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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)

Along with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff was a founding member of Die Brücke (The Bridge), a group of artists who responded to urban alienation and the turmoil of modern life with exaggerated, sometimes caustic imagery. Schmidt-Rottluff reduced figures and scenes to their simplest forms in order to produce what he considered authentic expression.

In Houses at Night, he presents an empty street lined with buildings, whose sharp angles and diagonals and glowing colors imbue what otherwise might be a quiet scene with intensity and energy. 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 sleepwalking 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

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.

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).

The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.

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

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

Resembling or using the simple rectilinear or curvilinear lines used in geometry.

The shape or structure of an object.

Encompasses varying stylistic approaches that emphasize intense personal expression. Renouncing the stiff bourgeois social values that prevailed at the turn of the 20th century, and rejecting the traditions of the state-sponsored art academies, Expressionist artists turned to boldly simplified or distorted forms and exaggerated, sometimes clashing colors. As Expressionism evolved from the beginning of the 20th century through the early 1920s, its crucial themes and genres reflected deeply humanistic concerns and an ambivalent attitude toward modernity, eventually confronting the devastating experience of World War I and its aftermath.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

The artists’ group Die Brücke was established in 1905, a moment that is recognized as the birth of Expressionism. The affiliated artists often turned to simplified or distorted forms and unusually strong, unnatural colors to jolt the viewer and provoke an emotional response. Its leading members were Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. The name Brücke (“bridge”) reflects these artists’ youthful eagerness to cross into a new future. The Brücke artists worked together communally until 1913.

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.