Brilliant red blooms rise up out of two round cactuses against a reddish and yellow background.

Blühende Kakteen, 1925, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Watercolor and brush on strong laid paper, 27.3 x 19.4 in. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2016.PR.34 ADD 4 © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Cactus blooms are rare and fleeting. Some cactuses bloom once every few decades, some for just one day, and others only at night. When they do bloom, however, cactus flowers really assert themselves. They are bright, striking, other-worldly explosions of color bursting out of nature’s most resilient plants.

In the 1920s, German artist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff visited Italy, creating vibrant watercolors of the flora he saw there, such as Blühende Kakteen (Blooming Cactuses), circa 1925. This dynamic watercolor depicts red and yellow cactus blossoms sprouting from three dark black cactus plants. The abstract background of jagged contour lines is accentuated by brushed hues of blue, green, yellow, and brown.

Karl Schmidt was born in Rottluff, Germany in 1884, and in 1906 added his place of birth to his surname. He was one of four German artists—the others being Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner—to found Die Brücke (The Bridge) in 1905, an avant-garde artists group dedicated to creating modern, emotionally forceful art characterized by simplified and distorted forms and bright colors. The artists Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller also joined the group, before it disbanded in 1913.

From 1915 to the end of World War I, Schmidt-Rottluff was a soldier on the eastern front. However, he rarely addressed the war in his work. Instead, he is known for vividly colored, geometric landscapes, stylized nudes, and expressive self-portraits, as well as for religious subjects, to which he turned after the war.

Well-regarded by his community, he was elected as a member of the Prussian Academy of Art in 1931 but was expelled two years later by the Nazis. In 1937, the Nazi regime confiscated 608 of his works from public collections, labeling them “degenerate.” Many of these artworks were sold off or destroyed. Fifty-one of these were exhibited as part of the traveling propaganda exhibition Degenerate Art. In 1941 the Nazi regime instituted a “professional ban” against Schmidt-Rottluff, essentially prohibiting him from exhibiting or painting. During the war, in 1943, his Berlin studio was destroyed in a bombing.

After the fall of the Nazi regime, he returned to painting and teaching. In this era, Schmidt-Rottluff’s public influence was particularly felt through his teaching and art exhibitions. He was appointed professor at the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste in West Berlin, where he influenced a new generation of artists. An endowment he made in 1964 provided the basis for the Brücke-Museum in West Berlin, which opened in 1967 as a repository of works by members of Die Brucke.

Watercolors, like Blooming Cactus, which is about 27 by 19 inches, were as central to Schmidt-Rottluff’s artistic practice as his celebrated oil paintings and woodcuts. Having helped to define the objectives of Die Brücke, he remained faithful to its principles through the era of Nazi persecution and to the end of his long life. Schmidt-Rottluff died in 1976 at the age of 92.

This watercolor is an important addition to the Dr. Richard A. Simms Collection (2016.PR.34), which includes prints and drawings by artists in Schmidt-Rottluff’s circle and by other 20th-century German artists, including Ludwig Meidner, Ernst Barlach, Käthe Kollwitz, and others.  It was donated by Dr. Simms in honor of former Getty Research Institute Curator of Prints Louis Marchesano.