Defiance Despair Desire: German Expressionist Prints from the Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection

January 17–March 14, 2004
Baker/Rowland and North Exhibition Galleries

The nearly 200 prints featured in the exhibition Defiance Despair Desire: German Expressionist Prints from the Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection are among the most dramatic artworks of the 20th century. Emotional and technical achievements, these striking images proclaim the revolutionary intent of the German Expressionists, who changed the course of modernism with their radical styles, methods and subjects.

The Expressionists launched their careers against a background of social unrest and political turmoil. Observing and commenting upon the modern world in which they lived, they produced incisive self-portraits, chaotic urban scenes, joyous landscapes and harsh images of war. Their techniques were as varied as their themes, revealing the hand as well as the mind and soul of the artist. Etchings of biting intensity, lithographs of corrosive ingenuity and woodcuts of defiant impact all reveal the truth of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s pronouncement, “Nowhere does one come to know an artist better than in his prints.”

The masterpieces in the exhibition span the 1890s to the 1930s. Graphic media attracted many vanguard artists during this period: democratic, immediate and experimental, printmaking also bore strong associations with Germany’s artistic traditions. Working together, the artists who came to be known as the Expressionists exchanged ideas and tools, published their works side by side in portfolios and periodicals, and bypassed official academies to communicate directly with growing urban audiences.

“The Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection of German Expressionist prints represents a remarkable and sustained vision,” said MAM Director and CEO David Gordon. “Through this exhibition, the Museum hopes that the Specks’ collection of prints can resonate, influence and empower a new generation of artists and thinkers.”

Proof impressions of woodcuts by Lyonel Feininger, unique color lithographs by Emil Nolde and hand-pulled etchings by Conrad Felixmüller are outstanding examples in an exhibition that includes superlative prints by all the key figures related to German Expressionism. From the tragic and sorrowful prints of Käthe Kollwitz to the profoundly human religious woodcuts of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff to the biting satire of radical artist George Grosz, the Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection illuminates the sense of urgency, originality and vision of a wide range of artists, all attempting to depict a shifting world of despair, hope and renewal in the fragile years from the turn of the twentieth century to the rise of the Nazis. Their expressive visions evoke the turbulent beginnings of Modernism and continue to speak powerfully to our own day.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum is publishing German Expressionist Prints: The Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection , featuring essays by noted scholars Reinhold Heller and Stephanie D’Alessandro, and a fully illustrated, full-color catalogue of 475 prints. This 279-page hardcover book is available in the Milwaukee Art Museum Store for $75 ($56.25 for Museum members).

Marcia and Granvil Specks

In December 2000, Marcia and Granvil Specks gave the Milwaukee Art Museum one of the largest and most important gifts in the institution’s history. The gift, comprising 446 German Expressionist prints of a uniformly high quality, established the Museum as a leading center for the study and presentation of 19th- and 20th-century German art. Since the donation, the prints have been exhibited in the Museum’s Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection Gallery, rotating three or four times a year in installations conceived and implemented by the Specks themselves.

Granvil Specks, a noted Chicago anti-trust attorney, and his wife, Marcia, a retired communicative neurological disorders specialist, have been collecting prints since the late 1960s. With intellectual and aesthetic acumen, they have assembled one of the foremost American collections of German Expressionist prints. Works from the Specks Collection were presented in Brücke: German Expressionist Prints from the Granvil and Marcia Specks Collection at the Mary and Leigh Block Gallery at Northwestern University in 1988 and in Stark Impressions: Graphic Production in Germany 1918-1933 at the Block Gallery in 1993.

Milwaukee Art Museum’s Strengths in German Art

The Specks Collection strengthens the Museum’s existing holdings of modern German art; the collection of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley, for example, includes paintings and drawings by Lyonel Feininger, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde, as well as the largest group of works by Gabriele Münter outside of Germany. The Milwaukee Art Museum also houses the René von Schleinitz Collection, a significant representation of 19th-century German art featuring paintings by Franz von Lenbach and Carl Spitzweg, as well as prints and drawings by artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, Karl Schinkel, Philip Otto Runge and Max Lieberman. In addition, the Museum is very strong in the area of contemporary German art from the 1950s to the 1980s, with major works by Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, among others.

Defiance Despair Desire: German Expressionist Prints from the Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and guest curated by independent scholar Frank Whitford. The exhibition travels to the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, June 12–August 8, 2004 and the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Grand Rapids, MI, October 14, 2005–January 1, 2006.

  • Otto Müller, Five Yellow Nudes at the Water (Fünf gelbe Akte am Wasser), 1921. Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection M2000.442. Photo by Michael Tropea.
  • George Grosz, “Under my rule it shall be brought to pass, that potatoes and small-beer shall be considered a holiday treat; and woe to him who meets my eye with the audacious front of health...,” from The Robbers: Nine Lithographs on Maxims from Schiller’s “The Robbers”, 1921/22. Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection M2000.319.2. Photo by Michael Tropea. © Estate of George Grosz/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Erich Heckel, Standing Child, 1910/11. Color woodcut. Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection.
  • Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Three at the Table, 1914. Woodcut. Marcia and Granvil Specks Collection.