Behold. Perspectives at Play in a Young Man’s Mind

Solo exhibition of the Photographic Work of James Higginson

Behold. Perspective at Play in a Young Man’s Mind

Haus am Kleistpark, Berlin

Photographic Exhibition from March-May 2015

Unless one is an angel, descending from on high, no one without wings utters the word “Behold” any more. With all its well rounded “ohs” and Biblical and Koranic implications, “Behold” as a command has almost faded from contemporary vocabulary. Behold is an order and an imperious one at that. Behold expands far beyond the causal imperative of “look” or “see” or “view”–behold implies a serious contemplation of a significant unveiling. A revelation is at hand, and a revelation is the disclosure of something previously unknown, a fact that has been hidden or a situation kept secret or a condition previously unknown. A veil will be raised, a curtain will be lifted, a light will be lit and now all will be exposed to astonished eyes. The drama of “behold” suits well the notoriously vivid and astonishing photography of James Higginson, who has made a career of making us look at society’s purloined letters, is lying in plain sight.

To “Behold” is to be witness to what is at play in the mind of a young man and Higginson is the guide who provides the perspective. A photographer, who turns the camera against itself to create fantasies that tell truths too potent to face without disguise, Higginson manipulates and directs his subjects who are actors, displaying elaborate artifices and social constructions. The male, Higginson’s photographic suites insist, is inauthentic, a construct, a tabula rasa who self-constructs into fictions that are forms of exaggerated play on the game of being male. None of the men in this large beautifully mounted exhibition are middle-aged or set in their ways, so to speak, none are old, formed, congealed and hardened into an indelible mold. All are young or wanting to be young, actively engaged in shaping themselves, using the allegorical tools, such as they are, provided by society.

These tools are like toys in a child’s closet, repetitive and limited and yet capable of astonishing variation at the hands of an imaginative young man, who learns very early in life that life is a series of costumes, poses and performances. Being a man is a performance, that much is well known, but what Higginson emphasizes is that the exaggeration of masculinity is a forcing of masculine extremes in the face of flaunted femininity. The artist shows very clearly what can and cannot be revealed: the soul. The body of work from which the exhibition takes its name, Behold (2010), is powerful in its intimacy. Higginson shows the heart of the male, stripped of clothes and posturing, signified as a naked back, a male version of The Bather of Valpinçon (1808) and re-marked as a male obsession with forbidden voluptuousness. Where Ingres caressed with his eyes not his hands, where Ingres touched with his brush, Higginson embraces his vulnerable model, back bare and exposed, with an enveloping black robe which reaches around and holds like a hand in a dark glove. But we must recall that Higginson is always subtly sarcastic in his approach to photography, for what seems to be a dark embrace is actually something much more Ingres-esque–the black is actually paint on skin, a shadow of a touch, an illusion of togetherness. Behold is almost embarrassingly revelatory, full of yearning and desire, a statement of need to be loved, to be touched, all of which must be concealed by the mask of men who must be invulnerable and strident in a male world where all must be hidden.


Closely related to Behold, is the series Interlude (2004), a prolonged study of male helplessness in an indifferent world. Higginson presents the young man adrift in nature, set nude in bucolic nature, naked in the woods. Like Adam, bewildered and alone in the Garden of Eden, the young men linger at the edge a lake, staring across the still waters. Unlike Behold which is in painfully personal deep color, Interlude is deliberately subdued in black and white, denied silvers and devoid of uplifting whites, except for the blank enigmatic skies. Although the American artists lives and works in Germany, there is nothing of the heedless pre-war nude frolics of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at Moritzburg and nothing of the portentous pantheistic grandeur of Caspar David Friedrich in these photographs. It is rather as if Robert Adams were God who placed an unwitting Adam in an anonymous wood and left him to his own untutored devices. These young man are modern, lost and alone, stripped of clothing and of any accouterments of survival. They attempt relaxed or assertive postures but they are classical nudes stranded in a rather sharp-edged forest, stripped of halcyon tones and bristling with future wounds to the pale slim bodies. They are vulnerable because of their age, they are still malleable. Still in states of becoming, the minds of these young men are still in play.


The young man learns to put away the blanket of comfort and childhood and gives up all thought of emotion and is taught to don the costume of maleness or manhood. Since the ancient Romans, puritanical society has commanded men to put on full body armor, a costume of concealment, whether it be the long enveloping robes of a priest or the tense suit of a businessman. Nothing must be allowed to escape, not an errant ankle or stray emotion. Exposure is vulnerability, Higginson suggests, and no one likes to be left alone in the prickly forest. Gender becomes the shield and spear against the traumas of the natural. As Judith Butler noted,

Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of sub- stance, of a natural sort of being.

In her well-known book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Butler used the words “compulsory” and “regulatory” to demonstrate the constricting effect of language has on the human subject, halting the impulse to play. Suggestion that gender is a social performance which becomes an understudy, taking the place of the “real” person who disappears from the stage. If, as Butler insists, there is no getting outside the discourse of gender, then it is possible to contest the discursive rigidity of “manhood” with the loose linguistics playful clothing. In his series on male attire, the artist resists Butler’s nihilistic theories with the absurdity of fantasy costume in Goth (2009) and in the precision of historical costumes seen in Black Shields (2012). The Black Shields or Georgian Fight Art Federation Shavparosnebi are unfamiliar to American audiences but in the summer of 2015, this group of re-enactors won first place at the first place at the Natale di Roma festival. Since 2012 Georgia, once part of the Roman Empire, has been part of this annual event and the Shavparosnebi demonstrate Georgian fighting techniques, traditional clothing and weapons. The Shavparosnebi represent serious manhood at the extremes, if you will, at the peak of the Roman Empire, an age still celebrated by Hollywood. The fighting men of the Shavparosnebi re-enactors, charged with conserving an obscure but proud culture, pose proudly, conquered and yet always authentic. These modern men, now living in the dangerous shadow of Russia, choose to don the costumes of their ancient counterparts and relive a more glorious past–also lived at the mercy of a greater power. Thus cultural pride provides an assertive stance and a stage upon which to perform manhood.


These alternative self-fashioning are playful antidotes to conservative submissiveness to the characters written in preexisting scripts. In HWD Dresses and in the delightful HWD Dresses in Action (2009), Higginson puts men in female clothing to see what happens. Perhaps it takes men wearing women’s clothing to make the familiar strange and to demonstrate the dislocation that a simple act of switching costumes can cause in a well ordered society.


As if stressing the importance of play in the young men’s mind, Higginson closes in on the tiny toy soldier, khaki green and plastic, wearing camouflage for an imaginary jungle campaign. It is here, in the playroom, that the boy learns to be a man and these simple plastic figures, fighting in bleached out spaces of a photographic field, teach manhood through violence. As he imaginatively enters into the mental space of a fighting man, the boy learns to pretend to fight and kill and even die in the performance of his gender to come, gender to be. There is an active submission and strident compliance in his unthinking conformity to cultural concerns: that there be males to confront females, constructed as each other’s polar opposites. In today’s world, where gender roles are breaking down and men are taking more active part in the nurturing business of parenting and women are in Afghanistan are fighting and dying, Higginson’s pointed commentary on the straightjacket of social norms seems well placed and necessary.


Wisely, the artist refuses to patronize his audience with the obvious commentary on gender roles. Perhaps twenty years ago, such preaching would have been novel, but today, Judith Butler is long out of date. The artist has been working for the past fifteen years, using the directorial mode of photography to demonstrate the charade of gender. Turning performance inside out, Higginson forces his actors to take off their accustomed clothing and to explore other states of being. In the process, he finds a simple truth: before we are anything else, male or female, we are human beings, naked and desiring, alone in the world. In the photographic universe of James Higginson, to play is to think, to think is to gain perspective, to reveal is to behold.

Podcast 56: Nazi Art, Part Four


Long sequestered and rarely viewed, recent art historical writings have begun to examine the art of Fascism. This series of podcasts, in four parts, attempts to answer a series of questions: what were the goals of Nazi art, who were the Nazi artists—the painters and sculptors—and what was the impact of Nazi art? This podcast discusses the ways in which artists were co-opted by the Nazis, the reasons why artists collaborated with fascism, and the rewards of working for Hitler. This concluding episode asks if it is possible to make “art” if the works were dedicated to the goals of pure evil?

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Die Brücke


Context of Expressionism

According to Seth Taylor in his book, Left-Wing Nietzscheans: The Politics of German Expressionism, 1910-1920, the term “expressionism” originated in France “in order to differentiate Matisse…from the Impressionists,” and that in Germany, the term referred to the work of Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch. Writing decades earlier than Taylor, Peter Selz described how German Expressionism was connected to a national heritage of Gothic art, considered by Wilhelm Worringer to be an important component of the new avant-garde movement. Worringer had close connections to the Munich movement through Franz Marc, who admired Abstraction and Empathy, but many of his ideas about the significance of feeling and empathy for the creation of art were important to the northern Expressionists in Dresden. While the southern group was more interested in spiritual ideas in the abstract, the northern group responded to their native art as the repository of spirituality.

Gothic art, Worringer claimed in Form in Gothic, was a higher form of art than Greek art, because it was based on spirit rather than matter. Alarmingly to today’s reader, the art writer considered the Gothic to be the “common property” of “Aryan people.” Worringer also extolled the properties of the “German line” which had “infinite melody” and was “spiritual,” as exemplified by Matthias Grünewald. According to Selz, the appreciation of Gothic art was new and coincided with the interest in non-Western art in Germany. In other words, the artists were searching for alternatives to Renaissance art. But in Germany, such a quest had a particular resonance—a turning away from the heritage of the logic of classicism and the rationality of the Enlightenment, none of which were “German,” and a turn towards to the irrational. Of course Friedrich Nietzsche was a great inspiration, and had been for decades, for all those who wanted to return to a more irrational or more feeling based and more natural way of living.

The Formation of Die Brücke

Instead of looking for inspiration from an alien tradition, such as neo-classicism, German Expressionist artists looked to their “own” artists, like Caspar David Friedrich and other Romantics. Dissatisfied with their studies, in June, 1905, four students of architecture in Dresden Polytechnic Institute formed Die Brücke or “The Bridge.” The group wanted to be a link to all those who were seeking an alternative to the prevailing art and ideas. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner became the de facto leader and his associates included Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottloff. The original four were joined in 1906 by Emil Nolde (who left group after one year), Max Pechstein, Axel Gallen, Cuno Amiet, and Kees van Dongen, who was their link with the Fauves, and Otto Muller, who joined in 1910. The Die Brücke group moved from Dresden to Berlin in 1911 and broke up in 1913 so that the artists could go their separate ways.


Die Brücke came together to exchange ideas and to break from the popular art styles, from realism to Impressionism to Jugendstil (German art nouveau). Like other young German artists, they were disciples of Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch—the Northern artists, and they were influenced by the “barbaric” figures of primitive art. In their desire to go back to a more simple and a more spiritual time, the artists, like John Ruskin and William Morris used the Gothic ideals of “craft” to revive the German tradition of graphic art. Although the group is primarily known as painters, their best works were in their prints and sculptures.

Overall, their artistic aims, as evidenced from their art, were to create an abstract rather than a realist style. To this end, the Expressionists dissolved the aerial perspective of Impressionism in favor of a propped up forward leaning background. Working in what they considered a “primitive” style, the artists further blocked any illusion of depth through the use of unbroken color, which created a dynamic blocking-in of forms composed of angular and diagonal lines. Compared to Cubism, which broke form in order to investigate its properties, Expressionism retained forms and activated them to emphasize a painterly gesture as a form of expression. As Kirchner said, “…the Brücke fights for the human culture that is the foundation of true art…” “…for the Latins, beauty lies in appearances, others seek it behind things…”

Characteristics of Die Brücke painting

Like many German artists, the Die Brücke group left the city during the years 1907-1910 for painting expeditions in the countryside. Many artists formed themselves into colonies to paint in the countryside as Twentieth Century landscape painters. One of the colonies was formed in a pleasant country town outside of Munich, called Dachau. The Die Brücke painters found a bucolic scene of streams and forests in Moritzberg, which became the Argenteuil—site of Impressionist landscape paintings—of Die Brücke. Unlike Argenteuil, where people were dressed in the latest fashions, even bathing and boating costumes, the youth of Moritzberg bathed in the nude. Kirchner’s paintings of these outings in the country have an innocent air of exuberance without the taint of sexuality of decadence.

Instead there is a Nietzchean air of renewal, suggesting that the painter’s aim was to study the human body in it natural state in natural surroundings. The human body is free, a paramount concern, not just of the artists but also of the young people, who are in revolt against the authoritarian German family structure. Far from being merely an objective study of human body in action, the many escapist pictures of Die Brücke were part of revolt against urban restrictions and the confinement of the body and spirit in Prussian system.


While Die Brücke paintings may seem similar to Fauvism—the absorption of the figure in nature—there is no suggestion of Arcadia or a lost Golden Age. Instead the shouting colors that are pure are an expression of their exuberant concept of nature by means of absolute color. The early works from Dresden emphasized contour in the fashion of Gothic lines and the jagged forms were retained in the Berlin period of 1911-1913. The group left the old and beautiful Baroque city of Dresden and its Friedrich landscapes to find their fortunes in a modern city. In Berlin, the art of Kirchner changes to city subjects and the mood and tenor of his art becomes quite different.

On one hand there is the impression of a young man out of his depth in a sophisticated and fast-paced urban environment. The sharp forms and harsh colors and the fragmentation of the compressed space convey feelings of angst, anguish, and claustrophobia. On the other hand, the youthful exuberance is gone and feeling of sexual tension and gender conflicts emerged. The brittle lines become barely controlled network of angular tensions, suited to the spectacle of city life, evoking the jungle-like character of city in its last year before the Kaiser would initiate the Great War.


Characteristics of Die Brücke sculpture

Sculpture in the first half of the Twentieth Century would be increasingly neglected in favor of painting. There were several reasons for the comparable decline of three-dimensional art. First, in the face of many more international exhibitions, painting was simply cheaper and easier to transport. Second, most sculpture would have been public commissions, which were notoriously conservative. Therefore the incentives to experiment with sculpture, which was often of expensive materials, were very low. That said, Die Brücke artists took up the wood carving technique from Northern Gothic artists. Inspired by African and Oceanic art seen in Volkerkunde-Museum in Dresden, they carved near life sized figures with a frontal iconic quality .

The simplified forms were awkward and crudely carved, evoking the uncertain inner experience of humanity. Just as Gothic art was filled with spiritual longing, these statues were of—not a spiritual experience but expressed the human image and human psychology. Primitivism or a yearning for a more simple time was a utopian ideal. The works were polychromed in bold colors. Roughly outlined and hewn from found wood, these sculptures showed an interest in the inherent properties of materials, ideas inherited from Ruskin and Morris. Aside from the respect for power of non-western art on the part of the Die Brücke, the sculptures, like the paintings, attempted to convey the spiritual and psychological themes appropriate to uneasy modern times: gesture over restraint, an excess of feeling spilling out of unconventional forms that combined pure energy with the monumental. The block-like images were distorted and intensely modern, insistently of their own time. The sculptures confront the viewer with their humanity, echoing still, a century later.

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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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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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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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