est eng 2024/1 international special pages! See: Nils Ohlsen "Konrad Mägi and Die Brücke at the Baltic Sea – just a coincidence or a phenomenon?"


Konrad Mägi and Die Brücke at the Baltic Sea – just a coincidence or a phenomenon?

Nils Ohlsen (1/2024)

Nils Ohlsen

Today, about 50 paintings by Konrad Mägi (1878–1925) with Baltic Sea motifs are known. He originally travelled to Saaremaa for the first time in the summer of 1913 to be treated for medical reasons. Finally, this stay became important for his art. In the next summer he came back.

The two summers of 1913 and 1914 by the sea were some of the most important and intense periods of his art. Many of the paintings he did on Saaremaa and the small offshore island of Vilsandi with its striking lighthouse are now among his masterpieces. A few later Baltic motifs from the coastal village of Klooga complete this group of works.

With their contrasting brushstrokes, Mägi's Baltic Sea pictures are probably stylistically most closely related to coast landscapes by the early Piet Mondrian (1872–1944). Here, however, I would like to try to place Mägi's Baltic Sea pictures in relation to the German artist group Die Brücke ('The Bridge' in German). The young artists turned away from the metropolises of Dresden and Berlin in the years immediately before the First World War and found completely new motifs on some unspoilt beaches of the Baltic Sea, which today belong to the canon of German Expressionism.

Die Brücke

Die Brücke was a group of artists who are regarded as important representatives of Expressionism and as pioneers of classical modernism. It was founded in Dresden in 1905 by the four architecture students Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), Fritz Bleyl (1880–1966), Erich Heckel (1883–1970) and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976). The group dispersed in Berlin in May 1913, but continued to influence the development of German Expressionism.

Other members were Max Pechstein (1881–1955), Otto Müller (1874–1930) and Cuno Amiet (1868–1961), and briefly Emil Nolde (1867–1956) and Kees van Dongen (1877–1968).


In their 1906 manifesto, the Brücke artists wrote: "With faith in development in a new generation of creators as well as enjoyers, we call all youth together. As youth who carry the future, we want to gain freedom of arms and freedom of life from the well-established older forces. Everyone belongs to us who directly and genuine reproduces what urges him to create."

This "direct and genuine creation" can be found, among other things, in their Baltic Sea pictures. The turn of the Brücke artists from the cities to the beaches of the Baltic Sea is an important phenomenon of German Expressionism. I would like to examine whether Mägi can be counted among this phenomenon.

We know that he had to travel through Germany for several days to get to Paris or to Italy. He may have visited exhibitions in Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden or Munich and it is possible that he saw exhibitions of the Brücke on these occasions.


Already in the years around 1900, tourism at the German coast of the Baltic Sea was strongly developed. Railways, hotels, as well as bathing establishments were now attracting ever broader groups of society to travel the "Sommerfrische". Greater prosperity in society, new rights for the working class and an awareness of the health benefits of bathing in the sea contributed to the growing attraction of the Baltic resorts. Medical treatment like Mägi got on the island of Saaremaa was part of it.

The pleasures of bathing in imperial Germany, however, had little to do with our present-day ideas of seaside holidays. In 1914, for example, the author Franz Kafka (1883–1924) wrote in his diary in the town of Travemünde: "Afternoon on the beach. Criticised as indecent by bare feet."

There were very strict rules concerning physical freedom, to show bare skin or even feet as we heard, how to change clothes, how to behave in the water and on the beaches. However, the members of the artists' group Die Brücke were looking for something quite different from these photos. Far away from academies and metropolises they were looking for untouched nature in which they could depict naked bodies in harmony with nature. They envisioned an ideal of harmony between bathing, nudism and artistic creation, between man and nature, which was strictly forbidden at the official bathing spots.

I just want to mention the inspiration from Paul Gaugin (1848–1903) who travelled to Tahiti in 1893–1894 to discover his artistic paradise. In 1908 Gauguin's art was exhibited in Germany for the first time. Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde followed in his footsteps in 1913 and 1914 to search for the South Sea paradise that Gauguin had introduced to modern art.

Differences and similarities

Moreover, this ideal stood in contrast to the reality of the time before the First World War in Germany, which was characterised by the technical-industrial upheaval of everyday life, speed, new means of communication and transport and, not least, military armament. Inspired by the European artists' colonies since the 1880s, the Brücke artists' stays on the Baltic generally represent a counter-reaction to the mass culture of the time.

To come straight to the point: there are major differences between Mägi's Baltic Sea paintings and those of the Brücke artists. For Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rolluff, Max Pechstein and Erich Heckel, the "creation of the naked human being in nature" was a central concern of their art. They wanted to unite man and nature into a harmonious entity. We do not find this focus on human beings in Mägi's paintings from the Baltic Sea. However, through the depictions of lonely lighthouses, cottages and fishing boats, we understand that he also refers to the relation between the human being at the edge of the sea in a timeless atmosphere.

It is precisely here, in the landscape paintings of the Baltic shore of the Brücke artists that we find many parallels to Mägi's paintings. Apparently, both Mägi and the Brücke artists found their way to secluded beaches on the Baltic Sea due to similar artistic needs and social developments.

Emil Nolde

Nolde was a member of the Brücke for six months from 1906. He is about 15 years older than the other Brücke artists. He was the first of the German Expressionists to find motifs on the Baltic Sea coast, more precisely on the then German island of Alsen, which is now Danish. The brush-structure of his paintings consists of patches of colour rich in contrast.

Common to Mägi is the dissolution of the landscape through strongly coloured brushstrokes. The sky, horizon and the shoreline can hardly be distinguished from each other. Everything is pulsating with pure colour. While the pictorial structure in Mägi's work appears more controlled and systematic, Nolde's paintings, however, are more expressive and impulsive. Also important are the clouds, which in both Nolde's and Mägi's paintings are given a completely independent active role in the picture.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

In the tiny village of Staberhuk on the most eastern point of the island of Fehmarn, almost half of Kirchner's extensive annual production was painted in 1912–1913. Despite their expressive painting style, the places and landscapes he depicts can still be easily found today. Many of his Fehmarn pictures can be easily located on the basis of the characteristic erratic boulders on the beaches. Among his central motifs is the striking lighthouse in the east of the island and – quite often – the curved horizon of the ocean, which indicates that he wants to catch the whole world in a small part of a landscape.

When it comes to the motive of bays and boats, Kirchners pictures can be easily compared with Mägi's paintings. The sun and the dramatic red sky are further connecting elements between the two artists. Finally, both are fascinated by the cliffs with the distant view of a boat on the sea. Both are enthusiastic about the vegetation and the boulders directly on the shore and both also depict the houses on their respective islands in an expressive gestural manner.

Max Pechstein

Already in 1909 Max Pechstein discovered the small fishing village of Nidden (Nida) on the Kurische Nehrung in extreme East Prussia, now Lithuania. Although Pechstein painted with a broader brush than Mägi, there are many motivic connections between the two artists.

Once again, it is the small fishing boats on the beach and near the shore that show the closest parallels between the artists. As with Kircher, the sun also takes on a central – universal – role in Pechstein's work, reminiscent of works by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890).

It is possible that Mägi met Max Pechstein in Paris in 1907. However, we do not know whether the two were in contact later.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

On Pechstein's recommendation, Karl Schmidt Rottluff, another member of the artist group, also came to Nidden in 1913. His first seascapes, painted as early as 1906 on the Danish island of Alsen, where he visited Emil Nolde, compare well with Mägi's beach paintings of Vilsandi. Otherwhise Schmidt-Rottluff, too, was attracted by the fishing boats in sheltered bays as a motif.

Erich Heckel

Finally, we come to Erich Heckel, who chose the tiny village of Osterholz on the Flensburg Börde as his Baltic Sea resort in 1912. Similar to Mägi, Heckel repeatedly painted different perspectives of the cliffs.

In addition, his way of painting groups of trees and accentuating the sky with dramatic clouds compares well with Mägi's paintings. Especially the apocalyptic effect of the sky connects both artists. Both give the dramatic cloud formations in their works an almost crystalline prismatic appearance.

Davos – Oberstdorf

With these comparisons we end our journey along the Baltic coast. Before I conclude, however, I would like to make a short excursion into the Alps. Here on a small alpine pasture above the village of Davos Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had been living since 1917. After his mental and physical breakdown as a soldier during the First World War, he sought refuge here in the secluded mountain world, where he lived until he committed suicide in 1933.

Only 160 km away from Davos Mägi stayed in a sanatorium in Oberstdorf in 1922. This stay motivates him to create some of his most exciting paintings.

Kirchner's and Mägi's panorama-like depictions of mountains and forests in the early 1920s are in many ways strikingly similar: expressive gestures, the use of pure colour and a great freedom of abstraction characterise the works of both artists. Mägi now works in a more expressive gestural style that increasingly dissolves form and gives the individual brush gesture more autonomy.


With this parallel in mind let us once go back to the Baltic Sea pictures. It was important to me to find motifs, moods and perspectives that link Mägi's works particularly closely to the Brücke artists. We can see that Mägi's works with landscapes from Saaremaa, Vilsandi and later from Klooga beach fit into a phenomenon of German Expressionism that is particularly common in the years right before the First World War. Here, an idealised harmony between man and the world is depicted. Even though no figures appear in Mägi's Baltic Sea paintings, his works, with their lonely lighthouses and isolated boats on the shore, have a very similar message.

Mägi's Baltic sea-paintings from 1913–1914 are thus part of an expressionist phenomenon that is related to the artists' escape from bourgeois conventions and life in the cities and a search for a universal harmony between man and nature. This longing led to paintings that gave unfiltered expression of the painters' emotions in the face of nature.

With the beginning of the First World War, the artists were immediately denied access to their paradises on the Baltic Sea: The German beaches – and probably the Estonian ones as well – were declared restricted military areas and the artists had to flee headlong from their oases of unity of life and nature.

It would be desirable if further research could bring to light further evidence of Mägi's connection to German Expressionism. In terms of motifs from the Baltic Sea, we definitely have a good basis for this.

Nils Ohlsen is an art historian who has been working as the director of the Lillehammer Art Museum since 2018.

This presentation was prepared for an international conference on Konrad Mägi's 145th anniversary on 1. XI 2023, at the Heino Eller Music College in Tartu.

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