A closer look at a movement from the early 20th century that continues to influence contemporary art — illustrated with works from past and upcoming sales
What is meant by German Expressionism?
Expressionism emerged in Germany before the First World War in two principal groups, The Bridge (Die Brücke) in Dresden and The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) in Munich, each forming artistic communities with aspirations to change art and society.
Where does ‘The Bridge’ lead?
Die Brücke was founded with a manifesto published in 1906. Notable members of the group included Erich Heckel (1883-1970), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Max Pechstein (1881-1955), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976) and Otto Mueller (1874-1930). Largely self-taught artists, many were former architecture students.
Influenced by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, they imagined art leading the way across a chasm, linking the past to the present and art to life. Anticipating the counterculture of the 1960s, the Die Brücke artists advocated free love, naturism and communal living, often socialising and swimming naked together at the Moritzburg Lakes outside Dresden. By the water’s edge these artists enjoyed their romances, free from social disapproval.
Many of the paintings by Brücke artists depict a bohemian, romantic world of personal freedom. Despite their alternative social values, the members of this group were surprisingly entrepreneurial, issuing portfolios of woodcut prints which they sold to subscribers to generate an income.
Who is the ‘Blue Rider’?
Based in Munich, members of the ‘Blue Rider’ group (Der Blaue Reiter) included the artists Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Paul Klee (1879-1940), Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941), Franz Marc (1880-1916), August Macke (1887-1914) and Gabriele Münter (1887-1962). Inspired by Medieval Christianity and chivalry, they adopted the symbol of a blue rider on a horse but rejected a uniform style.
Kandinsky was one of the very first advocates of abstract art, which he compared to the experience of listening to music in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1911. He argued that painting should arise out of instinct and mystical feeling. By tapping into the unconscious, art could be freed from representation or storytelling.
How can we recognise an Expressionist painting?
German Expressionists often painted in a sweeping, gestural style without concern for finished, detailed appearances. What mattered was the expression of feeling, responding honestly to the subjects of their art.
Their human figures are jagged and awkward. Often the pictures convey a neurotic atmosphere, as if an emotional tipping point is being reached. People, buildings and animals may appear to float in a dream-like state.
So who influenced these German Expressionists?
Drawing on a medley of ideas and styles, the Expressionists were fascinated by ‘primitive’ art forms, whether made in Europe or in non-European societies by craftsmen rather than artists. They wanted to make art free from academic tradition, created with genuine feeling led by intuition.
Wooden carvings imported into Europe from colonies in Africa, Asia and Polynesia were especially significant sources of inspiration. Closer to home, Henri Matisse’s ‘Fauvist’, intense non-naturalistic colours were also influential.
What happened to the German Expressionists?
As with many radical Modern art movements such as Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism, German Expressionism was disrupted by World War One. Franz Marc and August Macke were killed in battle while Kirchner suffered a breakdown and retreated to the Swiss Alps.
Lesende Frau (below) is an example of Macke’s own idea of Expressionism, one that was in stark contrast to that of Grosz or Max Beckmann’s tragedies of war, or the Brücke group’s scenes of debauched Berlin dance halls, or even his close friend Franz Marc’s Garden of Eden.
Macke painted what he knew — ladies strolling in the avenues with men in straw boaters, children playing outdoors, and his own wife, at their kitchen table. This touching portrait of Elisabeth Macke was executed in 1913, just four years into their married life and only one year before his untimely death in the second month of The Great War.
Disillusioned by the horrors they had encountered, many of these artists took new directions. Kandinsky and Klee became teachers at the new Bauhaus school, where fine art was integrated with design.
After the war a looser grouping of German artists including Otto Dix (1891-1969), George Grosz (1893-1959) and Max Beckmann (1884-1950) attacked the corruption of the new Weimar Republic. Their art has been described as a ‘New Objectivity’ (Neue Sachlichkeit), more concerned with social satire than spiritual ecstasy.
Otto Dix’s Schwangeres Weib (Pregnant Woman), 1919 (below), is still characteristically Expressionist, created before he began to paint his lampoons of German life in the 1920s. A pregnant woman is presented as a universal mother and a supernatural force of nature. Strangely, both the woman and an animal are carrying unborn offspring represented by skulls, suggesting death at the point of birth. The picture embodies Dix’s fascination with the cycles of growth and decay.
On taking power, the Nazis would condemn German Expressionism as morally ‘degenerate’. Artworks were either destroyed or hidden. After the Second World War, New York artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were labelled ‘Abstract Expressionists’ for their exploration of subjectivity and instinct.
Does German Expressionism survive today?
Large and emotionally charged paintings made by German artists such as Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer are linked to Expressionism, for their investigation of the individual’s place in society and the use of ‘expressive’ painting techniques.
Where can I see German Expressionism?
Unsurprisingly, much of the best works can be found in major German museums. Visit the Lenbachhaus in Munich for the Blue Rider group or make your way to the Brücke-Museum in Berlin, a glass pavilion surrounded by woodland that resembles a private home.
In the United States, visit the Neue Galerie in New York, a specialised collection of early-20th-century German and Austrian art. In London there are outstanding Expressionist paintings currently on long-term loan to the Courtauld Gallery.