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Text d. German Expressionism: Making the Invisible Visible

Expressionism in the visual, literary, and performing arts is a movement or tendency that strives to express subjective feelings and emotions rather than to depict reality or nature objectively. The movement developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a reaction against the academic standards that had prevailed in Europe since the Renaissance (1300-1600), particularly in French and German art academies. In expressionism the artist tries to present an emotional experience in its most compelling form. The artist is not concerned with reality as it appears but with its inner nature and with the emotions aroused by the subject. To achieve these ends, the subject is frequently caricatured, exaggerated, distorted, or otherwise altered in order to stress the emotional experience in its most intense and concentrated form.

Although the term expressionism was not applied to painting until 1911, the qualities attributed to expressionism are found in the art of almost every country and period. Some Chinese and Japanese art emphasizes the essential qualities of the subject rather than its physical appearance. Painters and sculptors of medieval Europe exaggerated their work for the Romanesque and early Gothic cathedrals to intensify the spiritual expressiveness of the subjects. Intense religious emotions expressed through distortion are found also in the 16th-century works of the Spanish painter El Greco and the German painter Matthias Grünewald. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, the French artist Paul Gauguin, and the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch used violent colors and exaggerated lines to obtain intense emotional expression. At the beginning of the 20th century sculptures and masks from Africa and Oceania were shown, compelling precisely in their archaic primitiveness, and these were a valuable source of inspiration for European artists. In the most diverse movements of avant-garde art at the start of the century there is a trend towards so-called primitivism. Like children’s drawings or folk art, primitive art was untutored, and thus, in the Expressionist sense, more authentic than any academic art.

The most important artists’ groups in the period before World War I were ‘Die Brücke’ (The Bridge) and ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ (The Blue Rider).

In 1905, in the respected artistic city of Dresden, four young men, all of them absolute beginners where painting was concerned, got together to form a common front against the musty art scene of the Wilhelmine Empire. Against this, they rebelled with an art that threw all the prevailing academic rules overboard, and with a demonstratively bohemian way of life.

The movement was originated by the painters Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. They were joined in 1906 by Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein and in 1910 by Otto Müller. They took the name ‘Die Brücke’. In 1912 this group exhibited paintings along with a Munich group that called itself ‘Der Blaue Reiter’. The latter included the German painters Franz Marc, August Macke, Gabriele Münter, and Heinrich Campendonk; the Swiss artist Paul Klee, and the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. This phase of expressionism in Germany was marked by the conscious exposition of emotions and a heightened sense of the possibilities for expressive content. ‘Die Brücke’ was dissolved by 1913, and World War I (1914-1918) halted most group activity.

“With the belief in development, in a new generation of creators and consumers, we summon all youth together, and as the youth who will bear the future, we want to create freedom of life and of action in the face of older, established forces. Of our number is anyone who directly and authentically portrays that which forces him to create”. This formula, like a declaration of faith – although the word ‘art’ is never once mentioned – made artistic history. The dramatic praise of youth, the freedom of life and the future, quite in the style of the age, paves the way for German Expressionism. It is the founding manifesto of the artistic community ‘Die Brücke’.

The painting of ‘Die Brücke’ is a deliberately simplified aesthetic vocabulary, with concise forms reduced to their essentials, distorted bodies and disintegrating, aperspectival spaces. Brilliant, saturated colours which, freed from local colour, are applied in patches with a broad brush and often surrounded with a hard outline, give the paintings an astringent, woodcut-like, coarse character. Aiming for an intense effect, the Brücke Expressionists often worked with complementary contrasts, which intensify the brilliance of the colours. Their passionate and colourful manner of painting corresponded to the desire to give a new emotional and compositional relevant meaning to colour, one which would only be relevant in aesthetic terms within the painting, in order to construct the paintings entirely from pure colour and form. The artists rejected stylisation and symbolic coding, and instead reduced their formal language to intentionally simple, primitive forms. In this painting impelled by individual experience – on the part of both the painter and the viewer – the artists saw the possibility of an “immediate and undistorted” expression, as they had demanded in their manifesto.

‘Der Blaue Reiter’ group got this fine-sounding name – legend has it – from a personal liking for the colour blue and for horsemen on the part of Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky.

Compared to the harsh painting of the artists of ‘Die Brücke’, the art of ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ appears sensitive, intellectual and spiritual. Different as the artistic statements of the two groups were, they were still bound by the conviction that an art work could no longer be an illusionistic depiction of reality, since reality in its complexity had become more impossible to grasp than ever before. Its goal was therefore to look behind the surface. Art should, as Paul Klee put it, “no longer reproduce the visible, but make things visible”. This artistic view freed painting from any obligation to resemble reality. Painters now gained the freedom of artistic expression, which prompted them to use increasingly abstract imagery. The painters of the ‘Blaue Reiter’ were primarily interested in the painterly transposition of emotions. They wanted to create paintings “which would set the soul vibrate”.

In the work of the Blaue Reiter artists the ‘how’ dominated the representation of the ‘what’. Even in works in which echoes of the objective world are still discernible, the effect is created not by the object, but by the composition. Colours and forms are the crucial factors. With the tension-filled contrasts of hard and soft lines, open and closed forms, velvety and metallic colours, the painters gave their works rhythm and melody.

The renunciation of the object led Kandinsky to make a complete break from figurative representation. He often compared his paintings with music. Titles like Composition or Improvisation give an indication of this. The painting prompts certain emotions in the viewer and is thus responsible for the “emotional stimulation of the viewer’s soul”. It is up to the individual what he sees in a painting, and in what direction he guides his specific emotion when looking at the painting. The attribution of significance, the individual creation of meaning are thus up to the viewer himself. The art work thus becomes an inspiring model, one which does not claim, however, to convey wisdom and truth, but rather seeks to be an opportunity to draw the viewer’s attention to his own “spiritual vibrations”, to awaken them.

A new phase of German expressionism called ‘Die Neue Sachlichkeit’ (German for “The New Objectivity”) grew out of the disillusionment following World War I. Founded by Otto Dix and George Grosz, it was characterized by both a concern for social truths and an attitude of satiric bitterness and cynicism. Expressionism meanwhile had become an international movement, and the influence of the Germans is seen in the works of such artists as the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka, the French artist Georges Rouault, the Lithuanian-born French painter Chaïm Soutine, the Bulgarian-born French painter Jules Pascin, and the American painter Max Weber.

The creative work on the part of the viewer in the constitution of meaning, the silent communication between painting and viewer which underlies the bestowal of meaning, becomes increasingly important for art in the course of the 20th century, particularly in the work of Abstract Expressionism. Only the ideas and emotions, the associations and creative engagement with the work waken it from its sleep and turn it into something special – art.