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The Dark Drama of ‘Haunted Screens’

Milwaukee Art Museum looks at the art behind the movies

Oct. 25, 2016
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To get into the headspace of Expressionism, consider it as being more about how something feels rather than what it actually looks like. As an art movement, Expressionism became prominent in the early 20th century, and German Expressionism gained notoriety as angsty and dramatic—a nihilistic response to the modern world. It was a powerful way of registering dissatisfaction and a sense of impending doom. Some of these visual approaches made their way into cinema, particularly through set design and the production of stories about scary tales and science fiction. “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s” takes the viewer into this world of strange, enduring, moving images through film clips, original drawings, movie posters and other ephemera. 

The exhibition is visually rich with extensive loans of rare and unique pieces from La Cinémathèque française. It is organized into the themes Nature, Interiors, The Street, Stairs, and The Expressionist Body. Each segment is replete with photographs of movie sets and sketches that relate to various films presented in short clips on screens, making the connection between the idea rendered on paper and the moving image presented to a public audience. Some of general markers of Expressionism are distortion, whether of the body, architecture, or even extreme atmospheres. Complementing this is the use of deep shadows, sharp highlights and angular forms that contribute to an overall feeling of the uncanny.

As Art Director Hermann Warm said, “Films must be drawings endowed with life.” This comes across through the exhibition installation, as the sketches accompany film clips from productions such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, Die Nibelungen: Siegfried’s Tod, Faust and The Golem, to note only a few. While the aesthetic connection is made, the exhibition is scant with other forms of information. Little is given in the way of biographical detail or assessment of the conditions of Weimar Germany that contributed to the popularity of stories of suspense and the macabre. While this exhibition has much to offer for the eyes and the aesthetics of Expressionism, it leaves only an impression of the film narratives and contextual history.

Through Jan. 22 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive. For more information about this exhibit, please visit mam.org/haunted-screens/.

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