»Art does not reflect what is visible; it makes things visible.« (Paul Klee)

Historical categories of style in art tend to be somewhat vague, as they ostensibly represent homogeneous styles and clearly defined periods of time. This seems to work for Impressionism, but since Pop Art, at the very latest, no one has any illusions about the accuracy of such stylistic terms. Even German Expressionism, a movement that flourished during the first quarter of the twentieth century, is characterized more by diversity than by uniformity. The differences between artists now regarded as typical exponents of Expressionism—figures such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, August Macke, Franz Marc, and Wassily Kandinsky—could hardly have been more pronounced. And thus there was little collaboration among them. Certain pundits have suggested that the only thing they all had in common was their fervent nationalist embrace of the First World War.

Expressionism was a primarily German artistic rebellion that unfolded in a wave of vivid color roughly between 1905 and 1914/20, spanning the years from the founding of the »Brücke« group in Dresden to the outbreak or the end of World War I. That was a period of social and political upheaval. While the big cities had prospered from progressive industrialization and mechanization, these same developments bred new poverty and fostered increasing anonymity, oppression, and isolation of the individual. People hailed the War with high hopes, all of which were ultimately left unfulfilled. What emerged was an overpowering yearning for originality and a life in harmony with nature, a »primitives« form of existence. Thus the Expressionist style is best described as the fitting artistic expression of an certain attitude toward life, an intellectual current driven by Weltschmerz that was unable to cope with the prevailing political and social structures, a movement that manifested itself not only in visual art but in music, literature, and the theater as well.

A stylistic movement such as Impressionism, a beautifying style of painting in invigorating colors that emphasized the single moment, could only have emerged in France. Expressionism, the art of emotional and spiritual expression, is in essence a profoundly German kind of art. Reality was no longer a harmless, uncomplicated visible presence, and artists sought to transcend it through aesthetic, symbolic means, an approach that placed them in close proximity to Romanticism and its dream of a better world. Yet the Expressionists were not interested in overturning the social system. Their revolution was focused primarily on the formal resources of art, on free experimentation with colors and forms. Their compositions are emphatically two-dimensional, their forms often boldly outlined, simplified, strikingly provocative, and always a means to an end. They carried a message. Their colors were largely vivid, often glaring, highly contrastive, and estranged from reality. What they reflected was the subjective experience of reality. The painter´s aim was not to depict the world but to recreate it. The artist was the creator, who translated his visual and sensual experience as directly as possible into the visual image. The painting needn´t be beautiful—what counted was its subjective authenticity.

In 1905, four architecture students from Dresden, Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), Erich Heckel (1883–1970), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976), und Fritz Bleyl, founded the artists´ group known as the »Brücke.« Max Pechstein (1881–1955) joined them later, and Emil Nolde (1867–1956) was a affiliated with the group for a short time. These artists envisioned a community of life and work in the spirit of German Romanticism, an orientation that necessarily fostered the development of a collective style. The »Brücke« artists were probably more influential than any others in shaping our contemporary image of Expressionism. The central theme of their works is the human being and his lamentable condition and the quest for an unspoiled form of human life that was possible only in a natural environment. Popular subjects included people in the big city, the outsiders´ world of the circus, the seedy side of night life, and the natural, nude human figure. Artists tended toward a painting style characterized by bold contours and often made use of the woodcut technique, in which the message could be incised into the resistant material or literally cut out of it.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was the most prominent figure in »Brücke« group. Like most other German Expressionists, he found inspiration for his art in the works Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Edvard Munch. His themes were the human being in passionate harmony with nature or isolated from the environment in the big city. Paintings from his Berlin period, which exhibit his typical overwrought, hectic painting style (Berliner Straßenszene, 1913, Frauen auf der Straße, 1915) call to mind van Gogh´s ecstatic preoccupation with form. Kirchner´s paintings became psychograms of an individual defeated by the big city and the war.

The considerably older Emil Nolde was too much of an individualist to bow to the stylistic dictates of the »Brücke« group. The most important sources of inspiration for his highly emotional, atmospheric paintings were the coast and seashore of his north German homeland, religious themes, and flower gardens. But Nolde did not paint flowers; he painted the process of blooming. And he did so with the passion and painterly pathos that created fireworks of color that still captivate and move viewers deeply today.

In 1910/11, the »Brücke« group moved to Berlin, where big city scenes of the kind painted by Kirchner as well as such painters of the New Objectivity school Otto Dix (1891–1969), Max Beckmann (1884–1950), and Georg Grosz (1893–1959), could literally be found on the streets. At the same time, in 1911, »Der Blaue Reiter« was formed in the south German city of Munich around a core of artists including Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Franz Marc (1880–1916), Gabriele Münter (1877–1962), August Macke (1887–1914), and Alexej von Jawlensky (1864–1941). These artists are generally viewed as the counterpart of the north German »Brücke« group, an assumption that overlooks the fact that »Der Blaue Reiter« was not a cohesive artists´ group at all. The alliance broke up in 1914 after only three years.

Der Blaue Reiter was originally the title of a publication issued by Kandinsky and Marc in May 1912, only shortly after publication of Kandinsky´s theoretical treatise entitled »On the Spiritual in Art.« The journal was a forum in which artists representing various disciplines expressed their artistic positions and goals in texts and images. The team also organized two exhibitions. This intellectual impulse, underscored by a number of manifestos, clearly distinguished the Munich artists from their colleagues in the »Brücke« group, which Kandinsky, in particular, regarded with considerable skepticism. Although the free play with colors and forms dominated their painting style, the artists associated with »Der Blaue Reiter« were not interested in exposing spiritual misery but sought instead to explore and visualize the innermost essence of things through total immersion in nature. Franz Marc´s intense interest in the world of animals living in harmony with Creation is the dominant theme in his art. His pantheistic philosophy (God is in nature) is expressed in a mystical color symbolism of nature. (Die kleinen blauen Pferde, 1911). His encounter with Cubism led to changes in his paintings: landscapes and animals are fragmented and interpenetrate one another (Stallungen, 1913/14). Like August Macke, Marc was killed during the First World War.

Kandinsky rigorously developed the art of distortion and simplification into a form of absolute expressive art in abstract painting. For this artist, colors reflected the true essence of things, the spiritual penetration of which was the prerequisite for his abstract visual art. Kandinsky saw and heard colors; he was convinced of their musical quality. »Looking at a painting should be like listening to music.« He combined colors like musical notes, generating dissonances, harmonies, and a synaesthetic effect that resonates in the viewer. This musical quality and a number of formal affinities to Kandinsky are also evident in numerous small compositions by Jawlensky. Yet his Russian colleague´s expressive overstatement of the experience of nature, which was not an expression of internalization but of absolute subjectivity, is rather more indicative of a meditative, spiritual kind of Expressionism. In contrast, Schmidt-Rottluff preferred a predominantly aggressive coloration. His painting style reflects expressive will rather than expressive experience, and it is ultimately exhausted in a schematic approach to form. Schmidt-Rottluff preserved the Expressionist gesture of his paintings of the »Brücke« period.

The German Expressionists are often mentioned in the same breath as the Fauves, the young savages from France who first created public uproar at the Paris Autumn Salon of 1905. Their most important representatives were Henri Matisse (La joie de vivre, 1906, The Dance, 1930–1934), André Derain, and Maurice Vlaminck. The art of Fauvism and of modern French art in general provided a point of departure for German Expressionism. But the Fauves lacked the pathos of their German fellow painters. Symbol-laden profundity was alien to them. The Fauves painted landscapes, still lifes, and nudes, transfiguring their earthbound nature in the most beautiful colors, heightened by vivid contrasts that imbued them with great luminosity. In his »Notes of a painter« (1908), Matisse wrote that he wanted to emphasize the beautiful, the ideal of a visual manifestation in his art: »I dream of , an art of equilibrium, purity, and serenity, entirely free of conflict . . .«

09.02.2010 Dorothee Fauth

Veröffentlicht am: 09.02.2010