Art born out of a desire for self-expression
If you could capture your unconscious thoughts, what would you see? This
preoccupation with inner emotions propelled the German Expressionists to
paint what they felt. This resulted in canvasses with lots of bright
colors and flat shapes aimed at making a psychological rather than a
Some say that German Expressionist art has become so popular in recent
decades because French art of the same period has been snapped up by
collectors. But its greater significance lies in the fact that it paved
the way for later 20th century art.
Anyone can see what something looks like, so the Expressionists sought to
tell the viewer more. Take the famous Expressionist painting Berlin
Street Scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Kirchner poises the people in his painting to evoke the hustle and
bustle of a city street. One of the central figures even has his back to
us! At the time, this was considered scandalous by older, academic
painters, who faithfully recorded what they saw. But Kirchner had a
different idea. He wanted you to see the congestion of the urban landscape
— the anonymity of walking down a crowded street. And finally, he wanted
you to see the increasing alienation of living in a community where you no
longer talked to your neighbor.
Movement Seeks to Revitalize German Art
The German Expressionist movement started in 1905 when some artists formed
a group called Die Brücke or The Bridge, in English. Hoping to revitalize
German art, these artists lived and worked together as did the artisans of
the medieval guilds. Members of Die Brücke reacted against traditional
art, preferring distorted forms to express what they felt. They did not
embrace the stylized forms of Jugendstil (see note below) and Art Nouveau
popular at the time. Instead, they tried to create art that was personal and intimate.
Vincent van Gogh and
Paul Gauguin helped to inspire this movement.
Think about how they painted using startling color and brush strokes of
thick paint. Van Gogh's Starry Night is a good example. His night
sky, flecked with yellow stars and swirling blue, might look nothing like
the night sky in your neighborhood, but van Gogh wanted you to think about gusts of wind and twinkling stars.
And this was just what the German Expressionists tried to accomplish
with paint. They wanted their audience to not only see something, but to
feel it too. Although many of the artists involved in this movement had
formal artistic training, they were inspired by the work of folk painters and African artists.
The Die Brücke artists tackled all sorts of subjects such as still
lifes, people and landscapes. Not only did they paint, but they also
carved blocks of wood, slathered them in ink, and pressed them down on to
pages to make prints. Because the artists carved the images by hand, many prints took on a primitive appearance.
To ensure that as many people as possible saw their work, German
Expressionists organized traveling exhibitions. To cover expenses, patrons
funded the exhibitions, and in return received portfolios of woodblock
prints. Imagine finding one of these today!
Die Brücke fueled another movement known as "Der Blaue
Reiter," or The Blue Rider. Led by
Wassily Kandinsky, this group created an increasingly abstract art, characterized by irregular shapes
and colors that blended into other colors. Kandinsky believed that visual
art and music share many qualities, and he named many of his paintings the
way a composer names a symphony. (The
Blue Four: Feininger, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, and Klee in the New World)
German Expressionist art tapered off shortly after World War I. The
Nazis, who forced many Expressionist artists into exile during the 1930s,
did not welcome its often sharp, social commentary.
Editor's Note: Jugendstil (Youth Style) was the German form of Art
Nouveau. Developed first in England, the style spread to other countries
— in Austria it was called Sezessionstil, in Italy it was Stile Floreale,
in Spain it was Modernismo, and in Germany it was called Jugendstil.