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Expressionism and City Life

Through their art, German and Austrian Expressionists expressed their conflicted views of urban life.

Houses at Night

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
(German, 1884–1976)

1912. Oil on canvas, 37 5/8 x 34 1/2" (95.6 x 87.4 cm)

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff was a founding member, along with Ernest Ludwig Kirchner, of Die Brücke (The Bridge), a group of artists whose distorted depictions responded to urban alienation and the turmoil of modern life. Schmidt-Rottluff worked to reduce figures and scenes to their simplest forms in order to produce what he considered authentic expression.

In Houses at Night the street is empty, but sharp angles and diagonals add energy while the bright colors of the buildings glow in the night. The jutting geometrical shapes in this painting are similar to those in the disorienting set design for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a popular Expressionist film made several years later, in 1920. The film’s director, Robert Wiene, took advantage of the distorted perspective of Expressionist painting to evoke the anxiety of a town plagued by a murderer.

Otto Arpke and Erich Ludwig Stahl. Poster for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari). 1919

Otto Arpke and Erich Ludwig Stahl. Poster for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari). 1919

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

In art, a technique used to depict volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface, as in a painted scene that appears to extend into the distance.

An international artistic movement in art, architecture, literature, and performance that flourished between 1905 and 1920, especially in Germany and Austria, that favored the expression of subjective emotions and experience over depictions of objective reality. Conventions of Expressionist style include distortion, exaggeration, fantasy, and vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of color.

Artist group active in Dresden, Germany, from 1905 to 1913, and closely associated with the development of Expressionism. The group is associated with an interest in the distortion of reality and expressive use of color to respond to the turmoil of modern urban society.

Off Kilter

In his book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film, the writer and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer argued that the rise of Nazism was foretold by the preceding years of German Expressionist films, which reflected a world at wrong angles and lost values. The idea that films reflect the unconscious desires and motivations of the culture that creates them remains controversial among film critics today.