GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM STYLES: BRüCKE
BrückeBack to all Styles
Printmaking and drawing were integral to the Brücke artists’ practice. The graphic techniques offered a less expensive, more immediate way of developing their craft than painting. The boldness and flatness that they developed in their woodcuts, in particular, helped them clarify their reductive style in painting. Their simplified or distorted forms and unusually strong, unnatural colors were meant to jolt the viewer and provoke an emotional response.
The artists’ group Brücke was established in Dresden on June 7, 1905, a moment that is recognized as the birth of Expressionism. Its leading members were Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and the name Brücke (“bridge”) reflects these artists’ youthful eagerness to cross into a new future. The Brücke artists worked together communally until 1913, when the members struck out on their own separate paths.
Brücke artists depicted scenes from their everyday bohemian lives, which revolved around their work with nude models in the studio, extended holidays at the lakes outside Dresden, bustling urban street life, and regular visits to local dancehalls and nightclubs.
Kirchner’s Nude Dancers exemplifies the freedom that the young artists of the Brücke group sought in their life and in their art. The stark black-and-white image reduces the composition to its barest essentials: three nude women move uninhibitedly, not posing like academic models or following the conventions of refined forms of dance; one dancer’s large hat dominates the composition and creates a sense of spatial disequilibrium. Kirchner rejected the uniform inking and clean cutting of the block typical of professionally printed woodcuts, choosing instead to print the work himself, in a tiny edition.
Printmaking—and especially woodcut—proved crucial for the development of the Brücke artists’ distinctive Expressionist idiom, and they found 10-year-old Fränzi to be an ideal model in their search for authenticity and immediacy. Heckel transformed her awkward and uncontrolled adolescent movements into jutting, angular planes, flattened through the reductive qualities of the woodcut medium. He first gouged the composition into the woodblock and then sawed it into pieces, inking each part of the block separately before reassembling it for printing. He also applied lessons gleaned from African sculpture to depict her masklike face.
Two women mill about, unclothed and seemingly unaware of the artist’s gaze, in a moment of unstudied movement. Despite its spontaneous appearance, this is a finished drawing—not a quick sketch—that reflects Heckel’s interest in showing bodies in motion rather than in static or formulaic poses. In their studios and in their art, the Brücke artists created worlds free from prewar Germany’s social strictures.
1908 (reworked 1919; dated on painting 1907)
The artists of the Brücke yielded to the siren call of the modern city, exploring its pleasures and dangers as one of their key themes. Only the title situates this painting in Dresden, as Kirchner focuses on the passersby, emphasizing the fleeting and contingent encounters made possible by urban anonymity. The electrified, jarring colors and fluctuating forms convey both the bustle of the city and the overstimulated anxieties that many artists and critics found to be at the core of modern life.
Although this lithograph reprises the composition of Street, Dresden, it conveys a completely different mood. Kirchner extinguishes the vibrant color and light of the painting and instead uses black-and-white printmaking to suggest a grittier, more shadowy and soot-filled urban atmosphere. The acid and turpentine solutions Kirchner used in his experimental hand-printing technique dissolve the figures and further blur their identities.
Drinking alone in a club, her face half-hidden by a mask, Gerty embodies the intoxicating freedoms offered by anonymous city life. Kirchner uses lithography, the medium closest to drawing, to capture the spontaneity of the scene, but he emphasizes the graphic attributes of the work by printing the image to the edge of the lithographic stone and using an unconventional acid-and-turpentine wash that loosened the ink and highlighted the stone’s rough surface.
The artists of the Brücke found a potent source of inspiration in the titillating entertainments at variety theaters, which they frequented in Dresden, Berlin, and while traveling. Pechstein’s quick, scribbled lines and loose brushwork express the thrilling atmosphere of sexual freedom at a metropolitan nightspot, as a female dancer flashes her knickers. He emphasizes the lurid artificiality of these nocturnal pleasures by printing this lithograph on a glowing yellow paper, which mimics the glare of the lights.
Like the city street, the urban dance hall provided the opportunity for chance encounters with strangers, but tinged with intoxicating sexual possibilities. Here, Kirchner exploits the immediacy of drypoint—the simplest intaglio technique, in which an artist scratches the image directly onto the plate. He renders an anonymous mass in the center with hasty strokes and emphasizes the swirling energy of the dancers. The abrupt cropping of the couple in the lower center heightens the feeling of feverish movement.
(1909, published 1910)
Kirchner began visiting the Moritzburg lakes, outside of Dresden, in 1909, where he could draw and paint with fellow members of the Brücke and their girlfriends. Away from the seductions and corruptions of urban life, they frolicked in the nude and discovered a world freed from the social and moral confines of civilized, urban life. This print was published in the Brücke’s annual portfolio from 1910, a format that emphasized the communal strivings of the group.
In White Horses, Heckel creates a world of harmony between man and nature, drawing on the long Romantic tradition in German art that rejected order and rationality in favor of an emotional and spiritual response. Rather than using a roller to achieve an even distribution of color, Heckel used a brush to apply ink onto the woodblock, which he sawed in two parts and reassembled before printing, giving each impression a dappled luminosity that evokes the bright, sun-filled atmosphere of summer at the seaside.
Inspired by the raw landscapes he encountered on the North Sea, Schmidt-Rottluff channeled the elemental power of nature in The Sound. Here, he stacks the shoreline and sea and reduces the space to flat, almost abstract bands of black and white. Only the masts of two bobbing boats offset the horizontality of the composition. Typical of the Brücke’s innovative approach to printmaking, Schmidt-Rottluff’s deliberately crude technique rejects the clean lines and uniform surfaces of professionally printed works.
This painting is one in a series of street scenes Kirchner painted after the Brücke group disbanded in 1913, just a year and a half after the group had relocated to Berlin, a place of nearly limitless possibilities where everything was for sale. Two dolled-up prostitutes sashay past shop windows through a sea of anonymous men. They are simultaneously figures of peril and fascination; Kirchner distorts their features and expresses the destabilizing experience of the city through the compressed space, tilting planes, and acidic colors.
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