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German Expressionism

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GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM THEMES: NATURE

Nature

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which were a reaction against the stiff social proprieties of German society in the Wilhelmine period before World War I. After the war broke out in 1914, their landscapes took on a calmer, more sober tone, as they looked to nature for spiritual solace and the comforting notion of a simpler life structured around the rhythms of the natural world.
Expressionist landscapes extended from a long Romantic tradition that viewed nature as an antidote to the stresses and corruption of modern life. Blaue Reiter artists retreated to the Alpine village of Murnau near Munich to live and paint in harmony with nature, using it as inspiration for their colorful, increasingly abstract landscapes. The Brücke artists' images of themselves and their girlfriends frolicking in the nude at the lakes outside Dresden can be broadly related to back-to-nature and nudist movements,




<i>Bathers Throwing Reeds</i> from <i>Brücke 1910</i>

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Bathers Throwing Reeds from Brücke 1910

(1909, published 1910)

This scene recalls the summer retreats that Kirchner, his fellow Brücke artists, and their girlfriends and models would take at the Moritzburg lakes outside Dresden. While there, they bathed in the nude and created artworks depicting naked bodies in relaxed harmony with nature. Such activities—and images—were a reaction against the stultifying propriety of bourgeois society at the time.
<i>Three Bathers at the Moritzburg Lakes</i> from <i>Brücke 1910</i>

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Three Bathers at the Moritzburg Lakes from Brücke 1910

(1909), published 1910

In this drypoint, three nude bathers are rendered in just a few schematic lines, their bodies reduced to flat silhouettes. The image has the quick, spontaneous quality of an outdoor sketch.
<i>Horses Resting</i>

Franz Marc

Horses Resting

1911

Marc's many images of animals in a pristine natural world were meant as symbols of uncorrupted spiritual renewal. In this semi-abstract woodcut, four grazing horses harmoniously merge with the surrounding flora. The rhythmic unity of organic shapes and soothing colors expresses the artist's idealistic vision of a cosmic union of figure and landscape, matter and spirit.
<i>White Horses</i>

Erich Heckel

White Horses

1912

Heckel's woodcut of a similar subject accentuates the inherent expressiveness and irregularity of the wood matrix. This luminous, dreamlike scene suggests a Romantic desire for harmony with nature.
<i>The Girl Li and I</i> (in-text plate, folio 10) from <i>Die träumenden Knaben (The Dreaming Boys)</i>

Oskar Kokoschka

The Girl Li and I (in-text plate, folio 10) from Die träumenden Knaben (The Dreaming Boys)

1917 (executed 1907–08)

In this illustration to his fairy-tale poem "The Dreaming Boys," Kokoschka presents nature as an enchanted but sexually charged dreamscape. Two naked adolescents stand awkwardly in the middle, evoking the primal scene of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
<i>Killing of the Banquet Roast</i>

Max Pechstein

Killing of the Banquet Roast

1911 (published 1912)

An element of the primal and mythic also permeates this woodcut of an imaginary hunting scene. Pechstein borrowed his motif from a bronze plate from Benin and translated it to woodcut, exploiting the medium's potential for coarsely gouged, "primitive" expression.
<i>Two Girls in the Dunes at Sylt</i>

Otto Mueller

Two Girls in the Dunes at Sylt

(1920–24)

Mueller's stylized nudes in idyllic landscapes make no reference to any particular place or time. Here he transforms the German island of Sylt in the North Sea, a popular resort, into a timeless sanctuary, removed from the constraints of civilization.
<i>Boats on the Sea</i>

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Boats on the Sea

(1913), published 1914

This is one of several seascapes Schmidt-Rottluff created in Nidden, East Prussia (now Lithuania), on the Baltic Sea. By cutting away large areas of the wood and paring the composition down to just a few lines, the artist brought the scene close to a flat, rhythmic abstraction.
<i>Crater Field near Dontrien, Lit by Flares</i> from <i>The War</i>

Otto Dix

Crater Field near Dontrien, Lit by Flares from The War

(1924)

This print shows a field on the Western Front ridden with shell holes, suggesting a landscape of wounds. Here nature is a site of apocalyptic destruction. Dix included this work in his monumental series of 50 etchings, titled The War, which was based largely on his experiences as a machine gunner during World War I.
<i>Russian Landscape with Sun</i>

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Russian Landscape with Sun

(1919)

Executed after Schmidt-Rottluff returned from military service in Russia, this woodcut depicting a melancholic winter landscape was created from memory. A white path dividing the image leads toward a large black sun framed by naked trees, perhaps suggesting a road to spiritual redemption after the trauma of war.
<i>Winter Moonlit Night</i>

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Winter Moonlit Night

(1919)

In fall 1918 Kirchner moved permanently into a farmhouse in the Swiss Alps above Davos-Frauenkirch, hoping that the peaceful surroundings would help him recover from the trauma of his 1915 military service. This introspective landscape, one of his most luminous woodcuts, is a view from his house during the moonset.
<i>Mill by the Water</i>

Emil Nolde

Mill by the Water

(1926)

This lithograph represents the Danish borderlands, where Nolde lived intermittently in a small farmhouse until 1926, when he was forced to leave as a result of the Danish government's new land-cultivation and drainage projects. The isolated mill facing a cloud expresses the artist's melancholy remembrance of pristine marshlands that would be forever altered. It also stands for a pre-industrial way of life, in harmony with the forces of nature.
<i>Mill by the Water</i>

Emil Nolde

Mill by the Water

(1926)

This is another of the six known color variants of this print, from a total edition of 23. Printed in black and gray, it suggests a dark, silvery nocturne.
<i>Soiern Lakes</i>

Alexander Kanoldt

Soiern Lakes

(1934)

Kanoldt's lithographed landscape has the cool, detached effect of a black-and-white photograph. Rendered with architectural precision, it is an example of the more naturalistic style, known as the "New Objectivity," that developed in the 1920s. The scene shows a group of Alpine lakes in Bavaria in the south of Germany. Nature is eerily static, mysterious, and foreboding, evoking the sublime.
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