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Expressionism

1. Painting, graphic arts and sculpture

Source: Oxford University Press

Expressionism in the fine arts developed from the Symbolist and expressive trends in European art at the end of the 19th century. The period of ‘classical Expressionism’ began in 1905, with the foundation of the group Die Brücke, and ended c. 1920. Although in part an artistic reaction both to academic art and to Impressionism, the movement should be understood as a form of ‘new Humanism’, which sought to communicate man’s spiritual life. It reflected the deep intellectual unrest c. 1900, reflected in contemporary literary sources, about the destruction of the traditional relationship of trust between man and the world. This was set against 19th-century notions of reality. Art took on a new and crucially different role, no longer being used, as previously, to reproduce that which was visible, but rather to ‘make things visible’ (Paul Klee). The motivating forces or ‘inner communication’ were considered to be the only concepts worth portraying. A young generation of artists believed that the traditional artistic medium was inadequate to enable them to do this. In order to communicate the human spiritual condition the Expressionists made use of new, strong, assertive forms, often violently distorted, symbolic colours and suggestive lines. Their work also showed an interest in Primitivism (see Primitivism, §2).

(i) Origins and developments in Germany.

(a) Origins

The roots of Expressionism lay in international developments of the late 19th century, although the German Expressionists always emphasized their independence from every foreign influence. Crucial impulses came, for example, from Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, countries that had, like Germany, an old tradition of expressive art. Gauguin and the Nabis as well as the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler, were also involved with its pioneering ideals. In Germany before 1900 such local schools as those at the artists’ colonies of Dachau or Worpswede developed intensely expressive landscape painting, in which stylized depictions of nature represented overpowering emotional experiences, as in German Romantic painting. These lyrical images of nature, linked to similar ideas in plein-air painting and Jugendstil, significantly influenced Expressionism. Another important influence during the first phase of Expressionism was the use of pure colours developed in Neo-Impressionism and Fauvism.

The work of Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch and James Ensor was still more important (see Ashes, 1894). These artists inspired a feeling of spiritual kinship in others and promoted several ideas, which were as yet unclear, about an art that could express spiritual dimensions. This potential was exemplified by van Gogh, in both his tragic life and work, characterized by an intensely expressive use of pure colours, and dynamic brushstrokes and outlines. Munch’s work transformed people and landscapes into images representing dramatic tensions arising from areas of the psyche that had hitherto been taboo. The expressive strength of the symbolic colours and lines developed traditional motifs into images of the artist’s psychological world. The tormented, hallucinatory view of the world of masks and phantoms painted by Ensor was equally characteristic of the Expressionists’ sense of alienation. Expressionism developed in Germany not as a ‘style’, but rather as an ‘ideology’ formed by a sense of spiritual unity, although with no theoretically defined goal. It arose simultaneously in many places in Germany and was not confined to one generation: even such an established artist as Lovis Corinth responded to its impulses.

(b) Artists’ groups

One of the early Expressionist centres was in northern Germany, the home of such painters as Emil Nolde, christian Rohlfs and paula Modersohn-becker, and of the sculptor Ernst Barlach. Their intuitive, untrained art was inspired by an awareness of the close link between man and nature, and eschewed both literary and classical influences. A second, stronger impulse came from central Germany. Here the artistic revolution after 1900 was a conscious, more intellectual process. Its focal-point was Die Brücke, founded in Dresden with the aim of ‘attracting all the elements of revolution and unrest’. The founder-members were Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-rottluff and Fritz Bleyl (1880–1966), who were later joined by others, including Max Pechstein, Cuno Amiet, Kees Van Dongen, otto Mueller and (briefly) Nolde. They were interested in the work of such artists as the French Neo-Impressionists, van Gogh and Munch. Like other Expressionists, their rejection of traditional Western aesthetic values led to an interest in non-European art, in particular from Africa and the Pacific islands, where both Nolde and Pechstein travelled. They also turned to the literature of Scandinavia (e.g. Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg) and Russia (e.g. Fyodor Dostoyevsky) as sources of inspiration. They were passionate graphic artists, like the northern Germans.

Die Brücke was the essential catalyst for German Expressionism. It reached its artistic climax after its members moved between 1910 and 1914 to Berlin. There they drew on contemporary themes, depicting the bright and dark sides of city life: people living under psychological pressure or with an eroticism that often had morbid overtones, as well as scenes from the circus and music-halls. All their themes expressed the human condition under extreme stress prior to the outbreak of World War I. Such psychologically intense subjects demanded a painting of extraordinary communicative force. The Berlin works document the mature Expressionism of Die Brücke at its most intense. Even after the group’s dissolution in 1913, Kirchner continued to produce some of the most powerful Expressionist paintings, for example the self-portrait The Drinker (1915; Nuremberg, Ger. Nmus.startend).

The artists of Die Brücke exemplified certain qualities that came to characterize Expressionism as a whole. Henceforth, the extent of an artist’s heightened emotional involvement was seen as an important element in determining the status and quality of the work of art. The role of the artist in society was also altered. Expressionist artists considered themselves to be both provocative and esoteric. They not only demanded publicity, asking others to join together under the revolutionary banner, but also espoused elitist principles, as expressed in the quotation ‘odi profanum vulgus’ used by Kirchner in Chronik der Künstlergemeinschaft Brücke (Berlin, 1913). This double role formed part of the Expressionist artist’s image as a ‘wild’ person, a destroyer of traditional values. In future the public became used to seeing the artist no longer as a sacred guardian of traditions but rather as a prophet, who ruthlessly broke social conventions.

Although Die Brücke was widely influential, the Expressionism of southern Germany diverged from the exalted form of personal expression prevalent among the artists in northern and central Germany. For the Blaue Reiter group in Munich, imagination was the source of inspiration in a pantheistic world-view: the group’s members expressed a new poetry about nature and an urge towards mystical spiritualization, which included a strong eastern European element, as interpreted by the Russian artists, Vasily Kandinsky and Alexei Jawlensky. The painters in Munich aimed to create an image that would portray the ‘mystic inner construction’ of the world, a notion that Franz Marc developed. This spirituality became the basis for a move towards complete abstraction, completed by Kandinsky in 1910. There was also a strong French influence in Munich, particularly from Robert Delaunay and the Fauves, which brought with it an openness towards foreign influences. This was in contrast to north German Expressionism, which was introverted by nature and tended to concentrate on its own problems. Both tendencies were, however, linked by the sense of a need to find the point where the outer and inner worlds met—their common inheritance from German Romanticism. This was, however, achieved pictorially in different ways. The northern artists concentrated on elementary, pictorial qualities that were expressive, rather than aesthetic, for example strong colours without much tonal subtlety. The Blaue Reiter painters developed a luminous, sensitive palette, rich in different tonal values, analogous to music, which was an aspect that greatly interested Kandinsky.

Western German Expressionism comprised the ‘Rheinische Expressionisten’ (august Macke, Walter Ophey (1882–1930), heinrich Campendonk and others) and the ‘Westfälische Expressionisten’ (Eberhard Viegener (b 1890), Wilhelm Morgner, and Heinrich Nauen). Unlike the close association of Die Brücke, these were loose alliances of artists with fundamentally different characters and temperaments, who came together for various lengths of time. Expressionism was also promoted in Berlin by herwarth Walden’s periodical Der Sturm (founded 1910), and by his Sturm-Galerie (founded 1912). These played an important role in furthering the Expressionist cause, as well as the whole of the modern art movement in Berlin. The group Die Pathetiker (founded 1912 by Ludwig Meidner, Jacob Steinhardt and Richard Janthur (b 1883)) also worked there, as did Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann periodically: the latter three artists all experimented with Expressionism, before developing more realistic styles. The Austrian artist Egon Schiele also exhibited in Berlin in 1916.

(c) Printmaking

The image of northern and central German Expressionism was determined not only by painting but also by graphic art, in particular woodcuts. This technique was used by such precursors of Expressionism as Munch and Gauguin, and culminated in the printed graphic work of the painters of Die Brücke, and Rohlfs and Nolde (e.g. The Prophet, 1912; Seebüll, Stift. Noldestartend). No other medium was as well suited as the woodcut to evoking strong emotional tensions by contrasting black-and-white planes or two basic colours, or to making such expressive use of its rudimentary roughness, without any pictorial illusion of bodies, shadows or space. Like Gothic woodcutters, they both designed and cut the blocks, even printing the copies themselves. Like Munch, they preferred the texture of blocks cut along the grain. The resistance of the brittle material was exploited for its expressive potential. Some of the best Expressionist woodcuts were produced during the Berlin years of Die Brücke. The urban themes of people, cityscapes, the circus and variety-hall, as well as the hectic and abnormal life-style of the city, are closely linked with the paintings of that era. Around 1910 their painting was influenced by the printmaking: the colours crowded on to the surface and were heavily outlined in black, as on woodcuts.

Despite the dominance of woodcuts, etching and lithography also played a vital role in Expressionism. Lithography could be quite graphic or painterly in its effect. It was made by applying brush, pen or chalk on to stone and printed in black-and-white or colour. This technique was already fully developed in the work of Die Brücke by 1907. Lithography was also important in the work of the sculptor Barlach, and in that of the Austrian Oskar Kokoschka, who became known in Berlin through his lithographs. Some of the numerous colour prints of the period resemble watercolour, which was also one of the Expressionists’ favourite techniques and exceptionally successful in the hands of Nolde and Rohlfs.

Nolde was one of the greatest Expressionist masters of etching. Other significant practitioners included Heckel and Kirchner, and later Beckmann, who were also particularly interested in drypoint. However, the paramount importance of Nolde started at the latest from the time of the famous Hamburg Harbour series (1910). His skilful pictorial compositions are among the most important achievements in 20th-century European graphic art.

(d) Sculpture

The success of Expressionist sculpture was achieved by a few important sculptors, above all ernst Barlach, Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Bernhard Hoetger, who was also an architect. Their portraits penetrated, with striking depth, into the sitter’s state of mind, as this was considered more important than any superficial similarity. They also took as themes extreme psychological states and human situations, including works inspired by experience of World War I (e.g. The Avenger, 1914; for illustration see Barlach, ernst). The artists’ spirituality also led to religious imagery, which extended to represent general truths. The forms and expressive purpose of the sculpture are sometimes reminiscent of German Gothic art. Apart from the works of Barlach and Lehmbruck, Expressionist sculpture did not gain the international level of recognition of the painting and graphic work of this period.

Significant sculpture was also made by artists who otherwise practised painting and graphic arts, particularly the members of Die Brücke and their circle: for example, Kirchner was inspired to produce large sculptures after his meeting with Hermann Scherer in 1923. Such work was not known until relatively late and was seldom shown during their lifetimes. The favourite material was wood (also preferred by Barlach), since this was cheaper and easier to work than bronze. The Die Brücke artists’ interest in sculptures from Africa and the Pacific islands, which they had seen in the collections of the Völkerkundemuseum in Dresden, clearly inspired their own sculpture in its formal aspects. Their works, which were almost exclusively figurative, adapted, rather than copied the non-European art, in order to intensify the power of their own designs; they were later often painted. The sculptures can also often be found as motifs in the artists’ paintings.

(ii) International developments and legacy of Expressionism

Although Expressionism particularly flourished in Germany, significant developments occurred in other European countries. The principal Austrian Expressionists were Schiele and Kokoschka, both of whom had been influenced by Jugendstil and especially Gustav Klimt. Kokoschka produced powerful Expressionist portraits, including some drawn for Der Sturm. Other important work was done before 1908 by Richard Gerstl, who was influenced by Arnold Schoenberg. Outside German-speaking countries, some Expressionist art was produced in Scandinavia (e.g. by Henrik Sørensen in Norway). However, the most important other group was based in the artists’ colony of Laethem-saint-martin in Belgium, which from 1905 developed an Expressionism dominated by rural and religious themes. Albert Servaes created a vigorous style characterized by schematic forms and sombre colours, which also informed the work of constant Permeke, gustave De smet and frits Van den berghe. French art was dominated by other trends, although individual painters produced some work that showed Expressionist influences, for example that of André Dunoyer de Segonzac before World War I. Georges Rouault combined Expressionism with more traditional drawing techniques. Although such artists as Marcel Gromaire rejected the Expressionist label, their art betrayed an obvious debt: for example, work by Gromaire after World War I was heavily influenced by Flemish and (to a lesser extent) German Expressionism. The painting of Chaïm Soutine was also highly expressionistic, characterized by violent brushwork. Among sculptors active in Paris, the work of Alexander Archipenko and Ossip Zadkine also showed Expressionist influences.

The legacy of Expressionism was widespread. In Germany the period of ‘Sturm und Drang’ ended c. 1920, although a younger generation, formed by the disorders of the period of World War I, were vociferous for a long time in their support of certain Expressionist positions: in particular, the Expressionists’ social criticism inspired Neue sachlichkeit. It can be argued that all later stylistic tendencies in German art have in some way been involved with Expressionism, even if only by clearly defining themselves in contrast to its formal and ideological arguments. Internationally the innovations of the Blaue Reiter undoubtedly influenced the development of later expressive Abstraction. A more direct link between later movements and Expressionism was evident from c. 1980 in the figurative work of artists sometimes termed neo-Expressionists. These included the German Georg Baselitz and the so-called ‘Neue Wilden’, and the American Julian Schnabel and the Nieuwe Beelding movement.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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