You dark night, you dark heart,
Who mirrors your holiest ground
And your malice's last abysses?
The mask stars before our pain
Before our pain, before our lust
The empty mask's stony laughter,
On it, the earthen things broke,
And ourselves not deliberately.
— Georg Trakl
The century had changed; the 20th had come with its wars and revolutions, hopes and disappointments, violent passions and exaltation. The "contemplative" impressionism, which introduced a new understanding of the perception of nature, a great contribution to the creation of a new drawing technique, and a new attitude to the transmission of color and light, was replaced by an even brighter but ruder and "unbridled" artistic direction—expressionism (from Latin expressio, meaning "expression").
It was the offspring of the "gloomy German genius," which suddenly blossomed with bright colors, broken lines, and strange compositions that looked into the soul of the viewer, was horrified by its dark depths, and turned them inside out.
At that difficult time, the deformation of culture took place before our eyes, and the expressionist artists, their most important values, were their sense of the world, subjective experiences, and anxieties. They addressed the viewer on a high emotional note, reached exaltation in expressing emotions, and wanted to shake the viewer from the inside, often distorting the images of reality to abstraction and even ugliness and "stunning" people with bright "screaming" colors, shocking and provoking them.
Three factors played an important role in the emergence of this trend:
- acquaintance with African plastic arts,
- a passion for primitive and medieval art, and
- the work of several artists, including the late Van Gogh, the Norwegian Edvard Munch, and the Belgian James Ensor (plus other post-impressionists and French "fauvists").
And mixed in with all this was a veil of Nietzsche's philosophy, which many artists and art critics were fond of at that time.
The basic platform of expressionism obeyed the principles of extreme individualism, which made even more strange the desire of artists to unite. And so, in 1905, the first community appeared in Dresden, which included four architecture students from the Technical School who felt like artists. They gave their association the name "Bridge" ("Die Brücke"), which was to be a symbolic connection with the future. The inspirer and brain of this association and compiler of its program was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938).
Kirchner and His Progeny
He was born in the family of a chemical engineer; after high school, he studied in Dresden at the Higher Technical School at the Faculty of Architecture, which he graduated in 1905, having been distracted for two years by an art school in Munich. June 7, 1905, was considered the founding day of the Bridge group, the ideologist of which was the young Ernst.
For several years, he traveled with his comrades to different places in Germany to paint there, and in the same years, he painted many pictures on the theme of the life of variety shows and circuses.
In 1910-1911, Kirchner was a member of the New Secession group of artists, then moved to Berlin and converged with Erna Schilling, who became his common-law wife. After participating in an art exhibition in Cologne in 1914, Kirchner volunteered for the front. A year later, he was dismissed due to tuberculosis, and he moved to Switzerland, where he painted Alpine landscapes.
He traveled a lot in Germany, participated in exhibitions, and in 1933 he organized his large retrospective exhibition in Bern. In 1937, Kirchner was named by the Nazis as a representative of "degenerate art." In 1938, having lost strength due to illness and drugs, overwhelmed by despair from the political regime in Germany, he committed suicide.
The Third Reich and the Evolution of Expressionism
Fritz Bleyl (Fritz Bleyl, 1880-1966), a friend and colleague of Kirchner, at the urging of his parents, also studied architecture at the Dresden Higher Technical School but dreamed of becoming an artist. After the formation of the Bridge group, he constantly and actively participated in exhibitions, was fond of graphic design, and made advertising posters and even tickets for exhibitions.
In 1907, he left the Bridge to get out of a difficult financial situation, worked as a drawing teacher, soon married, and moved to Freiberg, where he worked as a teacher, and then in Dresden and Rostock in architectural offices.
In 1940, Bleyl became State Councilor for Architecture at the State Architectural School of Berlin, survived the war safely, teaching architecture after it, and from 1952 he lived permanently in Switzerland until his death, continuing to make graphic works, but did not exhibit them or show them to the public.
Erich Heckel (1883-1970) was not only a member of the group but also the author of its name. He was born into the family of a railway engineer and showed his abilities very early, taking part in the organization of the artistic community "Volcano" at school. Like his comrades in the future Bridge association, he studied at the Dresden Higher Technical School at the Faculty of Architecture but dreamed of painting. Like his friends, Heckel studied the legacy of Dürer, the work of the post-impressionists, especially Cezanne, while maintaining his style, adhering to stricter lines and restraint in the color palette.
After traveling through Germany and Italy with a group of friends, he moved to Berlin for a long time. Acquaintance with the members of the Blue Rider group and the influence of Cezanne and cubism lead to the appearance in the work of Haeckel of greater rigidity, severity, and coldness of the color scheme and the formation of "crystal" forms.
In 1914, Heckel went to the front, continued to paint, and in 1915 he married and soon met Beckman and Ensor, and soon more realism and tragedy appeared in his work.
Until 1942, he lived in Berlin, having received, like many artists of that time, accusations of belonging to "degenerate art" and lost his studio due to bombing. In 1944, Heckel moved to Hemmenhofen in southern Germany; after the war, he traveled a lot around Europe, painted calm and peaceful landscapes and portraits, and had little interest in new trends in painting, moving further and further away from expressionism. He himself said that his "... goal has always been to paint natural life as such." Erich Heckel passed away in 1970.
Zeroing of Style
An original artist who had his individual artistic style, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976) was born in the family of Miller Schmidt. Education at the Dresden Higher Technical School lasted only a year; he dropped out and devoted himself entirely to painting, developing his style—a fusion of shapes and colors in a contrasting range, in a pure form, without mixing colors.
Active participation in the work of the Bridge did not prevent him from adhering to his line of creativity. For exhibitions, he decided to add to his surname "Schmidt," the name of the city in which Schmidt-Rottluff was born, and began to sign his paintings. His search for his style increasingly inclined him to watercolor, and experiments in painting led to the use of more and more simplified forms and increased contrast of color.
In the early spring of 1915, Karl went to the front, to the infantry, fought in Russia, returned safely from the front in 1918, and married. He became interested in religious subjects, in which he found liberation from military memories and which helped him to more easily endure changes in the familiar world.
It was in the 1920s that Schmidt-Rottluff's creativity flourished. He worked and lived in Berlin, but after the Nazis came to power, he discovered in 1937 that his paintings and watercolors appeared in Munich at an exhibition of "degenerate art." He was forbidden to exhibit, expelled from work, and in 1943 he lost his workshop due to the bombing and left for his native Rotluff. After the end of the war, the artist returned to Berlin, and worked as a professor at the Higher School of Arts, with little interest in new trends.
Emil Nolde (1867-1956), real name is Hans Emil Hansen, (the pseudonym "Nolde" comes from the name of his native village in Prussia), was born into a religious Protestant family and had to work hard on the farm since childhood. His artistic inclinations showed up early, but after leaving school, he had no funds for his studies; he managed to study at the school of industrial design for only two semesters, and before that, he trained as a woodcarver in Flensburg.
Having gone to Munich in 1888 for an exhibition, Emil spent all his free time in museums, shocked by the unfamiliar world of art. And later, already in Berlin, where he worked in a workshop, designing furniture, he studied art, and was attracted by ancient civilizations, Egypt, and old European masters.
After moving to Switzerland, Nolde worked at the Industrial Design Museum, traveled to Italy and France, studied the work of Dürer, the Symbolists, and was fond of Nietzsche. In his spare time, he created a series of postcards.
They suddenly were successful and were published. He corrected his financial affairs. Nolde returned to Munich and tried to enter the Academy, but was forced to study at a private school. He continued to study the history of painting, and was especially attracted to the work of the post-impressionists. During this period, he became interested in etchings and watercolors.
Having lived a little in Paris and being a fascinated person, Nolde became interested in the work of the Impressionists but still could not decide on his style; under the influence of Schmidt-Rotluff, he became a member of the Bridge association but left it a year later, remaining a free artist. The main content of Nolde's paintings of that time are religious subjects, close and familiar to him since childhood, and landscapes that fully meet his desire to evoke emotions and shock the viewer. He can be called one of the most typical representatives of German expressionism.
Back in 1934, he was a staunch supporter of the idea of the superiority of the German nation, but this did not save him from being classified as a representative of "degenerate art" and being subject to the ban on creativity. He painted his watercolors secretly and buried them in the ground, only creating about 1300. And only after the end of the war and before his death he painted about 100 more paintings and many watercolors.
Rise of German Impressionism
In 1906, after meeting Erich Heckel, the Bridge group was joined by one of its most prominent members, Max Pechstein (Hermann Max Pechstein, 1881-1955).
He was born in the suburbs of Zwickau in the family of a textile factory master. First, he studied as a decorative artist at a factory school, then at the School of Industrial Art in Dresden. Then, at the Academy, he studied the basics of decorative and monumental painting. Those years were very important for Pekhshtein's development as an artist: he had his studio, he got acquainted with the work of Van Gogh, with the activities of the Bridge group, and became an active participant in it.
His works in the Impressionist style were gradually becoming brighter, the combinations of colors were sharper, and the color scheme was purer, approaching the Post-Impressionist style, especially after a stay in Paris. Some influence on him was exerted not only by the works of Gauguin or Matisse but also by the work of the "Fauves" whom he met there.
Pechstein became a sought-after building decorator, success came to him as an artist, and in 1912 he moved away from the Bridge, which limited him in organizing his exhibitions. The artist left for Micronesia, dreaming of an earthly paradise like Gauguin. Paintings and watercolors from those years have not survived, but we can see the influence of that period in his later work.
In 1915-1916, Pechstein took part in the war on the Western Front, and the 20s were considered the heyday of the artist’s work, when his paintings, while retaining brightness and colorfulness, nevertheless acquire “nervousness” of composition, internal conflict, “exaltation” of color solutions.
During the years of Nazism and the war, he, like many other artists, was banned from painting and exhibiting. 326 of his paintings were confiscated from museums, and in 1944 his house was bombed, and most of the paintings were destroyed. After the war, he became a professor at the Berlin Higher School of Fine Arts, his modernism softened, and he worked mainly in engraving.
Unique Otto Mueller
The last artist to join the Bridge group was Otto Mueller (1874-1930), and is the most distinctive and recognizable.
He was born into a military family, and from early childhood, he was considered a difficult child. He studied poorly, and after the 8th grade, he left the gymnasium and began to study at the insistence of his father as a lithographer in a print graphics workshop. At the same time, he was engaged in evening courses, studying drawing and painting. In 1886, Otto entered the Dresden Academy of Arts and enrolled in the courses of Georg Frei. Soon, they began to disagree and quarrel with Mueller due to the constant remarks of the professor and the quarrelsome nature of the young artist.
He moved to Munich and began to study at the Academy, whose director was Franz von Stuck, an adherent of Jugendstil, a fan of ancient values in art. He did not accept the complete indifference of his student to these ideals and declared him "completely mediocre." Mueller was interested in the theme of nudity in harmony with the world around it.
Mueller's joining the Bridge association enriched both the group and the artist with new ideas, images, and techniques. The skill of graphic thinking manifested itself in the artist in his painting technique: he did not prime the canvas and used glue paints. The subjects of his paintings were often gypsies (there is an unproven version that there was gypsy blood in the Muller family), in whose company he found comfort and inspiration.
After returning from the front in 1918, Mueller spent a lot of time in gypsy camps, roamed with them in Hungary and Romania, leaving behind his wife and friends, and was never interested in politics and social life. The 20s were the heyday of his work; it was at the end of that decade that his best works were painted, including the famous Gypsy Madonna.
Legacy of The Bridge
Already after the death of the artist, Mueller's works were recognized as "racially alien," and in 1937, were exhibited at the exhibition of "degenerate art"—he was not destined to survive this shame. Otto Mueller said that he wanted "... to express the feeling of landscape and man with the greatest possible simplicity."
By 1913, the Bridge group broke up and ceased to exist, but expressionism continued to develop in different directions; some artists did not identify themselves with any group; for example, Max Beckmann (1884-1950), a master of psychological mood and an excellent portrait painter.
Another example is the Austrian artist Richard Gerstl (1883-1908), about whom they said that "Freud is invisibly present in his portraits."
Some artists did not immediately perceive a new direction in painting, such as Lovis Corinth (1858-1925), whose style only in the last years of his work turned into his version of expressionism, combined with a share of impressionism.
In 1911, another expressionist group, the Blue Rider, was created, but that's another story.
- Lecture Notes | Week Eight: Expressionism
- Wolf, Norbert. (2015). Expressionism. Taschen.
- Art Reproductions of Famous Paintings | TOPofART
The source of most of this article's images of paintings.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.