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.

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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