Art Movements in Art History - German Expressionism
Art Movements > German Expressionism > Introduction to German Expressionism
Introduction to German Expressionism*
After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871 what had previously been a loose
confederation of states became the German Empire. During the remainder of the 19th
century and the period preceding World War I, this united Germany was transformed into a
highly industrialised country: mining, textile and chemical industries developed, sophisti-
cated communication and transport systems came into operation, and the influx of people
from rural areas to the cities resulted in an immense urban growth. In Berlin, for instance,
the population increased from 400 000 in 1848 to 4 000 000 in 1914.
Germany's late but rapid industrialisation had far-reaching effects on the quality of life
of her inhabitants, and many individuals experienced a strong feeling of disorientation and
A long-awaited national unity had been achieved. But paradoxically it seemed to have
resulted in a society with qualities that many nationalists felt to be un-German in character.
Popular sociological writings by such theorists as Tonnies, Simmel and Weber drew
attention to the unfavourable implications of an industrialised materialistic society, and
many people reacted by yearning for a pre-industrial Germany, a land where individuals
were organised into communities based primarily on ties of kinship.
Many sought refuge from society in a type of subjective retreat, a step encouraged by a
number of philosophical writings of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nietzsche's ideas
would seem to have been particularly significant. He proclaimed that truth was a subjective
construct rather than an absolute reality, and that the individual was driven by a will to
power rather than by any external moral absolutes. This emphasis on subjective rather than
any objective reality, found further support in, for instance, the philosophies of Bergson.
Antagonism to industrial society also precipitated an opposition to all forms of
rationalism and a search for spiritual or mystical truth. This interest in the spiritual was
often overlaid with nationalist sentiments. Frederick Levin notes that individuals
alienated from industrialised society
" ... sought an end to their isolation in spiritual terms, in the search for an intimate
relationship with a desirable although unattainable myth of the past. In looking inward
this group of "outsiders" also looked backward, into the religious and mystical heritage
of the nation's past, in an attempt to associate themselves with what they considered to
be a vital current of German-ness now in danger at the hands of materialism."
Such an advocacy of subjective reality, antagonism to rationality and materialism,
emphasis on spiritual truth and desire to reclaim aspects of a preindustrial age are all
qualities that are to a greater or lesser extent evident in German Expressionist art.
THE CONCEPT OF "EXPRESSION" IN ART
An examination of writings by, and about, early 20th century artists reveals that the term
"expressionist" was used to describe the works of a wide range of French and German
artists. Marit Werenskiold notes that at the beginning of the century the term was used by
Roger Fry to designate an art that rebelled against the Impressionist tendency to focus on
perceptual data. She suggests that Paul Fechter's book, Der Expressionismus,
published in 1914, was particularly instrumental in developing a German,
national concept of expressionism.
The notion that art should be a manifestation of subjective feelings, while being,
nevertheless, a response to the mood of the age, permeates the writings of the German
Expressionists. This seeming contradiction can be explained by the expressionist artist's
feeling that broad universal truths could be exposed through his revelation of subjective
states. The artist envisaged himself as a specially gifted hero who might demonstrate to
others the value of creative individuality.
Kokoschka defined expressionism as
"... form-giving to the experience, thus mediator and message from self to fellow human.
As in love, two individuals are necessary. Expressionism does not live in an ivory
tower, it calls upon a fellow being whom it awakens."
This belief that there should be a correlation between the artist's emotions or feelings
and the spectator's response is explained with greater clarity by Roger Cardinal:
"Though it may only be an ideal, the Expressionist seems to be asking that the artist's
feelings be perfectly replicated within the spectator's witnessing sensibility."
The problem of communication is raised here. A viewer may be directed towards an
emotional response that accords with that of the artist, or he may find, as does Max Kozloff, that
"... powerful pictorial but exhibitionistic effects can quickly fatigue."
The fact that German Expressionist art rarely seeks to communicate through a specific
message complicates the issue. Kandinsky, for instance, believed that different colours could
elicit different reactions from the viewer. Therefore, even when a work was entirely
abstract, he felt that colour and compositional effects could set up a dialogue with the
spectator. This theory is of course highly questionable. As Peter Selz observes,
no parallels can be established between the artist's statements about the associations
engendered by his works and observers' responses. Selz indicates, however, that Kandinsky
believed this absence of correlation only occurred when the observer attempted to verbalise
his or her responses; Kandinsky felt that direct communication could take place at a primary
(preverbal) level. Unfortunately, there is little way of proving this theory.
There are distinct differences between the term "expressionism" when it is applied to
Fauvist art and the use of that word to describe German Expressionist work. While French
art of the period 1905 to 1907 placed an emphasis on self-expression, formal considerations
tended to outweigh emotional content. The following excerpt from Nolde's autobiography
finds no parallel in Fauve attitudes:
" I obeyed an irresistible impulse to express deep spirituality and ardent feeling, but I did
so without much deliberation, knowledge or reflection ... . I painted on and on, scarcely
aware whether it was night or day, whether I was painting or praying."
A further difference between Fauves and German Expressionist artists is that the latter
were far more politically motivated. They desired to initiate an artistically inspired swing
away from 19th century materialism towards a new spiritual epoch.
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* Drawn from notes compiled by B. Schmahmann for the University of South Africa