Der Blaue Reiter Painting



General Characteristics

From 1911 it could be said that European avant-garde art was divided between two needs: the need for individual subjective expressiveness and a striving for order in a time of pending chaos. Both needs were rooted in a desire to escape through an inward journey into feelings or to an ideal structure. Both needs were part of the culture shock that swept Europe at the beginning of the century, as the implications of the Industrialization were sinking in. The avant-garde artists tried to create a new language to respond to these needs: the Cubists searched for a near scientific logic to the construction of the world and the Expressionists sought the answer in the irrational and a return to a more primal spiritual state.

Der Balue Reiter combined two currents: the general European Expressionism and French Fauvism and added to these currents an interest in inner and mystical construction, stemming from Theosophy. Despite the close affinity between Der Blaue Reiter and the Fauves, the approach to art making was radically different—the French artists were more interested in a formal extension of Post-Impressionism while the German artists were interested in mysticism, which was alien to the French. The French Fauves wanted to form an imaginative counter-reality through the formal elements to break up objective reality. In other words, the Fauves used Post-Impressionism to counter Impressionism and cultivated pictorial devices of pure color and pure line

The bridge between the mysticism of Der Blaue Reiter and the French Fauves was Vincent van Gogh. The Fauves were interested in the Dutch artist’s formal experimentations: the fact that he achieved expression through abstract pictorial means. The Germans responded to the symbolic aspects to his art and to the late artist’s desire to use painting to create what Jawlensky called “mood paintings.” It was Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941), who convinced Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), fresh from his years in France, to give up his notion that van Gogh’s art was pathological. Jawlensky felt that van Gogh’s art could best be thought of as a kind of “synthesis” or the harmony of form and color. By 1911, Kandinsky was listening intently to such ideas and made the logical step that if line and color were symbolic and expressive carriers of meaning then they were self-sufficient and it would be possible to give up the subject matter. Even van Gogh had thought of himself as a “musician in colors.”

Form and Color


Der Blaue Reiter’s spirituality was based upon three main intellectual aspirations. Fundamental to the movement was the unlimited freedom of all artistic endeavors. For these artists, synthesis meant the unity of stylistic development in terms of color, which was linked to mysticism. For Der Blaue Reiter, art was embodied in mysticism. The purpose of art was to express the innermost being of a human, living and feeling in harmony with nature’s laws of formation and growth. Abstract means, i. e. the use of form and color replaced imitation with simile: formal elements carried meaning and were a pictorial formula for the invisible, as Kandinsky wrote in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art of 1911.

In contrast to Die Brücke’s youthful eroticism and male concern with human body and human sexuality, expressed as the dialectic between spirit/mind and body, Der Blaue Reiter exposed the spiritual rather than the formal construction or composition of the world. Following over a decade of maturation and absorption of a variety of artistic influences, the years 1910 to 1912 was a decisive growth period for Der Blaue Reiter. These artists were carving out a space for themselves after an artistic struggle with Cubism, Orphism, and Futurism, all of which were interested in the dynamism of modern life. Der Blaue Reiter was less involved with the real world and used color as a tracer of movement and as a bearer of emotion. The artists moved away from objects to free arabesques of expression, which dynamized the surface. Color overwhelmed pictorial construction, which dissolved illusionary perspective, leading to a negation of surface.

Unlike the Cubists, the destruction of Renaissance perspective was not a rational dismantling of space and time through multiple perspectives. Der Blaue Reiter created an irrational picture space that was a non-space and was, unlike Cubism, free from reality. The result was the creation of new art form, rejected forms in nature and representation rejected. The picture’s quality resided solely in form, in line, shape, color, and plane, without reference to outside world. Form was then freed to become an expression of the artist’s inner needs. Form was an expression of content, dependent upon innermost spirit. Form was equated with matter and the artist’s struggle against materialism content. Once divested of academic concepts, content is the non-objective, the “inner sound,” or the spiritual, which creates appropriate form.

In the end, Der Blaue Reiter was not a school or a movement but a loose configuration of artists who were exploring spiritual outlets for art. Jawlensky worshiped van Gogh to the extent that he purchased The House of Père Pilon from the artist’s sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Jawlensky, who was paying in installments, wrote gratefully to van Gogh-Bonger, stating that, “Never did a work of your blessed brother-in-law fall into more pious hands.” Franz Marc (1890-1916) described van Gogh as “the most authentic, the greatest, the most poignant painter I know.” Marc was concerned with the painting of animals, an interest that had waned since the Nineteenth Century, but his purposes were not descriptive but spiritual. In her book, Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism, Jill Lloyd explained that for Marc, the vibrating color and undulating forms of Signac and van Gogh “animalized” painting by which he meant “The inner pulsing life of an animal.”

The animals were painted in symbolic colors, especially the primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Marc devised an elaborate theory of art and its colors—blue ws masculine and spiritual and yellow was female and joyful—and used them to indicate the inner life of the animals, not the animals themselves. Like Marc, Kandinsky believed that colors had symbolic meanings, but his theories stemmed from his readings of Theosophy, especially those of Rudolf Steiner and Annie Beasant, a follower of Madame Blavatsky. Involved in the realm of the spiritual, Kandinsky ceased to even see reality itself and he replaced the objects that once populated his paintings with his “inner aspiration.”

In comparison the Jawlensky’s idea of synthesis, Kandinsky began to think in terms of parallels or “correspondences,” as the Symbolists called it—that color was like a musical leitmotif and belonged to a spiritual universe. As Sixten Ringbom explained it in “Transcending the Visible: The Generation of the Abstract Pioneers,” from 1911 on, Kandinsky “dematerialized” form through a series of paintings that ranged from what he termed “Impressions” or painterly interpretations of external nature to “Improvisations” which are expressions of the inner character or inner nature of the object and finally, to the “Improvisations” which Kandinsky described as “feelings.” Thus, the artist explained his transition from representation to abstraction. However, for decades, this transition was explained in terms of formal development, not as a spiritual journey for the artist in search of the deeper meaning of art. Not until The Spiritual in Abstract Painting, 1890-1985) was published in 1987 did the habit of formal analysis release its grip. Although Kandinsky’s works, Concerning the Spiritual in Art and From Point to Line to Plane, were easily available, this exhibition catalogue and the essays were revelations for art audiences and art historians. Created on the eve of the Great War, abstraction had content, and spiritual content at that.

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Der Blaue Reiter


Brief History


Located in a small village just outside of Munich, Munchen, the southern German Expressionist group, Der Blaue Reiter, was broader in scope and more sophisticated than Die Brücke. Der Blaue Reiter was a more international group, with a more amorphous and changing membership. They were more ideological and more concerned with changing the world than Die Brücke. The group was more diverse in national backgrounds but was bound together by common ideals. Although these artists never developed a common style, theirs was a formal aesthetic, based upon the new formal possibilities of plane and line, creating a stylized natural form. The Die Brücke artists were more individualistic, refused leadership and resented Kirchner’s attempts to be the group’s spokesperson. But like Fauvism, this group was largely focused around one artist: Vassily (Wassily) Kandinsky (1866-1944), the dominant figure of Der Blaue Reiter. He was most closely associated with Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) and Franz (Frantsem) Marc (1890-1916); and with Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941) and Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938). This group was later joined by Auguste Macke and the young Paul Klee.

The northern group was not in contact with Der Blaue Reiter in Munich (and Munich area) until 1911-1912, when Franz Marc visited Berlin. The two groups began and developed independently. What they shared in common was the journey thorough and away from Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and Art nouveau. Although Der Blaue Reiter was ultimately more influenced by Jugdenstil ideals which were still current in Munich, both groups had precedents in late Nineteenth Century German landscape schools at Worpeswede in the north and Dachau in the south, where artistic colonies and groups were established. Likewise, Der Blaue Reiter was interested in “primitive” sculpture as part of “quest for origins” and for alternatives to the outdated styles of the fin-de-siecle. These artists also interested in the art of children, art of the insane, naïve painting, all of this art came from untrained people. The Der Blaue Reiter artists, like most artists of their time had received traditional art training and were imbued with conventions. They needed to purify and to do that they had to get back to basics, whether it be the countryside or art making, and live in a small independent community.



By 1903, Kandinsky and Münter had moved from Munich, then the capital of art in Germany, to a small town in the country, Mürnau. Notice that the concept of the isolated art community was a German one. French artists may have vacationed in seaside towns, but they spent most of their careers in Paris, the capital of the art world. There was nothing like Paris in Russia, only Moscow, which offered limited opportunities for an ­avant-garde artist in the late Nineteenth Century. Unsurprisingly, Kandinsky and all the Russians, Jawlensky and von Werefkin, were in Munich by 1896, joined later by Paul Klee and Franz Marc before 1900. His little group complete, in 1901, Kandinsky founded Phalanx, a school of painting, but, due to a lack of a clear concept, it disbanded in 1904. Between 1904 and 1908, Kandinsky was in Sèvres, just outside of Paris and was a member of the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, the best years of Fauvism. Fauvism ended in 1908 when Henri Matisse published Notes of a Painter, in which he indicated that he was changing his mind about the direction of his art. Indeed that very year, Matisse began teaching students who were, to his dismay, both imitating and misunderstanding Fauvism. He made the youngsters start over—-from classicism.

But Kandinsky was very impacted by Fauvism and his visits to the Stein collection where he saw additional works by Matisse, and the suggestion that line and color could have separate and independent existences, unfettered from the task of describing. Formal elements, far from being inert until activated by the artist, were expressive in their own right. Full of new ideas, he returned to Germany where Kandinsky and his associates founded the “New Artists Association,” (Neue Kunstlervereinigung), Jan 22, 1909 but the group disbanded, destroyed by quarrels over art. The Blaue Reiter group was held together by two things, the leadership of Kandinsky and their interest in color and alternative art forms. Otherwise, the actual work of the group is highly diverse: Franz Marc frequently focused on animals which were, he was convinced, capable of spiritual feeling, Gabriel Münter was interested in Bavarian folk painting on glass, while Kandinsky’s paintings were moving towards abstraction.

The group was renamed when Kandinsky and Marc founded Der Blaue Reiter in December 1911. Der Blaue Reiter was also an “almanac,” an illustrated yearbook of the current art scene, published by the artists in 1912, 1913 and 1914 editions. Der Blaue Reiter was also an exhibition of avant-garde art, which traveled about Europe, to Cologne, Berlin, the Hague, Frankfurt, etc. There were also two exhibitions in Munich, at the Galerie Thannhauser at the beginning of 1912 and at the gallery of the dealer Glotz in March 1912. In 1912, Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which fused Theosophy and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and Madame Helena Blavatsky on the universality of all elements. Like many of the art colonies in Germany, their intense interest in all things spiritual was paradoxical. The Blue Rider came to an end by the Great War when it broke out in August, 1914 and scattered the artists. Leaving Gabriel Münter behind in Switzerland, Kandinsky returned to Russia where he married his second wife. Tragically, Franz Marc was killed in action. Kandinsky and Klee were reunited after the War at the Bauhaus, where the now-mature artists were installed as master teachers.

German Expressionism

German Expressionism Before the Great War

Compared to French Expressionism, German Expressionism was more involved with the relationships between art and society, politics and popular culture. While the Fauves were able to work somewhat independently from the state, the Wilhelmine Empire of Germany participated directly in the affairs of art, drawing the artists of pre-War Germany into dialogues about their interaction with the state. Avant-garde artists struggled to free themselves of state restrictions and dreamed utopian dreams of individual creativity, but they were also concerned with reaching the broad public. In contrast to the French artists who were content with the erudite and difficult audiences of the salon who tolerated more or less well the concept of autonomous art and of the independence of the artist, the German artists were more torn between individual creativity and expression and their social duty to the masses.

The term “Expressionism” in Germany meant “modern art” and a rejection of traditional Western (non-German) conventions dating back to the Renaissance. By the late fall of 1911, the Expressionist groups, Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke, as well as artists, such as Kathe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach, were being referred to as “expressionists.” By April 1911, the Berlin Secession, guided by Lovis Corinth, grouped the French Fauves—Derain, Vlaminck, and Matisse—in one room and labeled them as “Expressionists.” The Fauves were considered to be ultramodern in their break from Impressionism, taking the passivity of the older movement’s objectivity to an activated subjectivity. Despite the fact that some German artists had already exhibited with these French artists as early as 1910, they were not included in this groundbreaking exhibition. But soon, the German artists, emboldened by a series of Secessions, developed their own brand of the avant-garde.

Art, before the Great War, was international and avant-garde movements exchanged ideas through multinational exhibitions. One of the most important, for the German artists, was the Sonderbund westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler, (the Separate League of West German Art Lovers and Artists) or the Sonderbund for short. In a series of International Art Exhibitions in 1910, 1911, and 1912 held in Düsseldorf and Cologne, avant-garde French art, including the Impressionists, were shown to the art public. For the Germans, anything French was to be admired but, at the same time, was viewed as “not German.” That said, everyone who was anyone, from Impressionism to Cubism, could be seen in these encyclopedic shows. Despite this barrage of the New, German artists absorbed the French avant-garde and, after digesting its suggestions, created their own form of Expressionism.

Despite the fact that the Expressionists made art for the people, the public and many conservative artists did not understand the use of bright colors, flattened shapes and distorted forms. Many thought Expressionism was un-German and too French. In an important 1912 exhibition in Cologne, the Sonderbund responded to these complaints by including Northern artists–the Dutch national, Vincent van Gogh and the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, both of whom prefigured Expressionism, rather than the French artist, Paul Gauguin. The artists of Die Brücke were among the first German nationalists to be called “Expressionists.” Founded in Dresden in June 1905, these artists were considered provocative and revolutionary in their use of brilliant clashing colors and jagged brushstrokes.

These former architects—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Hans Bleyl–were inspired by Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in which the artist was portrayed as the aggressive leader of a new morality. These artists formed a “bridge” to other intellectuals and called for a renewal toward a freer and more vital age, using their anti-naturalistic and symbolic images as a call to arms. Although the bright colors were reminiscent of Fauvism, they also recalled Vincent van Gogh. The jagged forms were very German, evoking Medieval expressionism in their intensity. However, in the early halcyon days in Dresden, the jagged forms were more stylistic, suggesting youthful activity rather than any specific feelings. Later, when the group moved to Berlin, the sharp vertical slashes were linked to modern angst and alienation.

The German Expressionists of Die Brücke used a harsh anti-naturalism as a critique of social conditions in a bourgeoisie society that liked a middle of the road realism. These artists were interested in the art of the insane and of children as models to lead them out of the trap of naturalism so that they could use their Expressionism to change society. Linked to the desire to bring about change was the need to go back to nature with an uninhibited sensuality and eroticism. The Germans had a healthy culture of outdoor bathing and basking in the sunshine. At the turn of the century, turning to nature for renewal symbolized individual freedom and suggested a youthful vitalism, a popular concept of the period. The Brücke artists were participating in what can only be referred to as a cult of youth, that was linked to a mad population race with the French.

True to their social goals for art, the Brücke artists at first produced communal art works in a rebuilt butcher shop in a working class Dresden neighborhood. They not only produced jointly made graphics, inspired by early Germanic woodcuts, but also experimented with many medias, from sculpture to painting to furniture. They extended their membership and exhibition opportunities to other artists—Max Pechstein and Emile Nolde, who was really too old and artistically mature to be associated with young artists who were still unsettled in their intentions. The former architects were, to be truthful, indifferent but sincere painters, dedicated to celebrating the culture of youth in a series of landscapes that fused “primitivism” with the joy of being young and daring.

By 1911 the group moved to Berlin, hoping for a more favorable climate for their art, but the move proved catastrophic for the unity of the little band of former architects. But barely a year later, conflicts over who should lead and why broke out. As they got older and developed separate interests, the artists wanted to concentrate on individual styles. Although the group ceased to function as a coherent unit, the artists shared certain themes. First, there was the deployment of their version of “primitivism,” inspired by the ethnographic museum in Dresden. The lure of “primitivism” was part of the desire to return to nature and to a primal vitalism. Tribal art served as an inspiration for the large scale, life sized sculptures.

Rough hewn and polychromed, these sculptures are some of the best of the pre-War avant-garde. Distorted and twisted and yet insistently modern, these carvings also evoked all things German–expressive Medieval sculpture that was wooden and expressive of religious fervor. The desire to escape modern life was mirrored by the fear of urban life. Die Brücke depicted the modern city of Berlin as a claustrophobic space, vibrating with tension. The city contrasted to the Dresden landscapes with imagined the German forests as a site of pre-modern harmony populated with naked men and women. In Berlin, this harmony is replaced by aggressive psychological interactions between men and women, well suited to the angular lines and harsh colors of Die Brücke.

To the south, another art movement associated with Expressionism formed, the Blaue Reiter, the successor to the less well-known Neue Künstler Vereinigung (NKV). Both groups were founded by the Russian exile, Wassily Kandinsky. The Blaue Reiter linked French modernism, Fauve Expressionism with abstraction and primitivism in the public’s mind. The publication of the Blaue Reiter Almanac in the spring of 1912 demonstrated not only the avant-garde search for a way out of Post-Impressionism but also an expanded interest in the art of outsiders. The editors, Franz Marc and Kandinsky, were influenced by a variety of concepts in the air during this pre-War period, from Symbolism, Theosophy and the occult. On the eve of one of the most terrible wars ever fought, they hoped that a new spiritual era would replace the current anxiety and decadence. Kandinsky had lived in Paris during the period of 1906-07 and being familiar with the Fauves, he included French artists in the 1909 exhibition of NKV.

Contrary to custom in Germany, the women of the group, Gabriele Münter and Marianne von Werefkin were given equal rights, and they split from the NKV group with Kandinsky and Marc to form the Blaue Reiter. The new group’s first exhibition opened in December, 1911. A year later, Kandinsky published Uber das Gestige in der Kunst. Kandinsky was concerned with the ideas of “inner” and “outer” in order to justify his break with naturalism. “Inner” was the artist’s concentration on finding forms to evoke collective experiences. The artist, following Theosophy, asserted that matter and spirit were interrelated. Both Kandinsky and Marc felt that the artist was a very special person, a prophet who could communicate the divine to the public. This concept of the artist and of the role of art was quite different from the public and political role for the artist asserted by the Brücke group.

The primary organ of dissemination of the concepts of German Expressionism was the journal Der Stürm. More than a mere magazine, Der Sturm was also a gallery, a publishing company and an art school that put on numerous traveling exhibitions to commemorate the 100th issue of the journal in March 1912. The journal was founded in 1910 by Herwarth Walden and, as its name suggests (storm, struggle) pitted itself again Philistine tendencies in contemporary Germany by promoting avant-garde artists and writers. Walden was committed to the concept of culture as a moral force and perhaps it is no surprise that Der Stürm ceased publication when its editor migrated to the Soviet Union in 1932.

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The “Primitivism” of the Fauves

The Question of “Primitivism” and the Fauves

Today, “primitivism” is considered a derogatory term, connoting the Twentieth Century Western attitude towards the presumed “inferiority” of non-Western art. “Primitivism” refers to the abiding belief that non-Western cultures and peoples of color were, by definition, “primitive” and uncivilized and in need of the civilizing influences of European powers. “Primitivism” has become equated with imperialism and colonialism and the exploitation of the Other by the West. A more polite term has replaced primitivism: “Tribal Art,” indicating an indigenous art by non-Western people. However, it is important to note two little discussed facts: first, that the so-called “native” art came from colonized peoples and second, this art was often made expressly for the tourist trade and/or had been altered by Western influences. The tribal art so admired by Parisian artists was likely to be both “African” and inauthentic. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, fully eighty-five percent of the world was dominated by a tiny group of European nations.

Art critic, Robert Hughes, called the aesthetic pillaging of non-Western art by Western artists “cultural imperialism”—an apt phrase, given that the artistic looting was paralleled by wholesale colonization of the globe. The artists were riveted by the freedom with which the African artists treated the human body. Instead of an anatomically idealized Classical ideal, the African body was not perceptual but conceptual or symbolic in form. The huge mask like faces, the generalized bodies and the stunted arms and legs suggested anything but beauty and beauty and art had long been co-dependent in Western art. The idea that the body could be stylistically and expressively deformed and that the face could be grotesque and morphologically transformed inspired artists in Paris to re-conceptualize the human form.

The early writings on “primitivism,” such as Primitivism and Modern Art (1938) by Robert Goldwater, equated non-Western art with the art making of “undeveloped” people, such as children. But Goldwater valiantly attempted to point out that this equation was made by the art world of pre-War Paris and that the art of Africans was sophisticated and beautifully crafted. “Primitivism” was, instead, a state of mind or a mindset on the part of certain artists, looking for new ideas. African art was “discovered” in Paris around 1904 by the Fauve artists, notably André Derain, and by Pablo Picasso. The sources and sightings included the Musée de l’Homme and artifacts purchased by travelers. Henri Matisse purchased some examples of African tribal art, and the inspiration of these objects appears in his Green Stripe with his wife’s mask-like face. The interest in tribal art caused these artists to shift their attention from the bright colors of Fauvism to the “darker” aspects of the “primitive.” Derain painted a series of clumsy nudes, Bathers, lumbering through a dark jungle and Matisse painted a subdued Blue Nude by 1907. It is highly unlikely that any of these artists knew or cared about the original (and probably lost) meanings of the tribal works or about how the art might have functioned in tribal societies. Fauve “primitivism” consisted of seizing upon new ideas and absorbing the concepts and adapting the tribal for the avant-garde.

As the book, Primitivism, cubism, abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century, put it,

The appeal of African and Oceanic objects for the Fauves as rooted in those same interests and assumptions, which underpinned the appeal of Gauguin’s work for the group. They signified the exotic or the ‘primitive’ redefined according to a Western avant-garde artistic code. Moreover, the absence of an accessible iconography or history to these objects allowed them to be easily absorbed into a modern artistic culture.

In their own time, the Fauves inherited the Nineteenth Century’s fear of anarchism and political chaos and were called barbarians (or wild beasts), indicating a baleful anti-authoritarian attitude. The Fauves may have been seeking new artistic ideas but they had no intention of overthrowing any governments. To the establishment mind, any feints, no matter how remote, against the prevailing powers, was a threat and had to be countered with cries of childishness, youthfulness, and dangerous waywardness. The possible Dionysian attitudes of the Fauves and their rollicking colors seemed quite possible compared to the regal and serene murals of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, painted in cool cerebral colors. But the Fauves were more interested in stripping modern art of tradition and in finding new ways to draw and new reasons to paint than in importing tribal art into their art world. What drew them to African art was the powerful urge to withdraw from an over industrialized landscape into something more simple, hence “primitive,” and primal: the lost atavistic golden age.

The “Primitivism” of the Fauves could be found in their choice of subjects—the nudes bathing in landscape with a new treatment of the human body. Compared to Emile Bernard’s painting of nudes in a landscape in 1097 in which the artist expressly contrasted the women to nature, the Fauve nude is part of landscape and is co-extensive with nature. The nude and the landscape are drawn and colored and painted without hierarchy, with equality. There is no humanistic center, only a reduction of the painting to a mood. There is no unified action and there is no exterior determinant or reason for the picture to exits other that the figures that fill the frame. The forms are psychologically unrelated to each other and the figures are rendered unimportant by the random cutting of the edges by Derain and Vlaminck. In the fantasy world of Matisse, nudity accepted as being a signifier of harmony between humans and bucolic nature in a pastoral landscape.

The Fauve artists simplified their lines, often leaving them unfinished or forgotten about, as if a child had been distracted by another task. Also child-like (in the sense that Friedrich Schiller meant it) is the use of large areas of pure and undifferentiated color, floating unanchored by perspective. In addition to their appreciation of children’s art and the naïve art of Henri Rousseau, the Fauves were not concerned about the traditional subtleties of drawing and attempted to find simplicity (primitivism). The artists wanted to communicate directly with the spectator by replacing the world of objects with basic human emotions (considered “primitive” by authoritarian regimes). Some of the more immature artists, such as Vlaminck were dependent upon violent effects of color and upon the sensationalism of deliberate dissonance, but Fauvism sought merely a return and renewal of a more direct way of living and of self-expression. The “primitivism” of Fauvism was a means to an end, not the end itself.

In fact, the Fauve turn towards the “primitive” was brief, a mere glitch on the way to the end of the movement. The same was true of Picasso who used “primitivism”—Iberian and African influences—to start but never finish Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) on the way to Cubism. The whole concept of “primitivism” and the influence of tribal art on Modern Art was revived after the two world wars and was reordered as a kind of formal affinity. The last gasp of “affinity” was the 1984 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Primitivism” in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” curated by William Rubin. Rubin came under a barrage of criticism by a younger generation of art critics, such as Thomas McEvilley, for equating modernism with the universal and for viewing tribal art as a kind of raw material for Western artists to elevate into transcendence. As McEvilley charged, the curators wanted to present modern art as a creative process, not as an art of appropriation (in the sense of colonialism). More tellingly, in “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief,” McEvilley pointed out that Rubin’s so-called affinity was based upon a morphological resemblance without establishing any connection between selected examples of non-Western art and modern art.

In the end, after a few short eventful years, the imfluence of Fauvism far outweighed its duration. Although the art of Matisse suggested that the logic of form or reality could be created thru color, this liberation of color did not immediately affect Twentieth Century art, due to the monochrome of Cubism. But for the more mainstream art world, lagging behind the avant-garde, there were educational consequences. The bright colors helped painters to leave Impressionism and to come to terms with Post-Impressionism. The late Cézannist period of Fauvism combined a Western structure and geometricism with “primitivism” by 1907.

After Ernst Ludwig Kirchner saw Fauve paintings in Berlin in 1908, Die Brücke in northern Germany took up this route of structured “primitivism,” or sharp edged figures. Although Matisse’s work in Berlin in 1908 was badly reviewed, Die Brücke artists began heightening their palettes and simplifying their forms. Both the Fauves and Die Brücke were impacted by tribal art, with the German artists finding or “discovering” the new forms in the ethnographic museum in Dresdent. Both groups were actively seeking a return to nature and saw “primitivism” as a means to accomplish a more simple way of life. In contrast, the Munich group, Der Blaue Reiter, led by Kandinsky and Jawlensky, saw Fauvism at Salon d’automne in 1905 and were inspired by the formal innovations. By 1908, Kandinsky at Murnau, near Munich, mixed the Fauve technique of high color and flat planes with Post-Impressionist exaggerated broken brushstrokes. Interestd in Bavarian folk art, Jawlensky used high pitched colors, harsh bright outlining, complementary shadows, all borrowed from the Fauves to create a kind of raw modern folk art in the frontal aspect of his painted mask like faces.

Formally speaking, “primitivism” led the Fauves and those influenced by them to find an all-over construction through color. Reductiveness and simplicity, directness of means and a search for the basic elements of art, stripped of conventions—-all were hallmarks of Fauvism. The desire to return and to renew suggested a reliance on instinct, indicated through intense color and free form that indicated a primal wildness. In Fauvism, imagination and feeling ruled, but being French, their formal dislocations were tempered and tamed by a devotion to the decorative. To the art intellectuals, this frankly decorative tendency, especially on the part of Matisse, was an excursion into the exotic, the “primitive,” the alien Other to the civilized European. The “primitivism” of Fauvism, like Fauvism itself, waned. Derain and Vlaminck became virulently conservative, especially after the Great War and Braque became a controlled Cubist and Matisse became a cultural lion, a giant of the Twentieth Century. Fauvism was tamed and the Fauves grew up.

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Expressionism in Europe 1900-1910



What caused the aesthetic crisis in European art at the beginning of the Twentieth Century? Somewhere around the very first years of the century, around 1904 and 1905, artists became aware that an old century was ending and that a new one was beginning. The question became now what? But the artistic crisis was caused by more than a new uncertainty about the beginning of a new and modern era. After more than five decades, the very basis for art making—the materialistic view of nature—was being interrogated. Philosophers were shifting away from positivism and moving toward a new form of idealism. Idealism returned to the Kantian position that the mind made the world, and, if human cognition played an active part in ordering reality, then naturalism was seen as not “realism” but as a false passivity. The artist could take the position that s/he was a mere transcriber, but was that a valid position?

But it would take more than a shift in philosophical perspectives to move the art world in a new direction. Two major issues emerged. The first problem was that of the prevailing artistic styles. Impressionism was the last “great style,” which was based in the reality of the visible world, upon the unquestioned agreement with external world. For the avant-garde artists, Impressionism was a master style, against which one measured oneself. The Post-Impressionists either accepted and expanded Impressionism, such as van Gogh, or rejected and expanded some of its formal innovations, such as Gauguin. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Impressionism was thirty years old and out of date and was ripe to be challenged by new movements led by a new generation. These new movements would confront Impressionism on the grounds of the passivity of empiricism and mere optical response. Romanticism, which had always exulted the subjective over the objective returned in a new form called, “Expressionism.”

The second problem that led to Expressionism was cultural—-the changes of the Twentieth Century that made Impressionism look quaint. Impressionism had been, for the most, part an art of suburban well-being. The city was viewed from a careful distance, as in the bird’s eye paintings of Camille Pissarro. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, urban living had become the new norm, bringing with it profound feelings of alienation from the community and a sense of being alone within the crowd. The backlash against the materialism of realism caused a profound skepticism and questioning of the true relationship between the self and the world. Faith in the reality of visual impressions and sensual perceptions was now challenged. Objectivity was interrogated and subjectivity was reevaluated. Feelings became more important than outer appearance, and in a sort of neo-Romanticism, the gaze of the artists turned inward with the goal of expressing their personal reactions and feelings.

Stemming from Symbolism, this new tendency in the arts had as its goal the redefinition of representation. To represent was not merely to reproduce nature but to react to the visual in a personal and unique fashion. The job of the artist was now to deal with the dialectic between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of nature. The problem was finding a way beyond the scientism of Impressionism and to free the artist from the tyranny of a passive response to reality. The solution was suggested by the critic Émile Zola was that of “nature, as seen through a corner of the temperament,” meaning that the artist’s personality would shape the content. Another solution was suggested by the art of Vincent van Gogh: to use the medium itself to express emotions. The “Nocturnes” of James Whistler were case in point. The artist used thin, almost murky paint, layered wetly onto a canvas. The indistinct quality of foggy London on the banks of the Thames was captured, not in an act of illustration but in an act of painting.

This new cultivation of personal sensibilities had its precedents in the Symbolists and the Aesthetic movement, some artists and writers using drugs, alcohol, religion, or magic as paths to creativity. But most artists were more rational in their quest for new subject matter and new methods of expressing new content. The Fauve movement extended and exaggerated certain Post-Impressionist artists, such as the expressive line of van Gogh and the symbolic color of Gauguin and the color relationships of Seurat to explore the ability of line and color to convey feeling through form. The artists of the Blue Rider movement in Germany discovered the “irrational” and “primitive” art of tribes, popular art of the lower classes, caricature, children’s art. The outsider artist, the dounier, Henri Rousseau, opened the minds of avant-garde artists to other possibilities in art. By the beginning of the new century, realism was effectively defunct and expressionism surged forward to replace it.

By 1910, the formal elements were manipulated beyond the currently accepted aesthetic conventions of the late Nineteenth-century in order for painting to become more personal and more expressive. In a reversal of the Academy hierarchy, there is a new emphasis on color at expense of line. Color was considered to be very suspect and dangerous, possessing the uncanny ability to arouse sexually within the innocent viewer. Women especially were, of course, very susceptible to the blandishments of intense hues. But the artists who began to favor color had other thoughts on their minds. First, they sought a reduction of dependence upon objective reality for the absolute validity of a personal vision. Very quickly, some artists, such as Vasily Kandinsky and Georgia O’Keeffe, would dispense with reality entirely, leading to abstract art. For O’Keeffe, her Blue Lines (1916) are a projection of artist’s inner experience, an aggressive and courageous response to music, her anguished but lyrical revolt against rationalism.

The first movement of the new century after Art Nouveau was Fauvism, named after the “fauves,” meaning wild beasts. The large group of artists was supposedly led by Henri Matisse but was more indicative of shifts to expressiveness through formal means. The name “Fauve” was derived from a critical condemnation uttered by the startled art critic, Louis Vauxcelles. He was horrified by a room full of paintings that were, in his conservative opinion, too brightly colored for the safety of art. The Fauve artists were leading what was an essentially technical revolution involving the liberation of color from description and the direct use of color to express feelings. Accustomed to mimetic realism, the public was shocked by the use of non-local color—the purple tree trunks by André Derain—and the critics offended by the uninhibited use of color to define form and feeling—the heaving and striving colored lines of Maurice de Vlaminck. But regardless of the conservative factions, the new emphasis in the art world had shifted to the inner world and towards the subjective personality of artist.

The Second movement in Expressionism took place in two distinct sites in Germany. Located in the south, the Blue Rider, Der Blaue Reiter, just outside of Munich, and in the northern city of Dresden, the Bridge, Die Brücke, these were two different and distinct parts of the shift towards subjectivity in northern Europe. Germany had a long tradition of art based upon strong feelings, such as the Isenheim Altarpiece (15056-15)by Matthias Grünewald, and a long history of wood carving, equally expressive, dating back to the medieval period. But only Die Brücke, not Der Blaue Reiter, was interested in this indigenous inheritance. Led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Die Brücke was nationalistic and sought the essence of all that was Germanic, cleaving close to the forests around their home base of Dresden and venturing into “primitive” carved polychromed wood sculptures. Based in the south, closer to France, Der Blaue Reiter was a more internationally inclined group that learned a great deal from French art. The leader of Der Blaue Reiter, a Russian expatriate named Vasily Kandinsky, had, like so many of his generation, out of Art nouveau and the Post-Impressionists of France. From both French movements, Der Blaue Reiter borrowed the curvilinear line, the non-local use of color, and the large forms filled in with bright colors. Under the influence of Theosophy, Kandinsky moved quickly into complete abstraction, but the other members of the group remained representational artists.

The single most important factor in development of the Expressionist movement was the new demand for audience participation. Stemming from Symbolist poetry, the interaction of the reader forced the reader to be active and to creatively “make” the poem. Painting demanded a similar empathy or leap of faith from the viewer. The Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, freed himself of the task of recording reality in order to express a reality engendered from the artist himself. If the public must be prepared to accept the artist’s subjective vision, then the artist him (or her) self had to be prepared to assert that he/she spoke for his/her audience. The artist no longer showed reality to the public, no longer demonstrated or illustrated; the artist had to go much deeper into the subjective. Exposed, the artist took on the role of a medium through whom the feelings of his (or her) time flowed towards the audience.

The Northern European artists, such as Edvard Munch in Norway and James Ensor in Belgium, and the Germans in Dresden were concerned more with content than form. In other words, form was in the service of content, the artistic elements were tasked with expressing the feelings of the artist for which the content was merely the carrier. The Germans wanted to penetrate behind inert objects to disclose the underlying significance beneath appearances. The German artists emphasized voyages of discovery of the self, as seen in the auto-portraits of Kirchner, who is the leading player in the theater of his own emotions. The artist Emile Nolde, briefly aligned with Die Brücke, was a rarity in the Twentieth-century, carrying on the faded tradition of religious art. He was involved with the spiritual but sought the primal impulse that led to religion. Nolde was uninterested in doctrines or Church teachings and looked to pagan impulses, to mystery “religions,” resulting in paintings alive with psychological tension and ecstatic physical distortion. The Last Supper (1909) is one of the great religious paintings of the new century, far more profound than any work by his Russian counterpart, Marc Chagall.

Expressionism, especially in Die Brücke asserted the innermost self and the right of art to be ugly and grotesque. Ugliness, naked fears and neuroses appear unmasked in the work of Kirchner, especially after the group moved to the modern city of Berlin. Compared to the French, the Germans were comfortable with a more savage, angular, aggressive, nervous and brutal style. For the northern Germans, Expression was their prime aim to evoke pictorial passions whether ecstatic and pleasurable or shimmering with anxiety. French Expression, or Fauvism, was, in contrast, an art of purity of strong colors, decorative balance and sensual repose. The French were escaping the new century while the Germans were meeting modernism head on, probing the troubling undercurrents. For Die Brücke, for instance, personal expression had to fuse with a now activated object, meaning that art was subordinated to experience. For Fauves, the approach to the concern for the object was completely the opposite: there was balance between sentiment and form, between emotion and composition, but the art had to be an experience, with the experience being subordinated to form and its expressive possibilities.

Both Germans and Fauves looked to Gauguin, van Gogh, Seurat, Munch and Toulouse-Lautrec, and the so-called “primitive cultures;” but the two nationalities developed in different directions. The Fauves, including André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, had came together around Matisse around 1903 but by 1907 the group fell under the very different spell of Paul Cézanne. For a time, Matisse’s colors, as seen in The Blue Nude of 1907, became darker, echoing the limited color palette of Cézanne with its dull blues. Derain was attracted to the art of African tribes and fused Cézanne’s dark colors with clumsy nudes, hacked into shapes of sharp angles and hard edges. Georges Braque fell under the spell of Matisse’s great rival, Pablo Picasso, and with his new colleague began a prolonged study of Cézanne, an absorption of the master’s thought process that would lead to Cubism. After a few years, Fauvism was dispersed by the new interest in tribal art and Cézanne, but German expressionism took up where Fauves left off and would continue with the representation of personal points of view until 1933 when a man named Adolph Hitler put an end to “degenerate art.”

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Podcast 37 Painting 3: The Pre-War Avant-Garde

The Avant-Garde Before the Great War

The decades of the fin-de-siècle period in Europe were fruitful ones, years of innovation and experimentation in painting. “Ism” followed “ism:” Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, German Expressionism, ended only by the Great War. New independent Salons and the burgeoning artist-dealer system provided new opportunities for cutting edged artists to show their work. Working experimentally, these artists developed a new language for a new art for a new century.


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