In history of art term expressionism (from Latin “expression”) defines a wide circle of phenomenon’s. But still, as a certain movement in culture it includes, first of all, legacy of a group of artists, who worked in Germany before World War I.
Expressionism was one of the first modernistic movements of the 20th cent. and the closest one to classical art. It emerged and developed most intensively in Germany and believed to be the greatest contribution of this country into modern culture.
Its essence lies in acute expressiveness, achieved exclusively using artistic means and methods. They help an artist to transmit his feelings, emotional stations, mostly of tragic or existentially dramatic kind: anxiety, fear, despair, depression, nervousness, solitude, morbid passion, deep discontent, nostalgia etc. Spiritual bankruptcy, melancholy, sometimes hysteria and sometimes even somber eschatologism or loud protest against existing reality are common for many of expressionistic works.
For all expressionists tendency towards most eloquent fixation of their sensual, emotional and sometimes spiritual experience (like in the art of Emil Nolde, Vasiliy Kandinsky, Mark Chagall and Georges Rouault), often brining visual language of their pieces to the extreme. Exaggerated intensity of color contrasts, revealing of the objects’ structure, active using of contour, in graphic arts – black spot, sharp contrast – white, black and colored, emphasizing of the objects’ energetic through deformation and usage of flashy tints, grotesque poses, gestures of figures. All these were typical elements of expressionism. Most of them were applied and completed by representatives of some movements in painting of the middle and second half of the 20th cent.
From the end of the 19th cent. a special view on the pieces of art was shaping up. They considered, it had to bear in itself solely a will of a creator, to be made because of “inner call” and it didn’t require ant comments or explanations. At the same times shift in the aesthetical values could be observed. Heritage of Gothic masters, El Greco, Pieter Breugel the Elder and others attracted public’s attention. Merits of exotic art of Africa, Far East, Oceania were rediscovered again. All these factors had influence on originating of a new trend in painting.
Expressionism was an attempt to show the inward man, usually in the moments of extreme spiritual tension. Expressionists considered French post-impressionists and Swiss Ferdinand Hodler, Norwegian Eduard Munch and Belgian James Ensor to be their predecessors. Expressionism was discrepant. Loud declarations of beginning of a new culture poorly conformed with impetuous propagation of ultimate individualism, refuse from reality for penetrating into subjective experience. Besides, cult of individualism was always combined with endeavor to unite.
German art historian Eckart von Sydow wrote about this peculiarity of expressionism: “Transition from impressionism to expressionism is a logic continuation of the utmost individualistic attitude towards the world”. Giving it a broadened characteristic, he pointed out that this feature (“How we admire the disciples of early Christianity because they found the strength for inner stillness in the roaring noise of that time. We pray hourly for this stillness and strive for it”, as Franz Marc noted once) adjoined its one antipode – collectivism. Expressionism is very revolutionistic with total aversion to conservatism of traditions, fight against everything old and boisterous enthusiasm about innovations. What is more, in political sphere expressionists represented themselves as resolute radicals – socialists, anarchists, communists, they pinned hopes … on proletariat!
Impressionism created an illusion of reality, Expressionism transformed it, disrupts visible sensual world. But expressionists contended they depicted just exactly what they saw. Yet, they were talking about spiritual vision that possessed creative powers to rearrange habitual things in a totally new way.
Expressionism was guided by the notion, forgotten by Impressionism. The target of this movement can be name “visual music”. Like composers doesn’t copy sounds of nature directly, this way an artist, according to expressionistic theory, doesn’t replicate images of the Universe. The first one realizes what he hears inside himself, the latter – what he sees in himself.
The first significant landmark in the history of expressionism was the appearance of “Bridge” art group (“Die Brücke” in German). In 1905 four students-architects – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff established a kind of medieval guild commune – they lived and worked together. The name “Bridge” was suggested by Schmidt-Rottluff, who believed it symbolized their desire to unite all new artistic movements and in more complicated sense meant they were a “bridge” into the art of future. In 1906 Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, fauvist Kees van Dongen and others joined them. Despite the group appeared immediately after the exposition of Parisian fauvists in the Autumn Salon, members of “Die Brücke” claimed to be independent.
Artists elaborated their specific creative methods: abandoned modeling of volumes with chiaroscuro and spatial effects. The surface of their canvases seemed to be painted with rough brushstrokes, without taking care of exility. Authors were searching for new aggressive images, trying to depict uneasiness, discomfort. They regarded color as a self-sufficient source of senses, which was able to evoke certain psychological reactions.
First exhibition of “Die Brücke” took place in 1906 in the hall of the Seifert lamp factory in Dresden. These and following shows didn’t awake much interest. Only the exposition of 1910 had its catalogue. But since 1906 , the group issued so-called portfolios with reproductions of works by one of the “Die Brücke” members. Gradually they moved to Berlin that became a center of cultural life of Germany. There they organized exhibiotns on the “Sturm” gallery (from German “Storm”).
In 1913 Kirchner published “Chronik der Brücke” (chronicle of the “Brücke”), which caused harsh disagreement of other participants of the unit as they considered the author had overestimated his role in it. As a result, the group officially ceased to exist. Anyway, it occurred to be a milestone for all artists, who had been its part.
Expressionism had its impact on the legacy of various masters, who weren’t participants of any groups or took part in them for a short time (like Emil Nolde), or those, who weren’t satisfied with one program and attempted to find more perfect forms of creative associations.
A born leader, talented organizer, Russian painter Vasiliy Kandinsky was a founder of several artistic groups: “Falanga” (1901 – 1904), “Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen” (”Munich New Artist’s Association”? 1909 – 1911), a large part of which were Russian immigrants, and, finally “Der Blaue Reiter” (“The Blue Rider”). In essence, “Der Blaue Reiter” was an editing group of the almanac of the same name. Its title was suggested by Kandinsky and Marc – both liked horsed and preferred blue color in painting. They managed to publish only the first issue in 1912 and in 1924 it was re-published. The second issue didn’t come into the world because of war. But the artists, rallied around “Der Blaue Reiter”, had a large effect of European modernism.
Their almanac was one of the first manifestos of avant-garde. It set the problem of proving that the question of form is secondary, whether the question of content is primary. Painters and graphic masters talked about peculiarities of then-contemporary art, importance of color and repudiation of imitating reality. They analyzed various pieces, from medieval Gothic to Lubok (a Russian cheap popular print), corroborating their hidden similitude in search of means of expression. That was the time when special attention was paid to kids’ drawings. Many articles of the almanac were dedicate to music and theater as expressionists were animated with the idea of the arts’ cognation and possibility of their synthesis.
Creation of a new, “international art” that combined different movements, was announced. And, indeed, apart from its organizers, Kandinsky, Marc and August Macke, Austrian composer Arnold Schonberg, Swiss-German painter Paul-Klee, Russians Casimir Malevich, Mikhail Larionov, Nataliya Goncharova, French cubists Pablo Picasso and Robert Delaunay were in “Der Blaue Reiter”.
In 1933 Nazi came to power and announced expressionism out of law. Campaign against its representatives was concluded with a cynic action: in 1937 a big exhibition of expressionists and other modernistic movements was held under the name “Degenerative art”. Canvases, shown on it, were liable to destruction. Major part of them really suffered that fate, but some were sold abroad. In 1992 they for a short time were returned to Berlin to be demonstrated in the exposition that commemorated action of 1937. Panoramic vision of the movement displayed its profound and many-sided nature, which reflected atmosphere and spirit of its difficult epoch to the full extent. It’s able to captivate and strike minds of a viewer even nowadays.
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