"Friedhof (Cemetery)" by Pol Cassel

Social critique in the Weimar Republic

Friedhof (Cemetery) (1921) by Pol CasselHaggerty Museum of Art

German artist Pol Cassel (1892-1945) attended art school prior to serving in World War I. After the war he returned to Dresden and became affiliated with the second-wave Expressionist artist Conrad Felixmüller, who was then cultivating several politically radical artist groups. In 1921 Cassel moved his family to Wehlen, a small town on the bank of the Elbe, fifteen miles southeast of Dresden. It is likely there that he painted "Friefhof (Cemetery)", circa 1925.

In the wake of World War I, newly erected monuments and cemeteries became a common, often controversial subject matter for artists who sought to make visible the social, cultural, and political anxieties of the Weimar Republic. In Cassel’s small village cemetery, graves of Germany’s fallen soldiers are interspersed among those of civilians.

Visitors lay wreaths to honor the dead on All Soul’s Day.

Crosses and other markers identify the plots.

A weathered wall, rendered in somber, dark tones with a built-up surface that mimics natural stone, juts into the picture plane from the left.

On the right, a bright blue structure adjacent to the cemetery wall frames and helps call attention to the couple about to enter the gate.

The well-dressed man dons a top hat and gloves.

He carries a jeweled cane and beribboned wreath in one hand, a lit cigar in the other.

His wife’s heavily made-up face is hidden beneath her feathered hat and veil.

She is draped with a fox-fur stole, her gloved hands inside the accompanying muff.

This carefully composed scene offers a biting social critique, which was characteristic of many artists working during this volatile period in German history. Cassel depicts an ostentatious, well-to-do couple engaged in a hollow ritual of mourning.

In "Cemetery", Cassel synthesizes stylistic elements of several artistic movements. He borrows from Expressionism – via the use of distorted forms and exaggerated, clashing colors - to render a garish couple more concerned with appearance than true remorse for lost life. The satirical nature of the image is also reminiscent of Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, a concurrent style of painting characterized by matter-of-fact representation of harsh realities.

Form follows function in "Cemetery." Cassel intentionally disrupts the illusionistic perspective normally used to organize space in paintings. The foreground of the composition is spatially disconnected from the background.

The artist depicts the outside of the wall and simultaneously offers several views over the wall into a cemetery that appears to tilt and twist to the upper left-hand corner.

The formal and stylistic elements of this painting reinforce Cassel’s commentary about a society that was, like this image, confused and imbalanced.

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