Colonialism and Modern German Art

In the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and other German artists of the period, you see an unmistakable echo of artistic traditions from Africa and other non-European cultures. The violent colonial occupation of countries throughout Africa and Oceania by German, British, Dutch, and Belgian expeditions enabled the looting of cultural artifacts, which were then circulated across Europe and North America—often for profit. European artists encountered looted art in ethnographic museums that presented such work out of their cultural contexts and disregarded the atrocities being perpetrated by the colonizers. Seeking inspiration and novelty, German artists imitated aesthetic qualities they saw in the looted art, but they knew and understood very little about the cultures from which the objects had come. For example, Kirchner and many of his peers adapted the abstracted human form and elongated bodies characteristic of some African sculpture in their own wood carvings; such stylization became part of their visual vocabulary. Colonization had a very different effect on the art and cultures of the colonized, disrupting their cultural sovereignty and robbing them of at least a portion of their material history.

Los Angeles-based contemporary artist Alison Saar selected Kirchner’s Dancer with Necklace as one of her favorite works in the museum. In the video below, she talks about what she sees in the piece. 

Artists on Art: Alison Saar on Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (2016) – Runtime 1:50