Expressionism was not a single style. It encompassed a number of creative movements that arose in cities throughout Europe at the beginning of the Twentieth century. Although these various surges of activity differed in many ways, the impulse underlying all of them was a drive to communicate subjective experience and personal feelings. Expressionism manifested itself in poetry, painting, sculpture, and later, in film, always emphasizing emotional and spiritual states of mind. In the visual arts, its exponents rejected the optical realism of both academic art and Impressionism in favor of deliberate distortions of form and color for expressive effect.
It has often been pointed out that much of Northern European art from the Middle Ages onward carried an Expressionist current. Many works of Gothic sculpture and painting are clearly infused with a spirit akin to that of the Expressionists of the 20th century, as were other works produced by artists in Germany and elsewhere in the North during following centuries. More immediate to the 20th-century Expressionists, however, were the examples of such "Post-Impressionist" artists as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Edvard Munch, all of whom freely distorted form and color to articulate inner sensations and emotions.
The first significant organization of Expressionist artists in Germany was founded in Dresden in 1905. This was Die Brücke ("The Bridge," derived from a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche), organized by a group of students at the Dresden Technical School, including Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), Erich Heckel (1883-1970) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). These artists shared a studio, exhibited their work together and even produced a manifesto – in the form of a single woodcut print – to consolidate and propagate their ideas. The art they created deployed brilliant color and angular, deliberately crude draftsmanship to depict emotional and often shocking subjects. This signature style was intended both as a rejection of the oppressive gentility of the bourgeois world around them and as a means to reveal important inner responses to external reality. Owing to personal tensions among its members, the group was disbanded in 1913.
The second important German Expressionist organization was formed in 1911 in Munich. Calling themselves Der Blaue Reiter ("The Blue Rider"), these artists included Franz Marc (1880-1916) and August Macke (1887-1914), as well as several painters from Russia, most essentially, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), who served as the group’s principal theorist. Unlike the artists of The Bridge, members of the Blue Rider did not develop a common style. What they shared was a desire to express spiritual truths through an intuitive and symbolic use of color. Since they had little allegiance to subject matter, their art became increasingly more abstract. Kandinsky in particular did not expect or even wish viewers to "understand" his work. He wanted to move them directly – "to cause vibrations in the soul" – by the sheer power of color.
The course of Expressionism was broken irrevocably by the beginning of World War I. As “enemy aliens,” the Russians in the Blue Rider group were forced to leave Germany, while their German colleagues were called up for military service. The war did not spare the people of any country involved, and the artists of Germany were no exception: Karl Schmidt-Rottluff spent three years on the Eastern Front; Franz Marc and August Macke were killed in action; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was invalided out after suffering a breakdown and later committed suicide.
As the newly created Weimar Republic rose from the ashes of Imperial Germany after the war, life was extremely harsh. Beyond the horrific carnage in the trenches and the enormous financial costs of the conflict – effects felt throughout Europe – Germany also had to pay heavy reparations to the allied victors, which brought their economy to a state of collapse. The artists who had survived the war returned from the front disillusioned and embittered. Some were shell-shocked; others were grievously injured. Facing poverty and feeling betrayed by their own government, these artists, like other Germans, were ready to discard every ideal of the prewar period. The thrust of their work turned from a spiritual quest to expressions of anger and despair. In other parts of Europe, France and England especially, post-war disillusion lead to an embrace of a purified modern classicism. In Germany, however, this new, darker mood of Expressionism focused on political and social criticism, including scalding satire.
The prevailing social attitude of the Weimar Republic has been called Neue Sachlichkeit, a phrase often translated as “New Objectivity,” a phrase originally used as the title of an exhibition at the Mannheim Kunsthalle in 1925. We should note that the word Sachlichkeit means more than “objectivity” in the English sense of looking at the world in a detached manner. It suggests an unblinking, matter-of-fact practicality, seeing things as they are – however unheroic or corrupt they may be – instead of idealistically. It can also suggest resignation, or even despair, in the face of desperate circumstances. Such an attitude does indeed characterize much of the art produced in Germany during the 1920s.
Two emblematic artists of this period were Paul Kleinschmidt (1893-1949) and Georg Grosz (1893-1959). Like so many of their countrymen, both had served in the German army during the war: Kleinschmidt was discharged after having been gassed in the trenches on the Western Front; Grosz was released with shell-shock after he had tried to commit suicide. Grosz savaged Weimar society with blistering indignation, depicting both the newly dispossessed – wounded soldiers, beggars and prostitutes – and their corrupt counterparts – corpulent businessmen, bribe-taking politicians and sadistic policemen – in deliberately spiky line drawings and prints.
Kleinschmidt’s critique of Weimar society was more subtle, but equally damning. His pictures of courtesans, theatre-goers and café denizens show a dispirited demi-monde of exhausted and disillusioned merry-makers. There is no violence in these scenes of women putting on their makeup or presenting themselves to tired, equally bored customers—only a numb acquiescence to the bleak conditions of life in their time. Ironically, these images of social desolation are painted in delicious pastel colors and luxurious impasto, resembling nothing so much as pastry confections (Lot 29, Paar in der Loge).
The rise of Nazism brought the art of New Objectivity to a halt. National Socialist critics excoriated Expressionism – in fact, almost all modern art – as “degenerate.” In their view, the art was not merely “ugly”; it was a betrayal of German culture. In 1936 the German government began seizing art works that were deemed “degenerate,” “an offense to German feeling” or otherwise unacceptable to a public commission from museums and private collections. Eventually many artists were actually forbidden to paint – Paul Kleinschmidt among them. One low point in this spasm of rejection was a traveling exhibition of “Degenerate Art” mounted by the German government in 1937 to exhibit the confiscated works so that the public would understand just how awful – not to mention subversive – they were.
One particularly tragic figure working as an artist during this period of repression was Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler (1899-1940). Born in Dresden, she attended art school there and in 1919 began to exhibit her work with the Dresden Succession, an association of artists that followed in the footsteps of the disbanded Bridge group. She suffered a breakdown in 1929, and was committed to a state mental institution in 1932, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She continued with her work, but fell afoul of Nazi eugenicist policies by refusing to be sterilized, although in 1935 this was done forcibly, after which she ceased painting. In 1940 she was transferred to the Death Institute at Pirna, near Dresden, where mentally ill and handicapped patients were exterminated. At this “clinic,” which pioneered the techniques for killing large numbers of people later used at the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Auschwitz, she was sent to the gas chamber on July 31, 1940.
Lohse-Wächtler’s art incorporates all of the high-keyed emotionality and vivid color of the work pioneered by The Bridge, although her energetic, gestural draftsmanship tends to be rounded rather than angular. Like the artists of that group, she sought to convey the power and angst of her inner life by these classically Expressionist means.
After World War II, the currents of Expressionism surfaced again in the work of a new generation of artists. We can see them running through the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Willem De Kooning (1904-1997) and in the images of modernist portraitists such as Alice Neel (1900-1984), Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Lucian Freud (1922-2011).
Through the work of these artists and others, the impulses of Expressionism continue as part of the vocabulary of Western culture.
The sale of Impressionist & Modern Art on May 3, 2016 offers a number of German Expressionist works by Paul Kleinschmidt and George Grosz from the Estate of Roberta K. Cohn and Richard A. Cohn, Ltd.