German Expressionism
History, Characteristics of Expressionist Art in Germany.

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Munich-Schwabing, Church of St.Ursula
(1908) Lenbachhaus Gallery, Munich.
By Wassily Kandinsky.

For chronology and dates
see: History of Art Timeline.

German Expressionism (c.1905-35)

Introduction - Characteristics

Twentieth century expressionism in Germany emerged during the mid-1900s in Dresden and Munich. A parallel but smaller movement sprang up in Austria at about the same time. Broadly speaking, up until the beginning of World War I, the expressionist movement in Germany remained an aesthetic development of the Saxon Worpswede Group and the Parisian Fauvist movement. It was also influenced by Van Gogh's pioneering expressionist paintings like Wheatfield with Crows, and Starry, Starry Night. Unlike Impressionists, who sought merely to imitate nature, German expressionist painters typically distorted colour, scale and space to convey their subjective feelings about what they saw. However, war scarred many of these artists for good. As a result, from 1915 onwards, German expressionism became a bitter protest movement as well as a style of modern art. The centre for much of this avant-garde art was Sturm Gallery, in Berlin. See also: History of Expressionist Painting.

Head of a Woman 'Medusa' (1923)
Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon.
By Alexei von Jawlensky.
One of the most colourful
expressionist portraits.

Tiger (1912) By Franz Marc.
State Gallery, Munich. One of the
greatest 20th century paintings
of the German Expressionist school.

For the development of painting,
sculpture and the decorative arts,
see: History of Art.


Perhaps the earliest exemplar of German Expressionism was the intense German religious painter Matthias Grunewald (1475-1528). Some 350 years later, Vincent Van Gogh became a major influence on early expressionists. Edvard Munch (1863-1944), the best known Norwegian and Scandinavian painter was another forerunner, whose pictures (like those of Van Gogh) chart his mental decline. Witness his famous oil, tempera and pastel painting The Scream (c.1893) with its hollow skull-like face, formless background and lurid colours.

Another forerunner was the Worpswede Group, an artists' colony formed in 1889, a year before Van Gogh's tragic death. Named after a village in Lower Saxony in North Germany, it included the painters Fritz Mackensen, Otto Modersohn and Hans am Ende. Worpswede painting was initially performed in the plein-air style, like the French communes at Barbizon, Concarneau and Pont-Aven, but quickly acquired a more modern expressionist edge. Later, the group expanded to include Carl Vinnen, Fritz Overbeck and Heinrich Vogeler. The foremost Worpswede artist was Paula Modersohn-Becker, the pioneer Expressionist, a member from 1898 until her death nine years later.

German Expressionists

Influenced by Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Fauvism- the Post-Impressionist colourist school led by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) - and the emotive wood carving of the sculptor Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), German Expressionism created dramatic, compelling portrayals of scenes and people. The movement's three main groups were Der Blaue Reiter, Die Brucke, and Die Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).


Die Brucke (1905-13) (The Bridge)

The Bridge, founded in 1905 by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), was an influential expressionist group based in Dresden. Other members included Erich Heckel (1883-1970), Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Max Pechstein (1881-1955) and Otto Mueller (1874-1930). Influenced by primitive painting like that of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Die Brucke art expressed radical social views through modern urban scenes, landscape and figure painting. Witness its garish colour-palette, bold outlines and direct compositions. Specifically, according to its art manifesto of 1906, Die Brucke aimed 'to achieve freedom of life and action against the well established older forces'. To do this, they combined traditional art, with African and Oceanic (South Pacific) motifs, as well as tribal art and Fauvist colouring, to create an ultimately modern style. Die Brucke-style paintings include Gap in the Dyke (1910) and Two Women (1912) by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff; Berlin Street Scene (1913) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.


Der Blaue Reiter (1911-14) (Blue Rider)

The Blue Rider expressionist group was formed in Munich, the home of the avant-garde Neue Kunstler Vereiningung (New Artist Association). Its most famous painters were the Russian born Wassily Kandinsky (1844-1944) and the German painter and printmaker Franz Marc (1880-1916).

In 1911, Kandinsky and Marc split from the rest of the Neue Kunstler Vereiningung and began exhibiting their paintings under the banner of Der Blaue Reiter. Other members included Paul Klee (1879-1940), Gabriele Munter (1877-1962) and August Macke (1887-1914). It remained a loose association rather than a coherent group like Die Brucke, although in 1912 Marc and Kandinsky published their Almanach Der Blaue Reiter, a collection of essays on art. Their general aim was to inject art with spiritual values, using colour as a primary mechanism. The significance of the name Blue Rider remains unclear. Marc believed that animals had an innocence which made them superior to humans, and the colour blue might have had a special meaning for Kandinsky, as he could hear colours as well as see them - a condition known as synaesthesia. Der Blaue Reiter collapsed during the First World War when both Macke and Marc were killed. Examples of the group's expressionism can be seen in Cossacks (1910) by Wassily Kandinsky; The Little Blue Horses (1911) and Little Blue Horse (1912) by Franz Marc.

An older convert to German expressionism was the Prussian Impressionist painter Lovis Corinth (1858-1925), who became noted for his landscapes, self-portraits and religious paintings.


Die Neue Sachlichkeit (1920s) (New Objectivity)

New Objectivity, a 1920s German Expressionist group which was part of the trend in post-war German Realism - took its name from the exhibition Neue Sachlichkeit staged in Mannheim in 1923. Its leading members were the expressionist painters Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959) whose bitter and highly critical images of the decadence and corruption of Weimar Germany constitute a satire of the human condition everywhere. (See also Grosz's associate, the Dada photomontage artist John Heartfield (1891-1968).) Other 20th century painters associated with the group included Christian Schad (1894-1982) and Max Beckmann (1884-1950), best known for his powerful self-portraits, such as the prophetic Self-Portrait with Horn (1938) and Self-Portrait in Olive and Brown (1945). Important works of art from Die Neue Sachlichkeit include: Pimp with Prostitutes (1922) and Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926) by Otto Dix; Suicide (1916) by George Grosz; Self-Portrait With Model (1927) by Christian Schad. Most German Expressionist artworks were condemned by the ex-artist Hitler in 1937 as 'degenerate art' (entartete Kunst), although the propagandist travelling exhibition of such works actually widened their appeal.

Other Expressionists

Other European expressionist painters of the era included: Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941) - "the Russian Matisse" - known for his small richly coloured portraits such as Head of a Woman (1911); Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), known for his expressionist portraiture like Portrait of a Degenerate Artist (1937); and the self-destructive prodigy Egon Schiele (1890-1918) notorious for his raw nude self-portraits and tense, nervous imagery. Another great expressionist painter was the Parisian based Italian genius Amadeo Modigliani, whose portraits and splashy nudes form a unique blend of Cubist fragmentation and Matisse-style simplication.

Although this article focuses on German expressionist painting, reference should be made to the two great exponents of German expressionist sculpture who were active in Germany in the run-up to World War I. These are the wood carver Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) and the troubled Gothic-inspired Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919), noted for his bronze and stone figures.

The expressionist movement in Germany underwent a major revival during the 1970s and 80s, as part of the general movement known as Neo-Expressionism. Leading German neo-expressionists included Georg Baselitz (b.1938), Jorg Immendorff (b.1945), Anselm Kiefer (b.1945), Rainer Fetting (b.1949), Markus Lupertz (b.1941), and A.R.Penck (b.1939). For European collections containing works of German expressionism, see: Art Museums in Europe.

• For a list of schools and styles, see Modern Art Movements.
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