Expressionism



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Over many years, various artistic movements have been associated with Expressionism. The matter of when and where the term expressionism was adopted to refer to a group of artists has been much discussed. It is not surprising that the Fauves, Futurists, Cubists and post- Impressionists (this is by no means an exhaustive list) have all been coined at one time or another as Expressionists. This is not surprising. Many of these groups emerged at the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth century and their prevailing belief was that colour, and not line, was central in constructing the pictorial composition.

However, in our time, Expressionism has come to be associated with those artists that came out of Germany before the First World War and attached to the artists’ groups Die Brucke (the Bridge) and Die Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider). In examining Die Brucke and Die Blaue Reiter the framework for defining Expressionism in terms of style, technique, and subject matter proves to be unsatisfactory. This is because Expressionism takes many forms from the highly chromatic to the monochromatic and from the intensely spiritual to the exaggeratedly material. It is therefore best to consider Expressionism as a concept as opposed to a style or technique. The artists Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Ernst Ludwig-Kirchner formed Die Brucke in Dresden in 1906. What these artists hoped to achieve is articulated in the manifesto that was written by Kirchner and states:

“With a belief in progress and in a new generation of creators and supporters we summon all youth together. As youth we carry the future and want to create for ourselves freedom of life and movement in opposition to the well-established forces. Everybody belongs to our cause who reproduces directly and passionately whatever urges him to create”.

Therefore, central to Die Brucke was their abandonment of academic training (this was true for a lot of artistic movements, for instance, the Impressionists) with its predetermined criteria of what constituted art and the jury system that selected works for exhibitions based on these criteria. The Academy adopted the hierarchy that placed historical and mythological themes at the top, and line took priority over colour. However, it is not true to define Die Brucke as anti traditionalist. Not only did they adopt techniques such as the woodcut in their works but they also painted motifs that had been painted throughout the ages such as the nude.

Another element pivotal to Die Brucke’s existence was the sense of ‘community’ between artists that could be found when artists’ guilds existed. In trying to revive the ‘guild’ way of life, the artists would often work together and leave canvases unsigned. The group also sought to bring art and life into the same arena by decorating their studios with each other’s work. Their studios also functioned as their homes and represented in their minds a fusion of art and life. By inviting new members via subscription to the Die Brucke portfolio publication, the group staged exhibitions without a jury. This presented artists with an alternative exhibition space to that provided by the Academy.

As with artists’ groups before them, the key to Expressionism was the precedence of colour over line. Often their canvasses consisted of large expanses of colour; colour that was bright and vivid, certainly not the muted colours so favoured by the Academy. Kirchner’s Recumbent Blue Nude with Straw Hat (1908-1909, Offenburg F. Burda Collections), consists of blocks of green, blue, yellow and red. In many of their representations they juxtaposed complementary colours beside each other. Complementary colours are those that when placed side by side, heighten and excite each other, e.g., red and green, purple and yellow. Through colour, the painters conveyed not the photographic representation of the subject but their interaction with, their reflex to, and their feeling toward the motif. Therefore what is manifested on to the canvass is a relationship that is simultaneously intangible and unique.

Immediacy was necessary in communicating the artists’ interaction with, their reflex to, and their feeling toward the subject matter. To depict this intimacy between artist and motif, the painters dispensed with unnecessary detail. They also discarded the laws of perspective including colour perspective (lighter tones in the background). For example Kirchner’s Street (1908, Museum of Modern Art) depicts a street crowded with people. There is very little detail, such as buttons on clothes; coats are distinguishable from skirts only by the way they are coloured. Each person is distinguishable from another person by the thick black outline sealing each individual. The lack of colour perspective , the use of vivid colours, the viewpoint of people from the back and front not only animates the persons but also creates nearness between the composition and spectator. In the case of Street, immediacy creates tension within the painting and conveys the relationship between artist and subject matter. In composing this painting Kirchner may have been depicting the tension of the city where simultaneously individuals have greater freedom and anonymity (lack of detail de-individualising a person) but no sense of community.

This immediacy is also evident in Kirchner’s Rhine River Bridge at Cologne (1914, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) where the bridge soars from the background to meet us, the spectator, inviting us into the painting. The very spandrels evoke feeling, as does the pink-clothed figure in the foreground.

The artists of Die Brucke portrayed bathers,a theme that spans centuries. However, the nudes are not the idealised nudes with the porcelain skin of the academy. They are outlined in thick black, are two-dimensional and are painted with skins of blue and yellow. This lack of detail and three dimensionality emphasises the importance held by these artists to the arrangement of colour on the picture plane and suggests that a naturalistic representation of a subject becomes subordinated to the relationship between artist and motif.

What is clear in the paintings of Die Brucke is not only the departure from academic standards but the angst that was being felt by individuals when comparing the contemporary, fairly recent city life against the rural communities of the past that were often depicted as idealised representations of harmony. Often their cityscapes are charged with tensions in contrast to harmonious depictions of man immersed in nature.The woodcut was a technique adopted by these artists as by its nature it dispensed with detail and three dimensionality.

There were ten Die Brucke exhibitions altogether, the last one being in 1913, and the group split partly due to arguments of Kirchner’s account of the chronicle of the Die Brucke artist group and partly because each artist needed to develop on their own. Other Die Brucke artists included Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde and Otto Mueller.

Der Blaue Reiter materialised from the differences of opinion that certain artists held in the group New Artists Alliance, which was formed in Munich in 1909. A splinter group composing of Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Gabriele Munter established Der Blaue Reiter in 1911 in Munich. As with Die Brucke, one of the aims of Der Blaue Reiter was to offer other artists exhibition space without the restrictions in terms of subject matter and jury acceptance that was on offer from the Academy. Nevertheless the two groups differed. Firstly the Der Blaue Reiter artists did not share the enthusiasm of group dynamic in stimulating creativity that could be found with Kirchner and co. This does not mean they did not share similar ideas in art but the need to be mutually dependent was not attended to. Secondly, Der Blaue Reiter artists concerned themselves with other forms of art, for instance, music. Thirdly Der Blaue Reiter artists created theories in art, for example, Kandinsky’s the Spiritual in Art. Yet pivotal to Der Blaue Reiter as with Die Brucke was the deployment of colour. Barry Herbert writes:

“As in the more violently hued paintings of the Die Brucke artists, colour was the most immediate means by which Kandinsky and his friends hoped to transcend and overcome the soul-destroying influence of a materialistic, technological culture.

Der Blaue Reiter’s disillusionment with the modern world was in part a result from advancements in technology. The group members believed that mass production devalued objects as manufacturers were now concerned with unit costs as opposed to the innate beauty of the object. They also believed that art should be on a higher level. These two factors led the artists to acquire themes from as far back as the middle ages. For example, Kandinsky’s Couple on Horseback (1907, Stadtische Galerie, Munich) harks back to an age of knights and fairy tales. As with Die Brucke, woodcuts are employed and the laws of perspective have been dispensed with.

Similar to the Dresden group, the organisation of colours on the picture plane resonate to a naturalistic depiction of the subject matter and to the relationship between the artists and the dynamics of the motif. For Kandinsky colours had certain properties, for example, the colour blue was linked to a cold atmosphere: For these artists, art was invested with power to transcend the earthy, corporeal world to a spiritual world through which materialism and consumption could be by-passed. This distaste for consumption could explain the move from a figurative form of representation to an abstract form of representation that can be found in the oeuvre of Der Blaue Reiter.

Other Der Blaue Reiter artists were Paul Klee, Alexeji Von Jawlensky, August Macke and Heinrich Campendonk. Their take on art can be found in the Der Blaue Reiter Almanch created by the artists to illustrate their viewpoint on art.

Where in London?

Bathers at Moritzburg (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1909/26) can be seen in the Tate Modern Gallery, Bankside. This painting epitomizes Expressionism with its use of complementary colour, i.e., yellow bathers against a blue and green background, and the absence of spatial and colour perspective.

Books to Read

Expressionism by Gerhardt, Maly and Detfried, Phaidon, Oxford, 1979.

German Expressionism by Barry Herbert, Jupiter Books, London, 1983.

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