Do we talk enough about Die Brücke? Its importance for the development of modern art is undoubted. But lost between various movements and -isms that we encounter when we read or talk about the art of the beginnings of the 20th century, we tend to pay little attention to Die Brücke, which despite its short-livedness, made a permanent mark on Expressionism. Today I will show you one of its members, Otto Mueller, who was considered by his contemporaries Die Brücke’s magician.
Mueller was born on October 16, 1874 in former town Liebau, in German Silesia (today’s Poland). Early in life he studied lithography, which had accompanied him throughout his career, and he developed an interest in Symbolist painting, especially that he studied in Munich under the German Symbolist painter Franz von Stuck. In 1908, he settled in Berlin and two years later he first exhibited with Die Brücke as a guest (the group had formed in 1908). Having joined the group shortly after, he began incorporating idyllic scenes of bathers in landscapes and nude portraits into typically Expressionistic flat and distorted forms. What made him different from others was his atypical technique: he used distemper on raw canvas which when dry created a matte finish effect.
“Otto Mueller was actually a magician. In general I think that art is magic”, said one of his students, Alexander Camaro. Mueller’s closest associates, including writers and critics, considered him definitelty a ‘romantic’ and others even a ‘magician’. The poet Carl Hauptmann modelled on him his book Einhart der Lächler (1907), which was sort of a biography of an artist, laying this way a foundation stone for the myth surrounding the artist. In this self-portrait Mueller depicted himself smoking a pipe, with a pentagram pendant on his neck. Camaro was fascinated with his teacher, like most of Mueller’s pupils, and probably he modelled the magician from his painting from 1983 entitled Magician precisely on Mueller. Pentagram was not the only magic symbol that Mueller used, the other one often recurring in his work are masks.
In 1919, Mueller moved from Berlin to Breslau (now Polish Wrocław), where he took up teaching at the State Academy of Fine Arts and Crafts, which he did until his death in 1930. The school was in the 1920 deemed to be “the liveliest in Germany” and one of Europe’s most progressive art schools. Mueller, famous for his unconventional lifestyle and nonconformist teaching methods became very popular with his pupils who admired his charisma and sense of humour.
The 19th century saw raise of many stereotypes and Orientalisms in art. One of them was fascination with Roma people, which became reinforced by early photography. Photographers ‘documented’ gypsy life, yet more often these photos distorted or even debased Romani people’s lived realities, than presented them objectively. Others instead romanticized them. Where did Otto Mueller stand in this wide spectrum of “gypsy”art? He was known as a “gypsy painter”, since nobody really knew his family story and Mueller’s lifestyle was more than bohemian, many guessed he might have in fact been Roma himself. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Mueller dedicated a lot of his work to Roma people and in 1927 he made a whole series of lithographs featuring Roma women and children in their daily activities put together as Gypsy File.
Although nowadays he is considered one of the most important German painters of the early 20th century and at the moment we can see his works in a joint exhibition between Polish and German museums, it was not always so. During the Nazi domination, 357 of Mueller’s works were seized from German collections in 1937 because deemed “degenerate”.