Kristus (Christ); Did not Christ Appear to You ('Ist euch Kristus nicht erschienen') by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Kristus (Christ); Did not Christ Appear to You ('Ist euch Kristus nicht erschienen'), 1918, Woodcut , 320 x 742 mm, Yale University Art Gallery, 1941.675, Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery

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‘Did Not Christ Appear to You?’

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Jacob Phillips

The process of making a woodcut is violent. The work is formed by gouging wood with a chisel, like an axe in miniature.

When the German expressionist artist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff made this woodcut in 1918, an axe had been laid to Europe’s roots. It was a decimated forest.

Only ten years previously, a civilisation suddenly quickened by the promethean light of electricity seemed to be witnessing the breaking through of a new era. Schmidt-Rottluff was originally associated with this exploratory and playful milieu. But this same capacity for innovation then afforded new ways to inflict suffering.

His woodcuts may be seen as mirroring the indiscriminate brutality that ensued. But Schmidt-Rottluff used them to hack his way through to the beating heart of European art: its Christian iconography. (This print was part of a series of eight woodcuts on New Testament themes.) In a sense he was like the psalmist of Psalm 88; outlining a harsh contradiction between promise and fulfilment. He recalled how once-civilized peoples had formerly seen themselves, while simultaneously lamenting how they had turned out.

Machine-gun fire leaves no room for shades of grey. Schmidt-Rottluff chose black-and-white.

Christ’s face itself seems to be wooden, as though itself a carved object. The square stub of the nose speaks of artifice; it exposes that which is humanly-formed as primitive and crude. His left eye is swollen and squinting like the black-eye of a bar-room brawler, and both eyes have roughly-cut black rectangles for their conflated irises and pupils, making it difficult to apportion any specific emotion to the face.

Something cryptic is indicated by the gouged-out date on the forehead. One might expect the letters INRI here, the quintessential scriptural locus of a contradiction between promise and fulfilment. Schmidt-Rottluff leaves a question to his contemporaries suspended in mid-air, ‘did not Christ appear to you?’. He reminds his viewers of the giddy heights of their original prospects as human creatures, while simultaneously plumbing the depths of their devastation. In this way, his work mirrors the refusal of the psalmist to give way entirely to either hope or despair.

 

References

Elger, Dietmar. 2002. Expressionism: A Revolution in German Art (Köln: Taschen Verlag)