portraits have a fundamental rhetorical stance in common: the observer is directly addressed through a certain look or gesture.
According to an inscription on the reverse side of the drawing, the individual portrayed was a rabbi from Timisoara in modern-day Romania. It has not been possible thus far to find out any details about the person.
The idealized portrait of a devout Jew wearing a kippah and a prayer shawl was painted in 1947/48. The top half of the man’s face clearly depicts Meidner’s own facial features, with the artist fancifully depicting the lower half of the face with a beard.
While in exile, Meidner produced primarily drawings and watercolour paintings, scarcely any oil paintings. This is typical for emigrant artists who were often unable to afford canvas and oil paints. Despite the disheartening impoverishment and lack of acknowledgement as an artist that characterized Meidner’s life in London, artistically these years are nonetheless regarded overall as highly productive.
Meidner wandered extensively through the streets of London, tirelessly recording his impressions in his sketch books. In the British internment camp, he portrayed hundreds of his fellow internees. Meidner also created extensive cycles in watercolour with humorous or grotesque images in which he commented on the times that were out of joint. Finally, in England he created a cycle of drawings on the persecution of Jews in Europe, which he observed from afar with an increasing sense of horror.
Pictures from Exile
While visiting London parks and pubs, Meidner recorded his impressions in his sketch books. Many of the drawings, including this one of three women engrossed in conversation, assume the perspective of an uninvolved onlooker – an outsider.
Even during his internment, Meidner included humorous, even grotesque motifs in his watercolour paintings. Over the course of his exile in England these developed into comprehensive series of works, also inspired by the English tradition of caricature as manifest in Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gillray. Most of Meidner’s works however are not caricatures in the narrower sense of the word as they frequently seem enigmatic or even menacing.
At the end of 1942, Meidner began a cycle of watercolour paintings and charcoal drawings on the subject of the systematic murder of Jews in Europe. In addition to images that depict persecution in a more indirect manner, such as those of groups in lamentation or of refugees, there are also very extreme representations, for example, of mass shootings and gas chambers.
In 1952, Meidner accepted the invitation of a friend and visited Hamburg. The friendly reception he received there and the interest shown in his art were the deciding factors in his return. In August 1953, Meidner returned to Germany definitively. He first settled in Frankfurt, his choice of location being largely for practical reasons. One significant reason, among others, was the issue of compensation, which the Hessian government arranged for him unbureaucratically. He also had the opportunity to live in a Jewish retirement home here. Else Meidner categorically refused to return to Germany and remained in London.
Late works by Meidner
The Jewish retirement home where Meidner first lived was located in a former hospital of the Israelite community that survived the war. The retirement home housed not only senior citizens, but also concentration camp survivors in need of care.
In the last years of his life, Meidner painted not only portraits but also landscapes and still lifes. Motifs for the latter frequently included the food making up his meals, that is, vegetables or fish. Particularly impressive examples from this period are his still lifes of poultry, in which Meidner effectively arranges chickens and ducks. The nakedness of the plucked body of a duck or chicken gives the paintings a somewhat macabre note.
In 1955, gallerist Hanna Bekker vom Rath arranged for Meidner to move to Marxheim. As life became too uncomfortable for the aging painter in the unheated studio there, the city councillor in charge of cultural affairs found a new apartment for Meidner in Darmstadt. Numerous portraits of young people who enjoyed visiting Meidner in his studio are among his late works.
Ludwig Meidner was one of very few Jewish remigrants. Of the approximately 300.000 Jews who had managed to leave germany after 1933 only about 3 percent returned after the war.