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Student curators revive Mills museum’s Expressionist artworks, still relevant today

The new exhibition at the Mills College Art Museum, titled “Anxious States: Expressionism from Gauguin to Oliveira,” provides a student-curated look at German expressionism taken from the museum collections.

The opening reception is December 6 from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Back Gallery of the museum, and will run until May 27, 2018. It is curated by five students from the Museum Studies class, taught by Museum Director Stephanie Hanor.

The press release describes the exhibition as “the evolution of Expressionism as an artistic response to the anxieties of modernity, such as disruptive technologies and global war, across a range of time periods and cultures.”

Co-curator Carmen Wiley, an art history major, also works as a collections assistant for the museum.

“It’s very relevant to the current times. I see a lot of artists in this show who are very critical of their government, so I think it’s pretty cool that we are doing it right now,” Wiley said. “I think, for my own personal feelings about the show, thinking about collective emotion is really interesting, like collective anxiety and collective grief. And the way that’s manifested in the works is also very relevant to today, and how collective emotion is different than an individual’s.”

This is Wiley’s first time curating a show, and she said it is different than she originally imagined it, involving more intricacies than expected and giving her respect for shows that involve pieces loaned and shipped from other museums. She explained how the museums studies class worked together to generate the ideas and find the pieces for “Anxious States.”

“Stephanie had brought the general idea of German expressionism to the table when we first started the class, and then we went through the permanent collection here and, from the German expressionist pieces she pulled, we picked works we thought were interesting. Then we went through the collection’s works on paper, and found things that weren’t necessarily labeled as German expressionist but tied nicely in with the show,” Wiley said. “I felt that everyone was on the same consensus from the beginning that we wanted it to be a show about wartime anxiety, so we started from there and as we moved along we thought about the theme and tried to make it more concise and focused.”

One of Wiley’s favorite works from the exhibition is “Bust of a Nude Man with Open Mouth” by Lovis Corinth. She is drawn to the piece because it feels different than most of the others, she said, reflecting more individual emotion instead of collective emotion. She also told of an unexpected coincidence the students found in the piece “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife” by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

“We had a German expressionist show in the eighties, and the card that is handed out to everyone has the same image that we chose for ours,” Wiley said. “We decided that we wanted that to be on the card, and then five minutes later Elizabeth [Martin] brought in all the archives and we saw it and were like, ‘Wow! That’s funny.’ Clearly, it’s a good choice!”

The 1981 exhibition is one of three previous shows of German expressionist art at Mills. Luke Turner, manager of exhibitions and collections, explained that the first show in 1938 was a traveling one by artists who had been forbidden from showing their work in Germany; the purpose of the show was to both give the art a place to be shown and to sell it to support the artists whose livelihoods were threatened. In contrast, the 1955 show featured high-quality pieces from a Los Angeles collector. The third show in 1981, like the current one, was student-curated and had a more historical focus.

“When we looked at all the literature around the German expressionist show that happened in the eighties, it’s very similar to the one we’re doing now,” Wiley said. “It actually goes along, conceptually, with what we are doing because a lot of us wrote about how this wartime anxiety is really permanent and doesn’t go away no matter what time period you’re in, so it’s interesting to see that chronological order of anxiety.”

Anxious States, as well as the rest of the Mills Art Museum, is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays through Sundays, and 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.