A new approach

Kneeling Woman dates from Lehmbruck’s time in Paris and reflects the radical shift his style underwent there. In his quest for an ethereal type of art he rejected traditional representation in favor of expressive distortions, in particular the figure’s elongated proportions and lyrically outlined silhouette. Her solemnly bowed head and supplicating pose further emphasize the message of spirituality.

To the Armory Show

Lehmbruck exhibited a cast stone version of Kneeling Woman at the 1912 International Exhibition of the Sonderbund in Cologne, Germany. [1] There it caught the attention of Walt Kuhn, who was in Europe scouting art for the Armory Show. Eventually Lehmbruck promised Walter Pach casts of both Kneeling Woman and Large Torso, as well as six drawings, for the exhibition. [2]

The figure’s elongated form brought mixed reviews

In the issue of Arts and Decoration dedicated to preparing visitors for what they would see at the Armory Show, William M. Fisher explained that Kneeling Woman’s “purposeful exaggerations … greatly accentuate the lyric grace of the female form, while the pose is an inspiration.” He called the work a “sincere . . . . effort at self-expression.” [3]

However, the critic Adeline Adams questioned “the element of perversity shown by the disbrained head and highly exaggerated lengths. Something in us, not our highest, responds to this perversity; we can surrender ourselves to full enjoyment only when we part with something of our intellectual honesty.” [4]

James William Pattison, writing in Fine Arts Journal, admitted that he could not explain why Lehmbruck’s figure was so “excessively elongated,” but concluded that “the skill in managing the lines and increasing the effect of the length, is decidedly in high order. In fact, we can’t quite help liking this peculiar figure.” [5]

Back to Paris

All six of Lehmbruck’s drawings as well as his Standing Woman were sold from the exhibition. [6] Kneeling Woman was returned to the artist in Paris after having been shown in New York, Chicago, and Boston. But the cast sustained damage during shipping and Lehmbruck refused to accept it, leaving it in storage with the firm of Charles Pottier in Paris. [7]

A second chance

In 1938 the director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Gordon B. Washburn, contacted Pach inquiring of the work’s whereabouts. Pach directed Washburn to Pottier, who sold the work to the museum for the accumulated storage fees of 2,800 francs. The sculpture underwent major conservation to its cast stone surface, which had suffered the loss of two fingers, several chips along the base, and further damage to its wooden framework, which had swelled and rotted over time. [8] In the end, Washburn declared: “We believe we have acquired one of the greatest sculptures of modern times.” [9]

[1] There is another version in cast stone in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Other plaster versions are in the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, Germany, and with the artist’s family. He exhibited a plaster version at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1911 and the Berliner Secession of 1912. See Dietrich Schubert, Wilhelm Lehmbruck: Catalogue Raisonné der Skulpturen, 1898-1919 (Worms: Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, 2001).

[2] Wilhelm Lehmbruck to Walter Pach, December 6, 1912, microfilm reel 4217, frames 101-102, Walter Pach Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. In fact, Lehmbruck sent Standing Woman, not Large Torso, to New York, so it is unclear why he mentioned “grand torse” in his letter.

[3] William M. Fisher, “Sculpture at the Exhibition,” Arts and Decoration (March 1913): 169.

[4] Adeline Adams, “The Secret of Life,” Art and Progress 4 (April 1913): 929-931.

[5] James William Pattison, “Art in an Unknown Tongue,” Fine Arts Journal 27-29 (May 1913): 299.

[6] The drawings were sold as a set to Mrs. Clara Davidge for $81. Standing Woman was sold to Stephen C. Clark for $1,620.

[7] See Wilhelm Lehmbruck to Elmer MacRae, July 14, 1913, microfilm reel 4131, frames 912-914, Elmer Livingston MacRae Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; and Wilhelm Lehmbruck to Elmer MacRae, September 22, 1913, microfilm reel 4131, frames 918-920, Elmer Livingston MacRae Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[8] See Gordon B. Washburn to Louis Carré, Paris, May 26, 1938, Lehmbruck file, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Walter Pach to Gordon B. Washburn, May 31, 1938, Lehmbruck file, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; and Louis Carré to Gordon B. Washburn, September 20, 1938, Lehmbruck file, Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

[9] Gordon B. Washburn to Louis Carré, December 30, 193[8], Lehmbruck File, Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919)

Lehmbruck studied art and sculpture at the School of Arts and Crafts in Dusseldorf and at the Dusseldorf Art Academy in his native Germany before moving to Paris in 1910. [1] There he befriended avant-garde artists including Alexander Archipenko, Aristide Maillol, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pablo Picasso. Under their influence, he transformed his style from the academic, highly traditional approach he had practiced in Germany to a more spiritual mode characterized by angular, attenuated figures that express a sense of melancholy and uneasiness. Lehmbruck exhibited at the Salon de la Société des Beaux-Arts annually from 1907 to 1911 and in the more radical Salon d’Automne in 1910, 1911, and 1914. He remained in Paris until 1914, when the outbreak of World War I prompted him to move to Berlin. In 1917 and 1918 he was in Zurich to avoid military service, and in 1919 returned to Berlin, where he suffered a mental breakdown and committed suicide.

[1] See Dietrich Schubert, Wilhelm Lehmbruck: Catalogue Raisonné der Skulpturen, 1898-1919 (Worms: Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, 2001).

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