How the German Expressionists crossed boundaries to confront a society in need of salvation

Fuelled by a desire to convey the truth of the rapidly changing world around them, two groups of artists — Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter — agitated the viewing public ‘to the very depth of its soul’

Paintings by German Expressionist including Kirchner, Nolde and Dix

Clockwise, from top left: Otto Mueller, Drei Akte, 1917; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Galtviehweide, 1918-19; Emil Nolde, Blaue und rote Fische und grüne Blattpflanzen, 1923-24; Gabriele Münter, Geranium, 1916; Otto Dix, Kopf eines Kriegers, 1917; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Davos im Winter, c. 1926; Georg Tappert, Café, 1917

In 1920 the artist Max Pechstein was asked, ‘What is German Expressionism?’ His response was as evocative of a riot as it was an art movement: ‘Work! Intoxication! Brain-racking! Chewing, eating, gorging, rooting up! Rapturous birth pangs! Jabbing of the brush, preferably right through the canvas. Trampling on paint tubes.’

Pechstein was a member of Die Brücke (‘The Bridge’), an association of avant-garde artists that flourished for a short period in Germany before and after the First World War. They wanted to convey the truth about the rapidly changing world around them. ‘An Expressionist does not look, he sees!’ declared the writer Kasimir Edschmid.

Max Pechstein (1881-1955), Rotes Zelt mit weiblichem Akt: Danae, 1911. Oil on canvas. 27¾ x 31¾ in (70.5 x 80.5 cm)

In the decades following unification in 1871, Germany experienced an economic boom. By 1900 the country was making more steel than any other European nation and becoming a world leader in electrical goods. As workers flooded into the cities to toil in the many chemical and electrical plants, poverty and disease followed.

This deprivation was powerfully conveyed by Kathe Kollwitz, one of the most influential avant-garde artists of the pre-war era. Her work is often seen in tandem with that of Die Brücke and another group that emerged in the early 1900s, Der Blaue Reiter (‘The Blue Rider’). Together they are known as the German Expressionists. Inspired by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, they strove to project their inner psyches onto canvas, shocking the public in the process.

Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941), Heilandsgesicht: Märtyrer, 1919. Oil on linen-finished paper laid down on cardboard. 13 x 10 in (32.9 x 25.3 cm). Sold for £403,200 on 3 March 2023 at Christie’s in London

Die Brücke was founded in Dresden in 1905 by the charismatic and highly strung artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The ‘bridge’ symbolised the group’s desire to connect with the reality of modern life — one in which desperation was never far from the surface. Joining Kirchner were Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, Erich Heckel, Otto Mueller, Emil Nolde and Pechstein. Their livid, angry paintings, with juddering angles and paroxysms of colour, convey a feverish delirium.

Der Blaue Reiter came later, in 1911. It was the brainchild of the Russian artist Vassily Kandinsky and the German Franz Marc. The group, which also included August Macke, Paul Klee, Heinrich Campendonk, Alexej von Jawlenksy and Gabriele Münter, was united by a love of nature — what Kandinsky called the ‘Great Organic’. They strove for a mystical art that embraced music, esoteric visions and colour, celebrating the human spirit and nature in harmony.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Rothaarige (recto); Rosa Stilleben (verso), 1914 (recto); 1913-14 (verso). Oil on canvas. 35½ x 25¼ in (90.2 x 64.5 cm)

In their manifesto they declared that art knows no boundaries and that frontiers are there to be crossed: ‘Art, literature, even “exact” science are in various stages of change in this “new” era; they will all be overcome by it.’

The vibrant images they created were not embraced by everyone, however. Kaiser Wilhelm II described German Expressionism as ‘gutter art’, declaring it a sin against the people. Kandinsky recalled how the public was ‘agitated to the very depth of its soul’ by the paintings: ‘People felt reviled, better still, they spat on our works.’

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Leuchtturm hinter Bucht, 1912. Oil on canvas. 40⅛ x 30¼ in (102 x 77 cm)

Kirchner remembered those early Die Brücke days as some of the loneliest in his life, ‘during which an agonising restlessness drove me out onto the streets day and night’. There he saw the dehumanising effects of industrialisation on the people of Berlin. His subjects appear pensive, almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown, waiting for something terrible to happen.

It did, in 1914, when war broke out. Many of the artists joined up. Marc had hoped that the conflict might destroy the old order, ushering in a new era in politics, art and life, as the Futurists had predicted. However, this idealism was quickly shattered.

Otto Mueller (1874-1930), Sitzende im Grünen, 1927. Distemper on burlap. 41¼ x 29⅜ in (105 x 74.7 cm). Sold for £1,062,000 on 28 February 2023 at Christie’s in London

Macke was killed in September 1914, Marc 18 months later at Verdun. The emotionally fragile Kirchner suffered a full-blown breakdown and was discharged from the army into a sanatorium. Kandinsky and Klee, disillusioned by the horrors they had seen, abandoned Expressionism and moved to Weimar in 1921 to teach at the newly formed Bauhaus school, where they advocated for a synthesis of art and design.

After the war, a new group of German Expressionists emerged. Unlike Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, these artists were less concerned with the self than with social satire. Otto Dix, George Grosz, Jeanne Mammen, Georg Tappert and Max Beckmann anatomised the Weimar Republic, revealing through their caustic pictures of fat industrialists, corrupt lawyers, war veterans and destitute women a country in dire need of reconstruction and salvation.

George Grosz (1893-1959), Paar im Zimmer, 1915. Oil on canvas. 15⅛ x 20 in (38.4 x 50.7 cm)

This confrontational approach was echoed in German Expressionist films by F.W. Murnau, Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. With their long shadows, visions of aberrant creatures and brooding sense of alienation, films such as Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari  and M  evoked the memory of the First World War and of unnatural death invading the security of home.

Such visions of a broken society were reviled by Adolf Hitler, who wrote in Mein Kampf  that modern art was a plague sent by Russian Communists, using Jewish art dealers to ‘infect’ Germany with Cubism and other forms of ‘Bolshevist’ visual madness.

Otto Dix (1891-1969), Soldat mit Tabakspfeife, 1918. Gouache on paper. 15½ x 15¼ in (39.5 x 38.7 cm). Sold for £189,000 on 3 March 2023 at Christie’s in London

On taking power in 1933, the Nazis condemned German Expressionism as morally ‘degenerate’, and many of the artists associated with the movement, including Dix, Kandinsky and Klee, were sacked from their teaching posts.

The end of German Expressionism came with the Degenerate Exhibition of 1937, where the movement’s paintings were mocked and vilified. By then Grosz, Klee and Kandinsky had emigrated and Pechstein had gone into hiding. Dix was to be conscripted into the Volkssturm. Kirchner, already burnt out, shot himself in 1938.

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On the day of the opening of the Degenerate Exhibition, Beckmann packed his bags and left Berlin for Amsterdam.

A year later, his work was exhibited at the New Burlington Galleries in London, where he made a powerful speech defending the right to artistic freedom. ‘It is the one thing that matters,’ he declared. ‘It is the departure, the new start.’

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