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.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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