GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM THEMES: LITERARY SUBJECTS
Literary SubjectsBack to all Themes
In part as a reaction to the flood of cheap paperbacks that came onto the market with the rise of mass literacy, many publishers began issuing exquisitely designed and luxuriously produced volumes with texts by classic or contemporary authors and prints by leading artists.
Modern artists in Germany and Austria frequently embraced literary motifs in their works by illustrating texts (which they sometimes wrote themselves) or by making series or portfolios of prints in which an extended narrative could be developed. The Expressionist era also witnessed a flourishing of book publishing.
For Kandinsky, who wanted break down distinctions between the arts, woodcut was the artistic technique closest to lyric poetry, and the material itself sang with expressive potential. In Verses without Words, Kandinsky created evocative images distilled from his longings for Russia. In Klänge, a book he called his "musical album," he paired evocative sounds with reductive black-and-white prints.
In this biblical story, Judith saves her people by murdering the despot Holofernes. Corinth heightens the narrative's emotional power and theatricality through his sensuous use of color. In this key scene, he places Judith in front of a blood-red curtain as she raises the blade to commit her heroic act.
1910 (published 1912)
Both of these posters use the artists' self-portraits to promote literary readings in Vienna. Kokoschka casts himself as Christ in an advertisement for his lecture "On the Nature of Visions," while Schiele's scowling face publicizes a lecture by Dr. Egon Friedell.
Just a few months after its scandalous premiere in Vienna, Herwarth Walden published Kokoschka's play Murderer, Hope of Women, with this drawing, in his avant-garde journal Der Sturm (at left). In 1916, Walden published a book edition, including drawings that had originally appeared in Der Sturm (at right). Kokoschka's play dramatized what he saw as the eternal clash between the sexes.
In this woodcut, Heckel strips away the narrative—inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov—to focus on an intense standoff between two men. Heckel was a voracious reader of Dostoyevsky's novels, which probed the psychological tensions of the modern experience.
(1918, posthumously published 1920/21)
Lehmbruck captures the inner turmoil swirling around Macbeth, who is surrounded by skeletal faces and disappointed, attenuated figures that recall Gothic statuary. This print was originally intended for a portfolio of works by German artists honoring Shakespeare after World War I, but was only published later.
Barlach depicts the uncontrollable violence of revolution in this illustration for Russian émigré Reinhold von Walter's poem "Petrograd 1918," which was published as Der Kopf. The fractured typeface harmonizes with Barlach's rough image to create a unified design in both text and image.
1921 (executed 1920)
The deliberately crude style of this woodcut complements the unrefined and bombastic tone of August Stramm's Expressionist poem "Schwermut" (Melancholia). Die Kündung, a short-lived periodical published in Hamburg after World War I, gave equal weight to the visual arts and poetry and was particularly notable for its experimental use of typography.
(1920, published c. 1921)
In 1924, Beckmann wrote, "Beckmann loves Bach, Pelikan (the ink and oil-paint manufacturer), Piper (the publisher), and two or three other Germans." Reinhard Piper was primarily a publisher of literature and art books, but he also published around 80 prints by Beckmann. Beckmann not only made this portrait, but also included Piper in many other prints. In The Tall Man, Piper appears as a spectator in the bottom-right corner.
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.