German Expressionism

Works from the Collection

Styles Themes Techniques | Artists Print Publishers | Illustrated Books Portfolios Periodicals | Maps Chronology



Back to all Themes
A desire to comprehend events in spiritual terms was reflected in the artists' recurrent images of prophets and seers, and the belief that theirs was an age of apocalyptic transformation manifested itself in various archetypally Christian motifs of creation and rebirth. The incomprehensible horror of World War I led several artists to turn to Biblical themes of salvation and redemption, and to the woodcut technique, which had a strong association with German medieval and Renaissance religious imagery.
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff Saint Francis (1919)
For the Expressionists, art and religion were closely intertwined, as both involved surrender to an inner, spiritual energy and a preoccupation with the human soul. Although they lived in an age of intellectual skepticism and philosophical nihilism, the Expressionists were still drawn repeatedly to the Christian themes and motifs that had shaped German life and culture for centuries.

Emil Nolde



An icon of the Expressionist movement, Nolde's stark black-and-white woodcut expresses emotional gravity and psychological tension. This prophet is a figure who can see and imagine the future, which Nolde hoped to shape through his art.
<i>Christ and the Children</i>

Emil Nolde

Christ and the Children


Nolde's exuberant brushwork conveys the fervor of religious belief. He contrasts the innocent faith of the children, who all appear in rich, warm tones, with the restrained and cool blues of the skeptics to Christ's left. Nolde listed Christ and the Children as the seventh in his inventory of some 50 works, made between 1909 and 1951, that he categorized as "biblical and religious paintings."
<i>All Saints' Day</i> (plate, folio 46) from <i>Klänge (Sounds)</i>

Vasily Kandinsky

All Saints' Day (plate, folio 46) from Klänge (Sounds)


For this woodcut in his book Klänge (Sounds), Kandinsky radically simplified his composition All Saints' Day, which he had first painted in summer 1911. Here, Kandinsky focuses on the two embracing saints (possibly the Russians Boris and Gleb, or the Bavarians Damian and Cosmas) and the mounted rider, likely St. George, who symbolized Kandinsky's fight for new art.
<i>Great Resurrection</i> (plate, folio 52) from <i>Klänge (Sounds)</i>

Vasily Kandinsky

Great Resurrection (plate, folio 52) from Klänge (Sounds)


Kandinsky combined Bavarian and Russian folk imagery with an abstracted visual language to create this frenzied scene of the Last Judgment. In the upper left, an angel trumpets the coming apocalypse. In the lower right, a kneeling decapitated figure, holding its head aloft, returns to life as foretold in the Book of Revelation.
<i>The Nun</i>

Otto Dix

The Nun


Dix envisions a nun's internal struggle between her hope for eventual heavenly rewards and her desire for immediate worldly pleasures. The jarring, acidic colors on the nun's face and hands contrast sharply with the anguish and torment conveyed by her downcast eyes and furrowed brow. The deep lines and fractured planes of her face parallel the soaring vaults of the Gothic cathedral.
<i>Adam and Eve</i>

Max Beckmann

Adam and Eve

(1917, published 1918)

Adam and Eve have both become aware of their nakedness. Adam bashfully covers himself, while Eve offers him her breast. Beckmann focuses on the charged relationship between the two figures by filling the entire composition with their bodies. He includes portents of the evils and dangers lurking in the world beyond paradise, with a snarling dog in the background and the serpent slinking around Eve's leg and behind Adam.
<i>Descent from the Cross from Faces</i>

Max Beckmann

Descent from the Cross from Faces

(1918, published 1919)

Beckmann executed this print after a painting (see next slide) he made one year earlier. This black-and-white drypoint suggests a bleak view of humanity's future. Jesus is a lifeless corpse, while in the background the sun is just a blackened disc. This is one of two prints of overtly religious scenes that Beckmann included in his portfolio Faces, which explored various aspects of life during World War I.
<i>Descent from the Cross</i>

Max Beckmann

Descent from the Cross


In this work, painted in the midst of a seemingly never-ending war, Beckmann focuses on corporeal suffering. His controlled application of color conveys the lifelessness of Jesus's body, which is covered in bruises and still mirrors the shape of the cross in its rigor mortis. Black blood pools around the gaping holes of the stigmata. Beckmann was influenced by the exacting depictions of bodily decay and torment he saw in medieval German paintings.
<i>Saint Francis</i>

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Saint Francis


After three long years on the Eastern Front, Schmidt-Rottluff embraced religious imagery to express his disillusionment and hopes for transcendence. In this woodcut of St. Francis, who displays the stigmata on his raised hand, he used the volumetric modeling and masklike planes of African sculpture to depict a monumental, timeless figure of faith.
<i>The Miraculous Draught of Fishes</i>

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes


Jesus fills the height of the woodcut, standing tall and immobile, as if an eternal part of the landscape. He surveys the miraculous bounty he has brought forth, while Peter bows down in honor. In 1918, disillusioned after four years of war, Schmidt-Rottluff issued this print as part of a series of nine woodcuts on biblical themes that became known as the "Christ portfolio."
<i>As we forgive / our / debtors</i> from <i>The Lord's Prayer</i>

Max Pechstein

As we forgive / our / debtors from The Lord's Prayer


This print illustrates a single verse from the Lord's Prayer, which emphasizes the power of individual prayer. The 12 woodcuts that Pechstein created for this portfolio contrast God's grandeur and omnipotence with his humble followers' modest lives. Its message of hope and redemption resonated powerfully in postwar Germany, which was plagued by poverty, unemployment, and civil unrest.
<i>Hallowed be / Thy name</i> from <i>The Lord's Prayer</i>

Max Pechstein

Hallowed be / Thy name from The Lord's Prayer


In the early 1920s Pechstein, who only a few years earlier had been one of the most politically engaged Expressionists, transferred his hopes for a better tomorrow from earthly politics to spiritual salvation. In his woodcuts illustrating the Lord's Prayer, Pechstein borrowed from African and Oceanic sculpture as well as medieval German forms to present a timeless vision of peace and harmony.
<i>The First Day</i> from <i>The Transformations of God (Die Wandlungen Gottes)</i>

Ernst Barlach

The First Day from The Transformations of God (Die Wandlungen Gottes)

(1922, executed 1920-21)

Attempting to explain his cycle of prints, The Transformations of God, Barlach wrote, "All that has come into being is simply the Creator in one form or another, his phases, his mirror-image; the moment is simply a transformed fragment of reality." This first print from the series shows these ideas. An omnipotent God, radiating light and power, fills the entire woodcut as he surveys the world that he has just created. The swirling clouds part around his blocky, monumental form, which was inspired by Gothic sculpture.
<i>The Martyrdom</i> (plate 4) from <i>Hell</i>

Max Beckmann

The Martyrdom (plate 4) from Hell


In January 1919, right-wing paramilitary forces dragged Communist leader Rosa Luxemburg, battered and unconscious, from the Eden Hotel into a waiting automobile before shooting her. In this lithograph, Beckmann departs from an objective representation of the events, instead showing Luxemburg as a martyr, with her limbs outstretched in the shape of a cross and her body covered with sores. He modeled this composition on a 15th-century German painting of the crucifixion.
<i>Hunger</i> (plate 5) from <i>Hell</i>

Max Beckmann

Hunger (plate 5) from Hell


Beckmann's family—his mother-in-law heads the table; his son Peter sits on the right—bow their heads in prayer before a meager meal. Like many other middle-class Germans, the Beckmanns found themselves in dire straits in the years just after World War I. In the background, a figure of Christ stands motionless. No miracle has been performed to transform the slim offerings on the table—a hunk of bread and a small bowl of dried fish—into a feast for the multitudes.
1 of 15