This week’s topic is German Expressionism. Expressionism is more difficult to pin down than some of the previous movements because it has so many proponents with so many different styles. It emphasized individual expression, not group doctrines and as a result there is little visual continuity between artists. Expressionism also spread out into many different art forms and while I’d love to talk about them all, this post will focus on the visual arts.
So join me after the break for a look at some of the Expressionist groups based in Germany.
*A note: this will be the last Modernist Monday post until the new year.
Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century was becoming one of the world’s great industrial powers. The organization of the country was unlike the mono-polar France (Paris) or Britain (London), but more like fragmented Italy. Unlike the Futurists’ Milan, German Expressionism, existing with in German federalism, flourished in different centres; Berlin Munich, Dresden and Koln in Germany. Berlin was becoming the final destination for exhibiting art and the centre of art criticism, writing and reaction. (1)
The expressionist story does not start in the Capital but in one of the outlying centres, Dresden, where Ernst Ludwig Kirchner met Fritz Bleyl while attending architecture school. Kirchner spent a 1903 at Wilhelm von Debsultz and Hermann Obrist’s progressive art school in Munich. (2) Kirchner developed an interest in “primitive” art from his time with Obrist in Munich and his time spent in ethnographic museums in Dresden. (3) Upon returning to Dresden, and finishing his studies, Kirchner, with Bleyl, were joined by Erich Heckle and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff in creating an art group in 1905 Die Brucke (The Bridge). (4) The inspiration for the name, according to Peter Lasko,comes from a line in Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One “‘ What is great in Man is, that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in Man, is that he is an over-going [ubergang] and a down-going [untergang].'” (5)
The group released a manifesto in 1906, not setting out a concrete set of demands or goals but pushing for a general societal individualism and expressiveness. In Kirchner’s words, “‘everyone belongs with us who, directly and without dissimulation, expresses that which drives him to create.'” (6) The German art world was full of individuals who would come and go in groups, exhibit with some now, than others later. Die Brucke attracted Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde (for a year) in 1906 and Otto Muller in 1910 among others. (7)
Die Brucke had similar ambitions as other avant-garde artists of the time. Like the Fauves, especially, Die Brucke artists wanted a break from tradition. They were not against the past, as the Futurists would be, they appreciated German and foreign folk art and the nineteenth century romantics who fought for free expression. The challenge they laid out was in defying the conventions of art in their works: the group simplified design and energized colour, contrast and light. (8)
The group worked together in a fraternal spirit, sharing studio space, materials and models. They spent summers in the country, having fun, developing an innocent, natural, state; searching for a non materialistic earthly utopia. (9) That togetherness was finally tested in 1911 when the group moved from Dresden to the cultural hub of Berlin. There, the movement lost strength, as the individual painters were pulled in different directions by a whirl of art and politics. (10)
Informed partly from the romanticism of German culture and because of the size and modernity of the city, for Kirchner, Berlin was a dark place. Berlin was a huge industrial city lacking older sections like other European capitals. The urban form was very compact and congested, to the point Berliners incessantly worried about crowding : “there was a widespread conviction that the metropolis would fundamentally change the human person”. (11) The impersonal anonymity of the city is captured in Berlin Street Scene, where the most striking feature within the mass of people are the empty, grotesque, faces. (12) Kirchner focused on the detrimental effects of industrial living, urban alienation and how they create a mechanical, impersonal society. (13)
The distractions of Berlin would prove too much for Die Brucke in 1913 the group was no more, though the artists would continue to work individually.
At the same time as Die Brucke was moving to Berlin another art movement from a regional hub, the Southern German city of Munich, was beginning to take shape. Munich was home to a Russian, former social scientist, who had moved to the city in order to become a painter(14). His name was Wassily Kandinsky and he would become an important actor in the Munich art scene and world-famous artist. In 1909 Kandinsky helped organize the Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen (NKVM) with another ex-pat Russian Alexei Jawlensky, Alexander Kanoldt, Adolph Erbsloh, Marianne Werefkin and Gabriele Munter. (15) The goal of the group was a synthesis of artistic ideals and spirituality. The group was going to do this with a broad array of artists from many countries, as was shown in their first exhibition in 1910 at the Galerie Thannhauser, where Picasso, Braque, Derain, Kees van Dongen and David and Vladimir Burluk were among the artists reflecting Kandinsky’s French and Russian connections. (16) In 1911, the jury for the next Thannhauser exhibition rejected Kandinsky’s Composition No. 5 because it was too large, a size restriction rule Kandinsky had written, and in protest Kandinsky left the NKVM with allies joining him (17). The painting was one verging on total abstraction, a precursor to the painting below from 1913. Kandinsky was beginning to conceive colour as being like musical notes, creating forms without proportion, symmetry order or other traditional artistic devices. (18)
What came next was a collaboration between those ex-NKVM members like Franz Marc, Gabriele Munter and new friends like Heinrich Campendonk and Paul Klee. The main artists Marc and Kandinsky would put on their own exhibition at Galerie Thannhauser 1911-1912 called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) featuring Alfred Kubin, Munter, Delaunay, August Macke, the musician Arnold Schoenberg and Campendonk. (19)
In 1912 the almanac of Der Blaue Reiter edited by Marc and Kandinsky was released along with Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art. For Kandinsky, painting must stop recording reality and act as an instrument the artists uses to give voice to their inner being. (20) Part of why the style of Expressionists is so different is because of the emphasis on individuality. Art should be without thought or meditation, rather expressed. (21)
Marc’s love of animal subjects and bright colours can be seen in his wilderness painting. Marc felt animals had an innocence lost to humans, a closer connection to nature and used animal imagery symbolically towards contemplation and enlightenment. (22)
The war was the end of Der Blaue Reiter, Kandinsky left Germany, most artists, like the English, French and Italian avant-garde, joined the military optimistic of the transformations war might bring. German artists who were more pessimistic about the war included Pechstein, George Grosz, Ludwig Meidner, and Conrad Felixmuller. For the pro-war artists, combat would improve character, strength; as Marc thought it would bring “worldwide catharsis and a spiritual purging of humankind.” (23)
By 1918 Marc and Macke had been killed and the German government dissolved. The revolution put political parties on the streets, making Expressionism political in 1918-1919. The avant-garde leant to the left because their negative experiences in the war fostered an anti-militarism and their desire to challenge the status quo made them anti-establishment. (24) The war was over, the system of the ruling classes was gone, there was a political vacuum and Expressionist artists wanted to take action.
Dada was the initial form of revolt, but by the 1920s, many artists began to depicted victims and social issues “pillaring social injustice or political repression.” (25) One of the main proponents of this political art was George Grosz: whose satire of German culture and contempt for the bourgeoise influenced his negative views of the city. In the politically charged post-war era he joined communist party. He focused on subjects of humiliation, wounded soldiers, and the wild night life of prostitution that had began to spring up in Berlin. He drew workers trudging to-from work, from demonstrations, the indifferent Bourgeois carousing around them. (26) From the scene below, you can get a sense of the mayhem, confusion and dislocation that Grosz associates with Berlin as a modern industrial city.
** Mouse over image for source info – click image for link
(1)Nikos Stangos ed Concepts of Modern Art: from Fauvism to Postmodernism. “Expressionism” Norbert Lynton P 30-49 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.)33.
(2)Peter Lasko The Expressionist Roots of Modernism (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)39.
(3)Peter Lasko The Expressionist Roots of Modernism (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)41-42.
(4)Nikos Stangos ed Concepts of Modern Art: from Fauvism to Postmodernism. “Expressionism” Norbert Lynton P 30-49 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.)35.
(5)Peter Lasko The Expressionist Roots of Modernism (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003) 36.
(6)Nikos Stangos ed Concepts of Modern Art: from Fauvism to Postmodernism. “Expressionism” Norbert Lynton P 30-49 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.)36.
(8)Gabriele Crepaldi Modern Art 1900-45: The Age of Avant-Gardes (New York: Collins Design, 2007)138.
(9)Norbert Wolf and Uta Grosenick Expressionism (Koln, Germany: Taschen, 2004.)11.
(10)Nikos Stangos ed Concepts of Modern Art: from Fauvism to Postmodernism. “Expressionism” Norbert Lynton P 30-49 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.) 36.
(12)Gabriele Crepaldi Modern Art 1900-45: The Age of Avant-Gardes (New York: Collins Design, 2007)142.
(13)Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: Western Perspective 12th Ed. vol. 2 (Toronto: Thompson-Wadsworth, 2006) 741.
(14)Peter Lasko The Expressionist Roots of Modernism (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003) 83.
(15)Gabriele Crepaldi Modern Art 1900-45: The Age of Avant-Gardes (New York: Collins Design, 2007)154.
(17)Peter Lasko The Expressionist Roots of Modernism (New York: Manchester University Press, 2003) 85.
(18)Gabriele Crepaldi Modern Art 1900-45: The Age of Avant-Gardes (New York: Collins Design, 2007)171.
(20)Gabriele Crepaldi Modern Art 1900-45: The Age of Avant-Gardes (New York: Collins Design, 2007)171.
(21)Gabriele Crepaldi Modern Art 1900-45: The Age of Avant-Gardes (New York: Collins Design, 2007)155.
(22)Nikos Stangos ed Concepts of Modern Art: from Fauvism to Postmodernism. “Expressionism” Norbert Lynton P 30-49 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.) 41.