GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM THEMES: CITY LIFE
City LifeBack to all Themes
Berlin, the capital and largest city—and, after 1910, the seat of the burgeoning Expressionist movement—came in particular to embody this intoxicating paradox, wherein unparalleled freedoms and opportunities were offset by disaffection, “neurosis,” and sensory overstimulation.
As a result of an intensely rapid period of industrialization in the 19th century, German cities experienced an explosion in size and population density between German unification, in 1871, and 1910. The Expressionists approached the modern city with ambivalence. On the one hand, they recognized the dehumanizing and alienating effects of an urban lifestyle. Yet at the same time, they celebrated the excitement and vitality of its bustling pace and multifarious attractions.
The modern city offered an unparalleled richness of new experiences—and places to encounter new people. Klinger set his tale of sexual desire at Berlin's Central Skating Rink, which had recently opened and provided fresh opportunities for fun, both chaste and erotic.
Schmidt-Rottluff constructs a dynamic interpretation of a nighttime view of a residential street through color and energized, geometric planes. He was influenced by the vibrating, dynamically fractured forms of the Italian Futurists, whose work he saw at an exhibition in Berlin.
Meidner highlights the anonymous and utilitarian aspects of the city, the very aspects that distinguished it from the small town where he grew up. He later recalled the hours he spent with friends wandering Berlin at night, writing, "We were 28 years old then and had a lot of endurance, which had not even run out by the time the sun came up.... We were so much in love with the city."
In a city where everything is for sale, decadently dressed prostitutes prowl for their next customer. Kirchner's street scene emphasizes the intoxicating modernity of Berlin through garish colors, which give the entire composition the tint of artificial light, and jagged and energized planes, suggestive of the city's fast-paced tempo.
For Grosz, Berlin in 1917 was a place as hellish as the battlefield. Bathed in shades of fiery red, flame blue, and rich purple, buildings topple and streets buckle. Tilted on a diagonal, Grosz's composition reinforces the social upheaval and moral breakdown that occurred during the war years. He plots a zigzag tour through the city's debauchery.
(1916–17), dated 1917
By contrast, Beckmann shows the mundane aspects of everyday city life. On a bustling street, a woman yawns while others hurry along. Beckmann shows mere flashes of life; mirroring the experience of passing by strangers on the street, he gives no sense of their goals or destination.
(1920, dated 1921, published 1922)
Dix exploited the graphic contrast of black and white to suggest the clamor of an illuminated nighttime populated by clanging streetcars, prowling animals, and striding prostitutes.
(1920/21, published 1921)
In this image Grosz contrasts the lives of the wealthy and the working class. In the early morning hours, the well-fed men play cards and indulge in excesses of alcohol and women at a brothel. At the same time, workers march off to a long day at the factory.
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