Expressionism 1905 - 1925
Although most of the modern art movements were centred in France in the early 1900s, one movement which was particularly reflective of the feelings of youth at this time arose in Germany - German Expressionism.
The years before World War I (WWI) had seen rapid change across Europe, with the industrialisation of cities, and, as railways began to cross the continent, greater movement within and across countries. Electricity was being installed and other new inventions such as the automobile, gramophone, radio transmission, moving pictures and powered flight were introduced. It was also a period of widespread political change, increased access to education, a breakdown of traditional social classes and the beginnings of women seeking greater independence, including the right to vote.
As a result, many young artists wanted to completely change the meaning and purpose of art.
Around 1904 a group of student artists in Dresden, including Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Fitz Bleyl, and Ernst Ludwig Kirschner launched the first German expressionist group, Die Brücke (The Bridge). They believed that art could express the truth of the human condition.
They declared in their manifesto "We want to free our lives and limbs from the long-established older powers. Anyone who renders his creative drive directly and genuinely is one of us".
Die Brücke felt it wasn't important to reproduce an aesthetically pleasing impression of the artistic subject matter, but rather to represent vivid emotional reactions by powerful colours and dynamic compositions.
Several years later, in 1911, a second group in Munich, Der Blaue Reiter, (The Blue Rider) was established by Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Munter and Franc Marc. This group placed more emphasis on mysticism and created work in a more lyrical style.
The name “blue rider” refers to a key motif in Kandinsky’s work: the horse and rider, which was for him a symbol for moving beyond realistic representation. The horse was also a prominent subject in Marc’s work, which centred on animals as symbols of rebirth.
The artists who most influenced the Expressionists were Edvard Munch (for example The Scream), Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, who also sought to express their emotions through their art. However, for the Expressionists, the emotional strength of their subjects was as important at the colour. A number of the artists had also seen Henri Matisse's Fauvist work, and they sought to incorporate his ideas about colour.
Fritz Bleyl, Poster
Other influences were "primitivistic" art and “naive” Bavarian folk art and the abstracting tendencies of the bold, poster-like forms and flat patterning in Jugendstil (literally, the “young style”) design (the German equivalent of Art Nouveau).
Most of the German Expressionists were interested in print making, and made prolific use of the three leading print mediums of the time - the woodcut, etching and lithograph. In particular, they were attracted to the woodcut's long tradition in German history (for example, by Albrecht Durer).
The graphic techniques also offered a less expensive, more immediate way of developing their art than painting. The boldness and flatness that they developed in their woodcuts, in particular, helped them clarify their reductive style in painting. Their simplified or distorted forms and unusually strong, unnatural colours were meant to jolt the viewer and provoke an emotional response.
The Expressionists were most active until the outbreak of WWI. A number of both the Die Brücke and Die Brücke were either killed, injured or deeply affected by the fighting. As the war progressed, artists reflected their responses to the carnage in their art. For example, Käthe Kollwitz was a prolific printmaker who lost a son in the war, and many of her woodcuts showed the impact on families, particularly women and children.
A third group, Die Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity) was a pseudo-Expressionist movement founded in Germany in the aftermath of the war. Many of the artists were anti-war. It was characterised by a realistic style combined with a cynical, socially critical philosophical stance.
Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckman were the key artists who aggressively attacked and satirised the evils of society and those in power. They demonstrated in harsh terms the devastating effects of WWI on the general population, and the physical damage to individuals.
Expressionist art can be identified by the following features:
Focus on inner response to the world;
Expression of the human condition;
Garish or unnatural colours;
Great use of print media, particularly woodcuts
Exposure of pain, suffering and immorality of
World War I.
Artists from this period include:
Expressionism defines art that is subjective or personal.
Expressionist artists sought to portray emotions and subjective interpretations.
They felt it was not important to reproduce an aesthetically pleasing impression of the artistic subject matter, but rather to represent vivid emotional reactions by powerful colours and dynamic compositions.
Expressionists were trying to pinpoint the expression of inner experience rather than solely realistic portrayal, seeking to depict not objective reality but the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in them.
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Another Expression group, Die Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), appeared in the 1920s. Artworks from these post-war artists were detailed, highly realistic, often grotesque satires, conveying disillusionment with 'official' values.
Otto Dix was fascinated by ugliness and sought to expose the immorality and corruption of Weimar Germany with bitingly satirical paintings - his paintings of the war show the brutality and human sufferings.
George Grosz, a painter and graphic artist was a founding member of Berlin Dada, and part of Die Neue Sachlichkeit. He was renowned for his pen-and-ink drawings satirizing the war-profiteers and corrupt officials during and after World War I.
Max Beckmann was a German painter, lithographer, woodcut artist. His early expressionist distortion gave way to a cold objectivity. He saw the city as the mirror of a trivial, petty and deeply decadent society. Beckman was noted for his expressionist portraits.
Käthe Kollwitz lost a son in the war, and many of her woodcuts show the impact on families, particularly women and children.
Key Expresionist Artists
Emergence of Expressionism – Die Brücke
In 1905, the group of artists known as Die Brücke (The Bridge) comprised Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and Fritz Bleyl, who were architectural students in Dresden, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. They were joined by Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and the Swiss artist Cuno Amiet in 1906, and by Otto Muller in 1910.
By late 1911, the principal artists of Die Brücke had moved from the relatively genteel city of Dresden to the teeming metropolis of Berlin, which by then was the third largest city in Europe, following London and Paris.
Crowded city streets were a favourite subject for Die Brücke, who were seeking subjective inspiration in creating art, which art historian Paul Fetcher referred to as “the emotional experience in its most intense and concentrated formulation“. These artists used symbolic colour and linear distortion to express the “visual truth” of an inner life. Artists who were inspirational for this group included Vincent van Gogh, with his use of strong colour and brushstrokes, which express a real sense of emotion and tension.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Street Scenes
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880 – 1938) was perhaps the most original and dynamic of the group – certainly the most prolific, creating over 2,400 prints, as well as paintings, water colours, tapestry designs and countless drawings.
More than any other artist in the group, he was aware of the innate capabilities of a particular medium, and worked consistently within its limitations.
As an artist, he was largely self taught. Initially interested in art nouveau, he visited museums where he studied old German masters and discovered the art of the South Seas and Africa. He was also influenced by van Gogh, Matisse (at that time a leader of Fauvism) and Edvard Munch. He sketched on the streets and evolved a rapid form of drawing – and by about 1911 he had perfected his own style.
Kirchner was highly productive until the outbreak of the war, and then again between 1917 – 1924.
He was self-centred and completely dedicated to his art. He had little regard for his subject matter as such, it was merely a framework to make visible his inner conception. However, his primary subjects were city life, street scenes, dancers and nudes.
Kirchner was enthralled by what he called “the symphony of the great city", and responded to the intensity of the street life he found in Berlin by recording the urban spectacle around him.
In 1937, the year before his death, he wrote "My goal was always to express emotion and experience with large form and simple colours, and it is my goal today… I wanted to express the richness and joy of living, to paint humanity at work and play in its reactions and inter-reactions, and to express love as well as hatred".
His renowned Street Scenes series, created between 1913 and 1915 in Berlin, is considered by many to be the highpoint of Kirchner’s career.
These scenes of city streets and nightlife, in particular the familiar presence of prostitutes, convey a characteristic feeling of Berlin prior to the war, which no other artist achieved.
Kirchner’s scenarios are theatrical – but they reflect the character of city. Women dressed in elaborate fur coats and hats with plumage are transformed by the green glow of a streetlamp. Black outlines, unusual colour palates, distorted figures, strong vertical lines and acute angles create atmosphere, energy and tension. In particular, note how well he uses small amounts of red so effectively in many of his works.
Ernst Kirchner The Street 1908
The crowded city street was a frequent subject for the Die Brücke. Kirchner has violently heightened the colours of this urban scene, depicting its figures with masklike faces and vacant eyes in an attempt to capture the psychological alienation wrought by modernization.
Kirchner, Potsdamer Platz, 1914
In the weeks following the outbreak of war in August 1914, Kirchner completed the largest and most important street scene from his time in Berlin: Potsdamer Platz at night. We are presented with a pantomine situation in which both figures (prostitutes) clearly turn away from each other; youthfulness and maturity, the desire to stand one's ground or leave.
Unlike the other Street Scene paintings, where usual signs of city life are kept at the periphery, the monumental Potsdamer Platz (1914) is set in a recognisable spot in early 20th century Berlin—specifically Potsdamer Platz, as identified by the red train station and rounded building housing a café seen in the background. The primary figures of Potsdamer Platz, standing on a traffic island, are reminiscent of mannequins in store windows. (There is a photo of Potsdamer Platz in the Berlin photos above.)
Considering the large number of works on paper related to the Street Scene paintings, it is clear that Kirchner held high ambitions for this series. As well, the series includes drawings in ink, pastel, and charcoal, along with prints and sketchbook studies.
As he later said: “It seems as though the goal of my work has always been to dissolve myself completely into the sensations of the surroundings in order to then integrate this into a coherent painterly form".
As part of his working process, Kirchner experimented with patterns of light and dark, combinations of colours, and various surface rhythms achieved through hatching pen strokes, gouges in woodblock, and scratches on etching plates.
In woodcuts, Five Cocottes (1914) and Women on Potsdamer Platz (1914), Kirchner seems to have closely followed the compositions of the related paintings. But there are significant differences, indicating that printmaking played an important role in Kirchner’s evolving imagery.
His woodcuts were not translations of drawings into wood – for Kirchner the concept and the form of the print were closely welded, and the result developed organically as he was working.
He worked a great deal in colour, on wood, stone and even copper.
Overall, it is Kirchner’s strong sense of the here and now, and his reflection of Berlin at that particular moment in history, that makes his work for this series so invaluable.
Later, when speaking of the Street Scenes, Kirchner said: “They originated…in one of the loneliest times of my life, during which an agonizing restlessness drove me out onto the streets day and night, which were filled with people and cars.”
Towards the end of his life he was experimenting with an exuberant, mobile line (possibly inspired by Picasso) to suggest movement and simultaneity.
Unfortunately Kirchner committed suicide in July 1938, when he became increasingly upset with the situation in Germany and the rise of the Nazis. Like many of his contemporaries, his work was denigrated as being degenerate, and all of his artwork in public museums was confiscated.
Sources Include: MoMA, Zigrosser, Carl; The Expressionists, A Survey of their Graphic Art, George Braziller, New York, 1957.
Suggested Videos and Reading
You may wish to view a MoMA interactive about Kirchner's Berlin Street Scenes:
The Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)
Der Blaue Reiter was formed in 1911 in Munich as a loose association of painters led by Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Munter and Franz Marc. They shared an interest in abstracted forms and prismatic colours, which they felt had spiritual values that could counteract the corruption and materialism of their age.
The name Blaue Reiter (“blue rider”) refers to a key motif in Kandinsky’s work: the horse and rider, which was for him a symbol for moving beyond realistic representation. The horse was also a prominent subject in Marc’s work, which centered on animals as symbols of rebirth.
Der Blaue Reiter organised group shows between 1911 and 1914. The “First Exhibition by the Editors of the Blue Rider” was held from December 1911 to January 1912 at the Moderne Galerie Tannhäuser, Munich. Forty three works were shown by 14 artists, including, in addition to Kandinsky, Munter and Marc, Henri Rousseau, David and Vladimir Burlyuk, Albert Bloch, and August Macke. The work of these artists was diverse, but it generally reflected an interest in free experimentation and spiritual expression.
The first exhibition received a mixed critical and public reception, but other artists were drawn to the group’s expressive freedom and sought to take part in a second group exhibition which was devoted largely to graphic art. Held in February 1912, this second show included 315 works by over 30 international artists, including Paul Klee, André Derain, Jean Arp, Georges Braque, Maurice de Vlaminck, Mikhail Larionov, Natalya Goncharova, and Pablo Picasso.
The two Blaue Reiter exhibitions travelled throughout Europe from 1912 to 1914.
The group published Der Blaue Reiter Almanach, in May 1912 (the group’s name was taken from this almanac in advance of its publication). The almanac featured essays by various artists as well as reproductions of works of primitive and folk art. A popular publication, it assisted in building support for the work of the group.
The group’s final exhibition took place at the famous Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin, in a show called the “First German Salon d’Automne,” held in September 1913.
With the outbreak of World War I and the deaths of Marc and Macke at the front, Der Blaue Reiter dispersed. Kandinsky, a Russian citizen, was forced to return to his homeland.
While the general public never embraced the radical visual ideas of the movement, the ideas and writings of Der Blaue Reiter artists helped lay the groundwork for a generation of avant-garde experimentation, especially abstraction. The flattened perspective and reductive forms of woodcut helped put the artists, especially Kandinsky, on the path toward abstraction in their painting.
He began with conventional themes and art forms, but all the while he was forming theories derived from devoted spiritual study and informed by an intense relationship between music and color. These theories coalesced through the first decade of the 20th century, leading him toward his ultimate status as being regarded by many as the father of abstract art.
In 1924 Kandinsky, Feininger and Klee (all of whom were teaching at the Weimar Bauhaus at the time), and Jawlensky formed a successor group, Die Blaue Vier (“The Blue Four”). Members of that group were united by a desire to exhibit together rather than by a similarity of style. They exhibited their work together together from 1925 to 1934, but they were not nearly as influential as Der Blaue Reiter.
Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) was one of the most prolific – and political – graphic artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was keenly interested in the situation of the poor and the working class. A number of Kollwitz’s works portray the mother-child relationship, which was often cut short in Germany’s impoverished working-class neighbourhoods, where child-mortality rates were high.
In 1919 she commenced producing a series of woodcuts expressing her response to WWI. In The Sacrifice a new mother offers up her infant as a sacrifice to the cause. In The Widow II a woman and her baby lie in a heap, perhaps dead from starvation. Volunteers is the only print to show combatants. In it, Kollwitz's son Peter takes his place next to Death, who leads a band of young men in an ecstatic procession off to war. Peter had been killed in action two months after joining the military, in 1914, a loss from which Kollwitz never fully recovered.
Die Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity) was a pseudo-Expressionist movement founded in Germany in the aftermath of World War I. It was characterised by a realistic style combined with a cynical, socially critical philosophical stance. Many of the artists were anti-war.
Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckman were the key artists who aggressively attacked and satirized the evils of society and those in power and demonstrated in harsh terms the devastating effects of World War I and the economic climate upon individuals.
Expressionist portraits and self-portraits were the most common genres chosen, and while faces were often simplified or charicatured, objects were often painted in minute detail.
Die Neue Sachlichkeit
Suggested Videos and Reading
You may be interested in this series of audios by MoMA on German Expressionism, which is part of their program this subject.
You may wish to watch this video about German Expressionism by
San Diego Institute of Art:
Detroit Institute of Art;
Select one of the artists represented in this module that you admire and create an artwork based on their style.
Consider if you need to really understand the artist themselves in order to be able to demonstrate the emotions they want the view to feel when looking at their work.