GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM THEMES: SEX
SexBack to all Themes
In the 1920s, sexual imagery became even more explicit and voyeuristic, perhaps a reaction to a heightened sense of anxiety and emasculation in the wake of the lost war and the cultural shift that gave women increased visibility and power in public life.
The most basic and primal of human instincts, sex was at the core of many Expressionist works, both directly and indirectly. An open and uninhibited sexuality was an implicit element in the Brücke artists' Bohemian, antibourgeois lifestyle, and an explicit eroticism was crucial to the provocatively psychological portraiture of Viennese artists Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. But despite the relative frankness of these and other images, many of them still reflect 19th-century ideas about women being the polar opposite of men, and serving either as nurturers or transmitters of toxic sexuality and decadence. During and after World War I, disturbingly violent sex images were used by many artists as an especially potent and distressing symbol of moral decadence and societal anxiety.
Kirchner embraced nudity—both in his art and in his everyday life—as a way to challenge strict, Wilhelmine social codes. The rural retreats of Fehmarn and the Moritzburg lakes provided him with the perfect opportunity to draw unclothed bodies of both sexes in the open air.
The duality of the sexes was a central motif in Nolde's oeuvre, one that he expressed through form and color relationships in this lithograph. The man appears to pull the woman towards him, yet she seems to recoil. The vibrant red charges the scene with erotic energy and passion.
The woman in this watercolor—likely Wally (Valerie Neuzil), Schiele's model and companion from 1911 to 1915—gazes defiantly from beneath the waves of her brilliant red hair. Her hand barely lifts her skirt, exposing a stocking-clad leg. Schiele gives a sense of her vivacious personality, rather than focusing only on her sexuality.
Kokoschka dramatized the battle between the sexes in his play Murderer, Hope of Women, which scandalized Vienna when it premiered in July 1909. This poster advertising the performance proved so incendiary that Kokoschka recalled, more than 60 years later, the rage it caused. Kokoschka manipulated the Christian iconography of the Pietà, in which Mary cradles the dead Jesus, to show a blood-red man slumping in the arms of a deathly pale woman after their sexually charged conflict.
Two decadently dressed prostitutes saunter down a busy thoroughfare in Berlin, prowling for their next customer amid the sea of anonymous men who part as the women pass. The lurid glamour of their costumes, their gestures, and the erotic sway of their walk provide the subtle markers of their profession.
Inspired by Emile Zola's The Human Beast, this lithograph depicts the moment when the novel's mad protagonist—who is compelled to murder the women to whom he is sexually attracted—has killed his lover in a fit of frenzy. The blood-red color oozing from the woman's abdomen and mouth covers the entire space of the image, as if it has been smeared throughout the room.
(1914), dated 1916, published 1918
This drypoint shows the gruesome aftermath of a brutal murder in a brothel. Beckmann first sketched this scene in 1912 during a visit to Hamburg, where he explored the harbor and the city's notorious red-light district. Ironically, Hamburg's system of police-controlled houses of prostitution was intended to minimize violence associated with the sex trade.
Grosz's Metropolis plots a tour through the debauchery of Berlin, a place where moral order has broken down. A properly dressed man lecherously eyes the naked body of an upside-down woman, whose missing head suggests the contemporary fascination with sexual murder (Lustmord). Meanwhile, wearing little more than stockings and a shirt that bares her breasts, a streetwalker presses her hand into the crotch of a passing man.
Lehmbruck's drypoint conveys the fearfulness and awkwardness of sex. Here, a reclining woman in the background beholds the apparition of a couple that has fused together. Lehmbruck renders the male figure's back with an exaggerated arch, full of unrestrained passion, while the woman looks away pensively.
Two figures are locked in a midnight embrace, contorted into a tangle of arms and legs. With his head buried in her chest, the man tightly grasps the half-dressed woman. The barren room gives no clues as to the identities or relationship of the couple, although the clock above the simple bed suggests that their passion will soon expire.
In this brothel scene the characterization of the salacious sailor, based on Dix's observations during the war, suggests a transfer of military violence into brutal sexual aggression. Prostitution proliferated in Germany in the years following World War I, when poverty and widowhood left many women with no other recourse. It is a recurring theme in Dix's work of the 1920s, symbolizing societal depravity and corruption.
A piggish, impeccably attired man sits across a café table kissing a woman who is naked save a few alluring accessories. In this watercolor, Grosz ridicules the ongoing economic disparities of Weimar society, in which the wealthy could afford every pleasure—even that of another's flesh.
Welcome to MoMA.org. To take full advantage of all the site’s features, including the option to save works in the collection, please upgrade your browser to Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, or Internet Explorer 9. See our help page for more information.