Otto Mueller

Otto Mueller (1874-1930), frequently called the "Gypsy-Mueller" due to his preference of gypsy-type figures in his work, was the most lyrical of German expressionist painters.

Otto Mueller was born on October 16, 1874, in Liebau, German Silesia. His mother had been adopted as a young girl, giving rise to the story that he was the son of a gypsy—a story he never denied. He was a cousin to the famous German writers and dramatists Gerhart and Carl Hauptmann (the latter's novel "Einhart der Lächler" is an imaginary portrait of the painter). After four years of apprenticeship with a lithographer, Mueller entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden in 1894. He was dissatisfied with the conservative instructions and left after two years. The next several years he lived close to his influential cousins, and for a short while he went to Munich to study with the famous painter Franz von Stuck. Information about his life and work until 1908—when he settled in Berlin—is sketchy, especially since the artist destroyed many of his earlier works.

In Berlin Mueller met the expressionist sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, whose concept of the human form had a decisive influence on his own perception. When in 1910 his entries to the exhibition of the Berlin Secession were rejected he joined the members of the artist group "Die Brücke" (The Bridge) and exhibited with the New Secession and thus met Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Ernst Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. He became their lifelong friend, and, while only slightly influenced by their woodcut techniques, he contributed in return his experience in lithography and especially his techniques of distemper painting (colors bound by glue or size). This technique permits the quick coverage of large areas of the very rough canvas (burlap) which he preferred and adds a subdued luminosity. Since overpainting in distemper is not possible, the artist has to have a clear conception of his work before he begins. The technical devices strengthened the Brücke painters' desire to "flatten" the image on the canvas—following the examples of Paul Gauguin and even Edvard Munch and rejecting the academic preference for an emphasis on three-dimensionality of the subject.

In his graphic works Mueller experimented with mixtures of woodcut and lithography, the rubbing of the printer's ink, frequently adding color in the form of watercolor or colored chalk, until he had the technical means of the Breslau Academy available to make true color lithographs. His "Gypsy-Portfolio" (nine color lithographs in a portfolio of 1927), which used as many as five stones, is one of his great achievements as a graphic artist.

From 1916 to 1918 he served as a soldier in World War I, an experience which left no impact on his work. Shortly after his return he was appointed professor at the Breslau Academy of Art, where he taught until his death. Mueller's work shows only three motifs: landscapes, gypsies, and primarily nudes in landscapes. The last motif dominated his work. The earthen color of his mostly young, subtle but angular nude girls forms with the subdued and delicate greens of the landscape backgrounds a vision of a lost past. There is a frequently melancholic nostalgia in his works, presenting a harmony between nature and the human form which is not only opposite to the academic approach but also to that of the other Expressionists. While the latter also "flattened" the human figure in their works, Mueller saw the simplicity and directness of Egyptian painting as his ideal. The compositions of his works are simply built by careful overlapping of the forms which require no intrusion of perspective, thus adding to the "other-worldliness" of the otherwise so natural scenes. Mueller's love for the gypsies prompted a number of trips to Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. He did not idealize these migratory groups—the poverty and harshness of their lives is quite visible in Mueller's works—but he presented them in a simple directness which made them blood-relatives of his young girls in the idyllic landscapes.

Mueller married three times, the last time to Elfriede Timm shortly before his death on September 24, 1930, in Breslau. In his choice of subject matter, in his technique of distemper painting, and in his approach to a nostalgic vision of harmony of the human form within nature, Mueller was a unique artist who—regardless of his friendship with and close relations to the Expressionists—retained his own style with his continuously varying compositions of his three main motifs. His friends of the "Brücke" referred to what Ernst Ludwig Kirchner stated in his chronology of the artist group: Mueller exemplified a "sensual harmony of life and his work."


Further Reading on Otto Mueller

The first important article on Otto Mueller was written by Paul Westheim and published in Das Kunstblatt N.5 of 1918. The most comprehensive monograph on the artist was published by Lothar-Günther Buckhein—Leben und Werk (Life and Work) in 1963 (Feldafing) with an oeuvre catalogue for the graphic works by Florian Karsch. For the 100th birthday of the artist, Florian Karsch published a corrected oeuvre catalogue of the graphics (Berlin, 1975). Eberhard Troeger published a short monograph (1949), but more information about the artist can be found in the standard texts on Expressionism: Bernard S. Myers, The German Expressionists, a Generation in Revolt (n.d.) and Peter Selz, German Expressionist Painting (1974). A concise small paperback by John Willett (1978) is a general introduction to this period.