GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM THEMES: NUDES
NudesBack to all Themes
The Brücke artists rejected the idealized nudity and classical positions that were emphasized in the traditional art academies. Instead, they depicted the unrehearsed and uninhibited poses of their girlfriends or other young acquaintances in the studio or in nature. For them and other Expressionists, casual nudity and a frank sexuality were a reaction against the stiff bourgeois social mores of the day
The naked body and its potential to signify primal emotion was a core Expressionist theme. The Expressionists' drive to get at inner experience led them to study the ways that bodily gestures, postures, and facial expressions could communicate essential states of being.
For the Expressionists, the naked body was a potent site for challenging traditions of beauty and propriety, and artists like Klee used the naked female body to ridicule social and artistic conventions. A virgin’s body has withered from lack of use. Her desiccated breasts and jagged hips, traditionally sites of erotic desire, follow the gnarly contours of the barren tree in which she is perched. Rough hatch marks give the same texture to both her skin and the tree bark. Aware of her wasted body, she hardens her stare away from two nuzzling lovebirds, creatures of nature not constrained by society’s sexual mores.
Fränzi Fehrmann became one of the Brücke’s favorite subjects. At the time Heckel made this woodcut, she was just ten years old. Heckel was fascinated by her gangly, uncontrolled movements, which seemed a perfect antidote to the stiff poses of professional models and ossified academic conventions of nude figure drawing. Her awkwardly posed nude body is a sign of her adolescent lack of inhibition—even reclining here in Heckel’s studio, she seems about to set into motion—and it became a site of radical formal experimentation for Heckel.
Although highly finished, this drawing retains the impromptu freshness of a quick sketch and captures the relaxed atmosphere toward nudity in the Brücke members’ studios. The two models are seemingly unaware of the artist and are shown milling about, not posing in a formal academic exercise. Heckel cropped the composition at the models’ feet, further emphasizing a sense of motion, and he reduced the details of their bodies to a few hasty marks for breasts and tufts of hair.
This print reflects the free and uninhibited spirit Heckel and his friends found in nature, away from the decadence and social constraints of the city. Two figures relax, completely at ease with their nudity in the meadows, possibly on Hiddensee, a tiny and remote island in the Baltic Sea where Heckel spent the summer of 1912.
(1909, published 1910)
Kirchner initially adumbrated this composition, depicting four male and female nudes frolicking freely in nature, on a postcard he sent from the Moritzburg Lakes in summer 1909. The liberated body was a key theme in his work at the time, and he centered this woodcut directly on an impressive phallus. For Kirchner, art did not mean merely copying nature, and even a print like this, which appears to record a scene with immediacy and accuracy, was carefully composed.
Kokoschka perceived the world through drawing. Here, the unusual pose of the model, seen from behind crouching awkwardly, signals Kokoschka’s rejection of the usual tenets of beauty. In this work, he adopted the “eyes-off” approach to drawing, in which he kept he kept his gaze fixed on the model. The stuttering contour line that traces her moving body implies immediacy and spontaneity, key traits in the revolt against academic conventions. This gestural style might have been influenced by Auguste Rodin’s revolutionary nude drawings, which were exhibited in Vienna in 1908.
(1914, published 1922)
Schiele scratched into the plate of this print the sinuous contour lines of a twisting and crouching half-nude woman, while the rich, fuzzy drypoint lines convey the sensuousness of a warm, moving body. Rather than using professional models, who adopted static and conventional poses, Schiele preferred the free and unselfconscious movements of amateurs.
Schiele often sketched the models in his studio from unconventional angles. Seen from above, this model’s face is obscured by waves of black hair; she wears only violet stockings rolled down to her knees and black shoes. Schiele highlights the roundness of her breasts with a line of pink wash. He repeats that rosy color further below, offsetting detailed, black tufts of pubic hair.
Hannah Dancing embodies the joyful abandon of an unconstrained body in motion. In Kirchner’s studio, the members of the Brücke, along with their friends and models, frequently danced and lounged in the nude. Along with their clothes, they threw off the social restrictions and conventions of bourgeois German life.
The fluttering skirt barely covers the body of a dancer who has completely given herself over to ecstatic movement. For Nolde her nakedness and unabashed sexuality tapped into primal instincts, signaling an authentic form of expression and a harmony with the natural world, removed from the decadence of urban dance halls. Yet two sketchily rendered figures to the left, behind the flaming torch, place the performance within the voyeuristic context of the German stage.
(1913), dated 1914, (published 1921)
Heckel made this woodcut, showing his future wife Sidi, during a tumultuous period of his life, in the months after the breakup of the Brücke artist’s group. With eyes downcast and making one of her typical gestures, Sidi conveys a hushed and brooding emotion. Heckel’s depiction of her as a nude removes her from everyday time and space and its transient concerns. Monumental and timeless, her body stands as a stable anchor amid the upheavals in his professional life.
(1917, published 1918)
Beckmann’s print of Adam and Eve after the Fall depicts two contrasting reactions to the realization of their nudity and their sin. Although Eve covers herself with one hand, she brazenly cups her breast in offering to Adam. Adam, by contrast, is shamefully aware of his body and awkwardly struggles to hide himself from Eve’s fixed gaze, which hones in on the very part of his body he wishes to hide. He crosses his legs and hunches backwards, preferring to retreat into the darkness, where a snake and wolf symbolize the threats of the post-paradisiacal world.
1919 (published 1922)
In Dix’s woodcut, the nude female body has an apparently terrifying power to compel men. A prostitute is stripped down to high heels, stockings, and a corset. Her bared, oversized genitals—placed at the exact center of the composition—and breasts that twinkle like stars act as the forces around which all men revolve.
The subject of Dix’s drawing stands as haughty and regal as a classical goddess. Yet the “beautiful Mally,” as Dix’s brutally ironic inscription reads, is no divinity. Rather, she is an aging prostitute still plying her trade. Here, he relishes in detailing every aspect of her body, from the girlish bowties on her stockings and high heels to her mature, rounded hips and breasts. Nudes like Mally were a key part in the development of Dix’s socially critical, veristic style.
In this work, Grosz revels in the pleasures of rendering flesh from paint. His luminous use of light and color bounces off the model’s soft skin, and the same colors are repeated on his artist’s palette. In the second half of the 1920s, Grosz returned with renewed interest to oil painting, often to scenes of lascivious nudes as well as to more socially critical works. Here, he shows himself with a model, likely his wife Eva or her sister Lotte, both of whom appeared in many of his canvases at the time.
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