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 "Buckwheat Field in Weyerberg" by Fritz Overbeck

The Worpswede artists' colony in north Germany embodied all the tensions in turn-of-the-century German society and yet it is barely known abroad. Above all its place in national history seems strangely neglected by historians. In a Germany that was growing explosively, young artists, long held back by a stifling academic tradition, rediscovered nature and natural living. 

About 20 miles north-east of the Hanseatic city of Bremen, Worpswede was then a village reached by horse and coach. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was among the luminaries who visited the painters in their heyday, around 1902. He remembered: "In Germany particularly after the war of 1870-71 a widespread materialistic way of thinking and dealing with life made itself felt in the towns that were suddenly growing at a raging pace. The idea was to counter this with a life and an artistic productivity in surroundings that encouraged self-awareness and guaranteed the greatest possible space for that intuition which, whether rightly or wrongly, was felt to be the source, and essential point of departure, for all artistic and generally human freedom." What encouraged that self-awareness was the endless flat moorland, the product of an 18th-century marsh reclamation scheme, and the mean living the peasants could scratch there, in high winds and moody light.

The first artist, Fritz Mackensen, arrived in 1894, followed by his friend Otto Modersohn. Next to find refuge was the painter, craftsman, architect and illustrator Heinrich Vogeler, destined to become North Germany's William Morris. By the time Paula Becker joined the community from Bremen, Worpswede was set to become "a world-village devoted to art". Where their merchant-class parents based in the city had got rich off a belligerent Prussia's 1870 victory over France, the privileged children were in rebellion. Their parents' money freed them to devote themselves to an art extolling the simple life in the countryside.

With half a dozen contrarian personalities working in diverse styles, Worpswede was never a collective movement, except as a forerunner of the 1920s Youth Movement, with its love of the open-air life. Yet, as each artist defined something new, Worpswede briefly became a rare asylum in German culture, counterposed to the bad taste and militaristic-urban extravagance of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Mackensen created images of artisan life set in landscapes reminsicent of early van Gogh. Paula Becker's portraits of village children were Gauguinesque, while Vogeler, an adept Art Nouveau craftsman, designer and architect, painted privileged social lives in a stylised pre-Raphaelite manner otherwise foreign to Germany, where painting had resisted innovation for a century. While down south in Munich the first German Modernist painting was belatedly emerging, in the well-known European style of Die Brücke, the painters of Worpswede offered a quieter version of what could have developed into a modern, but still rather conservative German style, or styles. They offer to my mind several versions of what might have been.

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