The Brücke Group - German Expressionism
Art Movements > German Expressionism >The Brücke Group
The Brücke Group*
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was born in Ascheffenbrug in Franconia, and his family moved to
Chemitz in Saxony in 1889. In 1901 he enrolled for architectural studies at the Technische Hlochschule in Dresden, studies which he interrupted to attend painting classes in Munich in
1903 to 1904. He met Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff when he returned
to resume his architectural studies in Dresden, and they began to meet in Kirchner's studio.
In 1905, the four artists formed the Brilcke association, and moved from Kirchner's
studio to a rented shop in the industrial district of Dresden - an environment that was to
serve as both living and working quarters.
Miesel notes that the Brucke was conceived as a youth movement dedicated
to cultural progress. In the opening of its manifesto of 1906, Kirchner wrote
"Putting our faith in a new generation of creators and art lovers we call upon all youths
to unite. We who possess the future shall create for ourselves a physical and spiritual
freedom opposed to the values of the comfortably established older generation. Anyone
who honestly and directly reproduces the creative force that is within him is one of us."
The call to youth in the manifesto indicates that Kirchner and his three associates,
themselves from bourgeois backgrounds, were expressing their antipathy to this very class
through their attack on the older generation. This older generation is implicitly associated
with a repression of physical and spiritual freedom and with the advocacy of materialism
and complacency (suggested through the words "comfortably established").
The name "Brucke" means "bridge". According to Schmidt-Rottluf it was intended to
signify "the bridge which would attract all the revolutionary and surging elements" . Donald
Gordon notes that it was derived from a passage in Nietzsche's Thus
"What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is
that he is an overture and a going under. I love those who do not know how to live,
except by going under, for they are those who cross over."
Gordon indicates that this passage complies with the contradictory impulses in German Expressionist art, the belief that renewal could only be precipitated by negation.
The Brucke artists, apart from Pechstein who went to Paris in 1908 and there drew Kees van
Dongen into the Brucke circle, have rigidly maintained that Fauve work had little or no
influence on them. Their contact with Van Dongen from 1908 makes this difficult to believe,
as does the correlation between their style and that of the Fauves. Presumably, their denial
of French influence is in line with Kirchner's overpainting and redating of his work -- a bid
for the accolade of originality.
In the same way that Fauve influence was denied, some Brucke artists have not recognised the formative influence of Van Gogh and Munch. Whilst Heckel indicates that he
first knew about these artists' work around 1908 to 1909, Schmidt-Rottluff and Pechstein
suggest that they were familiar with Van Gogh and Munch as early as 1906. Selz in fact
suggests that Brucke works show some influence by these artists at an earlier date.
Brucke artists would seem to have been influenced by Van Gogh's use of an agitated
brush stroke and an animation of his subject matter in order to convey a personal emotional
state. Van Gogh used colour unnaturalistically "in order to express himself more
powerfully" as did Edvard Munch. Munch's communication of disturbed emotional
states was also heavily reliant on the expressive possibilities offered by colour and line.
In the early years of their alliance, Brucke artists were living and working at close quarters;
signatures were often omitted, and paintings by one artist were often turned into woodcuts
by another. This led to a confusing similarity of approach.
Selz dates the evolution of the first coherent Brucke style as such to the
period of work at Maritzburg from 1906 to 1907 and defines it as being characterised
"... [by] shouting colours instead of soft harmonies, by hard, pointed, splintered forms,
and by large, sharply contrasting planes of colour. The contour ... was reintroduced,
but more as the border of the color plane than as the outline of the object."
Pure colours, including pure white and black, were employed to obtain the boldest
contrast, and this was further emphasised by linear articulation. See, for example,
Kirchner's Girl under Japanese Umbrella (1909).
A particularly important contribution made by the Brucke group was the revival of the
woodcut print as a major art form. The woodcut medium was in fact ideal for their purposes.
A feeling of emotional intensity could be evoked through the use of angular or apparently
brutal cuts and slashes on the woodblock. These effects were used, on the one hand, to
suggest the direct emotional involvement of the artist in the creative process. On the other
hand, they evoked a sense of anxiety or emotional disturbance in the subject. This is
particularly evident when the subject is a human being, for the violent manipulation of the
medium seems to evoke a sense that the figure represented is itself tortured or disfigured.
The expressive effects created through the woodcut medium seem in fact to have provided
Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff with the incentive to use similar harsh and jagged
shapes in their paintings.
The Brucke artists' decision to use the woodcut may have been largely motivated by
nationalist sentiments: Germany had been a leader in the field of printing during the 15th
century. The expressionists believed that the German people's consciousness of their
national identity had been dissipated through industrialisation, and this seems to have
encouraged them to value indigenous art of the more distant past. By reviving a use of the
woodcut technique, they may also have felt that they were expressing their affinity with
artists such as Durer and Wolgemut and that they were confirming their association with a
supposedly inherent German aesthetic and sensibility.
By about 1911, when the group had moved to Berlin, the individual Brucke artists had
almost all found their mature styles. But they still felt the need to preserve the purity of their
aims and something of a coherent stylistic approach by working as a group rather than in
Nevertheless, by 1912 and 1913 the various influences of the stimulating Berlin world
had resulted in varied developments among them; the break-up of the group was inevitable.
* Drawn from notes compiled by B. Schmahmann for the University of South Africa