German Expressionism

In Germany, Expressionists groups emerged simultaneously in Dresden and Munich, influenced by the experiments of French Post Impressionism.  The Die Brücke group was formed in Dresden in 1905 (the same year the Fauves made their appearance at the Salon d’Automne in Paris).  They explored a crudely “primitive” style that drew on African tribal arts as a way of expressing their opposition to modernization and the restrictive morals of bourgeois society.  In Munich, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky became the leader of Der Blaue Reiter (the “Blue Rider”).  Kandinsky was one of the first 20th century artists to explore a purely “non-objective” style of painting:  pictures that have no recognizable subject matter, relying instead on the use of line, color, and form as a means of direct expression.

Die Brücke
The Die Brücke group was founded in Dresden in 1905.  Its leading members were Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and they chose the name Die Brücke (the bridge) to symbolize their aspirations to cross into a new future.  Reacting against the conventional styles of the official art academies, the Brücke artists were equally impatient with the restrictive social mores of German middle class society.  They adopted a bohemian lifestyle, and sought expressive freedom in their art.

Themes:  The Modern City

“As a result of an intensely rapid period of industrialization in the 19th century, German cities experienced an explosion in size and population density between German unification, in 1871, and 1910. The Expressionists approached the modern city with ambivalence. On the one hand, they recognized the dehumanizing and alienating effects of an urban lifestyle. Yet at the same time, they celebrated the excitement and vitality of its bustling pace and multifarious attractions.”
Artists of Brücke:  Themes in German Expressionist Prints (MOMA)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street Dresden, 1908
Museum of Modern Art

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a leading member of the German Expressionist Die Brücke group.  His image of a street in Dresden is a highly emotional response to modern urban life.  The street is crowded with people, mostly women, who clamor to board and de-board the trolley in the center.  Their fashionable hats and coats are rendered garish by the artist’s use of jarring colors and distortion:

“Kirchner has violently heightened the colors of this urban scene, depicting its figures with masklike faces and vacant eyes in an attempt to capture the psychological alienation wrought by modernization.”
Museum of Modern Art

Zombie-like and hideous, Kirchner’s image of the modern city-dweller is kin to Seurat’s equally searing image de-humanized urban dwellers.

Expressionism & Kirchner’s Street, Dresden – Smarthistory 

1913:  Kirchner, Street Berlin (MOMA)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Bathers at Moritzburg, 1909/20
Tate Gallery

The nude figure became a central motif in Brücke art.  They set up communal drawing sessions where they worked from hired models, and on weekends they traveled to the country for nude bathing. This painting depicts a group of Kirchner’s friends bathing at Moriztburg lakes, near Dresden.  Kirchner and members of his group often visited these lakes to escape the social and moral strictures of city life:

“Eroticism and frank sexuality played leading roles in the development of Brücke iconography.  Bathers in the landscape became an important motif for exploring the themes of antiurbanism and the erotic nude.  Kirchner and Heckel spent the summers of 1909 through 1911 at the Moritzburg ponds outside Dresden in an attempt to recreate their liberated bohemian lifestyle in an open-air setting – to merge art and life beyond the confines of the studio.  They took their models with them and sketched the models as they swam and sunbathed in the nude.”
Artists of Brücke:  Themes in German Expressionist Prints (MOMA)

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The crude style of Kirchner’s painting was influenced by African  and Oceanic tribal art.  Primitivism was a form of counter-cultural resistance to accepted cultural values and beliefs:

“Avant garde writers, philosophers and artists were inspired by ‘primitive’ art. They were disillusioned by the culture and values of their own society which they saw as corrupt and exhausted of ideas. In contrast, ‘primitive’ art seemed physically direct and emotionally charged. It was at once ancient and completely new and it pointed the way to systems of representation other than the naturalism that dominated academic art.”
Tate Gallery

The Die Brücke artists were deeply influenced by the ideas of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who described the appeal of adopting a “primitive” persona:  “The savage (or in moral terms the evil man) is a return to nature — and in a certain sense his recovery, his cure from culture.”

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Bathers Throwing Reeds, 1910
Museum of Modern Art

Printmaking became an important medium of Brücke artists:

“Printmaking and drawing were integral to the Brücke artists’ practice. The graphic techniques offered a less expensive, more immediate way of developing their craft than painting. The boldness and flatness that they developed in their woodcuts, in particular, helped them clarify their reductive style in painting. Their simplified or distorted forms and unusually strong, unnatural colors were meant to jolt the viewer and provoke an emotional response.”
Museum of Modern Art

Der Blaue Reiter

“Der Blaue Reiter was formed in 1911 in Munich as a loose association of painters led by Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. They shared an interest in abstracted forms and prismatic colors, which, they felt, had spiritual values that could counteract the corruption and materialism of their age. The flattened perspective and reductive forms of woodcut helped put the artists, especially Kandinsky, on the path toward abstraction in their painting.

The name Blaue Reiter (“blue rider”) refers to a key motif in Kandinsky’s work: the horse and rider, which was for him a symbol for moving beyond realistic representation. The horse was also a prominent subject in Marc’s work, which centered on animals as symbols of rebirth.”
Museum of Modern Art 

Kandinsky and Non-Objective Painting
Wassily Kandinsky pioneered a new kind of painting which he called “non-objective”  — which refers to a work of art that has no recognizable subject matter.  In a non-objective painting, line, form, and color are arranged in compositions that are expressive in and of themselves.

Kandinsky was deeply inspired by music (he was especially fond of the music of Arnold Schoenberg).  Music is capable of communicating feeling without telling a story, and Kandinsky believed that a painting could do the same thing.  To him, a painter arranges colors, lines, and forms in the same way that a composer arranges rhythms and sounds to create a musical composition:

“In general, therefore, color is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul.  Color is the keyboard.  The eye is the hammer.  The soul is the piano, with its many strings.  The artist is the hand that purposefully sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key.”
Wassily Kandinsky

In 1912 Kandinsky published a treatise titled “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” in which he argued that artists must express the spirit of their innermost feelings — but not by picturing stories.  Instead, he believed that this deeper spiritual meaning must be expressed by formal means alone:  color, form, line, and space.  Only then will the artist be able to express the essence that lies beyond visible reality.

NGA Classroom – Color 

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 28 (second version), 1912
Guggenheim Museum

In this painting by Kandinsky we can scarcely make out any recognizable forms (though we might imagine that we do, much like we see “elephants” and other things in clouds).  But the movement of the lines, the clash of colors, and the tension between the forms, express a sense of seething energy and tumultuous movement (we might recall the “roiling” hills in Van Gogh’s Starry Night).  Does this feel like an idyllic sunny day (as in Matisse’s Joy of Life), or might it suggest something closer to a tsunami?

Kandinsky’s Composition VII 

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons), 1913
Art Institute of Chicago

In this work, Kandinsky’s premonition of a coming cataclysm is expressed by the literal motif of exploding cannons, as well as by the exploding collision of lines, colors, and shapes.  As the artist explained in a letter to Jerome Eddy:

“The presence of the cannons . . . could probably be explained by the constant war talk going on throughout the year. But I did not intend to give a representation of war; to do so would have required different pictorial means. . . . These contents are indeed what the spectator lives, or feels while under the effect of the form and color combinations of the picture.”
Art Institute of Chicago

Apocalyptic Themes
In the years leading up to World War I, Kandinsky did a number of canvases on an apocalyptic theme.  His pictures reference cataclysms, which nevertheless express hope for a new world order that will arise from the chaos.  As the Guggenheim Museum explains:

“By 1910 many of the artist’s abstract canvases shared a common literary source, the Revelation of Saint John the Divine; the rider came to signify the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who will bring epic destruction after which the world will be redeemed.”
Guggenheim Museum

Wassily, Compostion VI, 1913
Tate Gallery

This painting, titled simply Composition VI (Kandinsky frequently gave musical titles to his paintings), has been linked directly to the theme of the deluge:

“In his writing, Kandinsky identified the subject of Composition VI (1913) as the Deluge, or great Biblical flood, a cataclysmic event that ushers in an era of spiritual rebirth. He believed that painting itself resembled such a cataclysm: ‘Painting is like a thundering collision of different worlds that are destined in and through conflict to create that new world called the work.’ Though one can make out the forms of boats, crashing waves and slanting rain, it is the mood of violence and chaos that is more important than the literal interpretation of objects or narrative. The painting is characterised by a powerful sense of movement, created by contrasting light and dark areas of colour, linked by strong diagonals. Conventional perspective has disappeared. Instead, forms and colours are layered and juxtaposed, interacting to create a swirling, three-dimensional effect. The monumental scale of the work adds to this, giving the viewer the sense of being immersed in the space of the painting. These effects contribute to what Kandinsky described as the ‘inner sound’ of the picture.”
Tate Gallery


Web Resources:

Artists of Die Brücke:  German Expressionist Prints (MOMA) 

German Expressionism:  The Graphic Impulse (MOMA) 

German Expressionism – Works from the Collection (MOMA)

African Influence in Modern Art (Heilbrunn timeline of Art History)

Brücke Museum, Berlin


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