Modern Art Miniseries: 6/20

German expressionism

"At that moment, another whistling sound rang out up in the air; we all felt it, our hearts in our mouths, this one’s for us. Then a huge, deafening din - the shell had landed right in the midst of us.
Half-dazed, I got to my feet. In the huge shell-hole, machine-gun cartridge belts set off by the explosion glowed with a crude pink light. They lit up the heavy smoke where a mass of twisted blackened bodies lay and the shadows of survivors were running away in every direction. At the same time many appalling screams of pain and appeals for help could be heard.
The dark mass of people turning around the bottom of this glowing, smoking cauldron opened out for a second almost like the vision of a hellish nightmare, the deepest abyss of horror.” —Ernst Juenger, Storms of Steel.
German expressionism began in 1905 with the creation of the group Die Bruecke, the Bridge, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who would go on to become one of the best known Expressionist painters, and ended around 1937, when many Expressionist paintings were damned by the Nazi regime. These early Expressionist artists sought to reject traditional artistic forms (like many modern art associations) and became interested in non-traditional art influences, including Eastern art. (Around this time, Pablo Picasso was also developing a fascination with African tribal masks and imagery.) Like Fauvism, Expressionism places an emphasis on the importance of non-representative color, but this art movement took a much darker turn.
 In 1911, Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian, founded the group Die Blaue Reiter, the Blue Rider, another Expressionist group, for one of Marc’s favorite subjects, blue horses. Kandinsky is an especially interesting artist because he experienced what is now called synaesthasia, which is 
the subjective sensation of a sense other than the one being stimulated; that is, he heard sounds as color. His paintings were not very popular because he painted sounds, often music, which is why so many of his paintings are titled ‘Composition’, and not many people understood his artwork at the time.
Prewar German Expressionism explores themes of modernity and urban life, often expressing a very deep, existential loneliness felt by many in the rapidly industrializing world. Germany experienced its industrial revolution nearly one hundred and fifty years after economic powerhouses like Great Britain, and the rapid influx of machinery, urban growth, and roaring culture created a picture of chaos and excitement in the years before the outbreak of war in 1914. German nationalism was on the rise, and the Germans expected a quick, easy war to secure their position in central Europe as a new force to be reckoned with. Many artists were drafted into the First World War, including: Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Auguste Macke, Franz Marc, and others. This traumatic, devastating war dramatically impacted the artwork of many. Otto Dix’s art is particularly gruesome, depicting garish scenes of death and life in the trenches. In 1918, Germany surrendered to the Allied Powers, and was humiliated and devastated by crippling war debts and reparations. This created a power vacuum during the Weimar period that followed, which led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. 

Expressionism covers a very pivotal time period in Germany, from the early years before the Great War until the Weimar Republic, when Germany attempted to establish a democracy (1919-1933). Post-WWI art is much darker in subject matter, a testament to the terrible economy, high unemployment rates, and violence and unrest in the streets during this time. By 1937, when Adolf Hitler was already established as Chancellor of Germany, Expressionism was one of the many groups of art deemed ‘degenerate’ and threatening to true German culture, so many artists fled their homes, including George Grosz, who moved to the United States and Americanized his name.



Trenches, Otto Dix, 1917.

Party in Paris, Max Beckmann, 1931-1947.

The Survivors, Kathe Hollewitz, 1923.

Moscow I, Wassily Kandinsky, 1916.

Sunny Way, August Macke, 1913.

The Large Blue Horses, Franz Marc, 1911.

The Dresden Street, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1908