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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Graphic Art of Max Klinger

Among the most prolific and creative printmakers of his era, the German artist Max Klinger (1857–1920) revived printmaking in his native country at a time when it struggled to overcome industrial connotations. During the closing decades of the nineteenth century, he was celebrated for his use of the graphic arts to explore imaginative subjects related to myth and fantasy. Born into an upper-middle-class family in Leipzig, Klinger began to study drawing at a young age. Although he would maintain accomplished practices in various media—including painting, drawing, and sculpture—Klinger’s reputation rested on his experiments in intaglio printmaking. In particular, he often produced these prints as series (“cycles,” as he termed them) that varied from gritty naturalism to esoteric symbolism in content and would influence a generation of printmakers in Germany and beyond over the ensuing century (68.692.1–5; 2002.491a–n).

Klinger began his artistic training as a young man in Karlsruhe under the direction of the social realist painter Karl Gussow (1843–1907). In 1875, he followed his teacher to Berlin to continue his studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. There, he worked alongside Christian Krohg, who encouraged Klinger’s interest—likely inspired by Gussow—in producing socially critical art. The two shared a studio, where they worked side by side and developed their mutual admiration for French naturalist authors such as Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, whose novels exposed the darker side of urban life and the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. Klinger graduated from the Academy in 1877, and soon after began to produce drawings from life (2007.47) and on nature, many of which related to his growing interest in the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin.

In Berlin, Klinger also spent time studying prints at the Kupferstichkabinett, a museum dedicated to the graphic arts. Early on, he also studied and absorbed the influence of Japanese art (52.594.22), which at that time was considerably less popular in Germany than in France. He began to experiment with printmaking, producing drawings that he would later reinterpret as etchings (2001.621). The young artist first received acclaim in Berlin for his series titled Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove (published 1881). Printed in five editions throughout the late nineteenth century, the ten prints follow a vague and fantastic narrative that unfolds after the artist retrieves a glove dropped by a fashionable young woman at a skating rink (2009.46). That night as he sleeps, he dreams an outlandish sequence of events that surround the object’s return to its rightful owner—from its loss at sea (2009.48) to its theft by a monstrous flying bird (2009.53). Throughout the series and despite his young age, Klinger skillfully combined various intaglio media, including etching, drypoint, and aquatint, to striking tonal and formal effect.

After the success of A Glove, the print cycle soon became Klinger’s signature genre. Over the next several years, he explored the social issues that characterized life in modern Berlin. Generally regarded as the first German visual artist to address the social problem of prostitution, Klinger highlighted the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality and the injustices that often befell women in the city. The fifteen etchings of A Life (published 1884) show a young, middle-class subject forced into prostitution after being impregnated and abandoned by her lover and rejected by polite society as a result. Throughout the series, she descends further into the depths of urban culture until she is finally seen nude and exhausted in Caught (63.572.2[1–15]), where, in spite of her pitiable state, she is gawked at and ridiculed by a crowd of genteel onlookers. Her pale skin contrasts sharply with the dark tonality of the jeering group, who themselves disappear into their dank surroundings, suggesting their apathy and callousness through the monochromatic properties of etching.

At the time A Life was published, Klinger was living in Paris, where he relocated for most of the period between 1883 and 1887 after being encouraged by the French art critic Jules Laforgue. Laforgue had seen Klinger’s A Glove during its first Berlin exhibition, in 1878, and promoted his prints to Parisian audiences in the years that followed. Although Klinger’s socially critical work was indebted to his early interest in French literature, the artist soon became disillusioned with the French capital. From his Parisian studio, he began to draft Painting and Drawing, a polemical text that argued for the distinct uses of monochromatic media, such as the graphic arts. Prints, he believed, were better suited to subjects that were imaginative, emotional, and drawn from the darker side of life. Self-published in 1891, the essay asserted a new and significant role for the graphic arts as an original and experimental medium and would inform Klinger’s graphic output for the remainder of his career.

In the years after he left Paris, Klinger explored themes drawn from the contemporary Symbolist movement in even greater depth through his print cycles. He dedicated his 1887 series A Love, for example, to the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), whose imaginative work (26.90) he had long admired. While living in Rome (2007.49.377), Klinger produced A Love, which shows a modern Berlin woman (52.586.1[3]) pursued by a suitor who, over the course of the series, seduces, impregnates, and abandons her, leaving her to die in childbirth. The narrative is told primarily via evocative rather than naturalistic means—such as the woman being guided by an allegorical figure of Shame (52.586.1[9]) toward Death, a shadowy, diabolical figure who snatches her infant in the final print (52.586.1[10]). Around this time, Klinger also pursued in greater depth his long-standing interest in music, especially the works of German Romantic composers such as Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. The prints of his 1894 series Brahms Fantasies (24.4.62) were meant to accompany the performance of the eponymous composer’s music and create a total, all-encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk through their synthesis of visual art, music, and poetry.

During the 1890s, Klinger began to work less prolifically in printmaking and favor other media. He began work on his last major cycle, On Death II (published 1910), in 1898. For these twelve plates, he drew upon the macabrely creative Totentanz (“dance of death”) theme in German art, which had interested him throughout his career, building upon the iconographic tradition of Renaissance artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, implying rather than showing death as the ultimate equalizer. In Philosopher (52.586.2[3]), for instance, an allegorical representation of Genius—in the process of contemplating his own existence—is overlaid by a deceased figure rendered in rich shades of aquatint. The paired images allude to the inevitable physical demise that awaits even the intellectually powerful.

By the time Klinger published On Death II, in 1910, he had all but abandoned printmaking. Even then, however, he had already exerted a powerful influence over young graphic artists in Germany, such as Käthe Kollwitz (42.30.16), who saw the print cycle as a powerful new means of narrative expression and formal experimentation. By the early twentieth century, Klinger’s combination of dark themes and the stylistic aspects inherent to print would be taken up by the Surrealists, who praised his exploration of the uncanny, and the German Expressionists, who revived and advanced the graphic cycle as part of their Germanic heritage and Klinger as integral to their national tradition.