Published: August 26, 2008
Unique stylistically and projecting a long-awaited visual beacon of revolution and individualism at the start of the Twentieth Century, German Expressionists broke new ground in the art world with their bold and poignant imagery. The Expressionist groups Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brucke and the postwar trend of Neue Sachlichkeit all laid the foundation for new social trends by fueling public passion. Although relatively short-lived, the Expressionist movement is as equally respected today as it was a century ago.
Celebrating the movement, the exhibition “Impassioned Images: German Expressionist Prints” is on view through October 26 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. Organized by and consisting of works from the Syracuse University art collection, “Impassioned Images” explores the visions of numerous artists who engaged their charged emotions via printmaking.
Presented in the art center’s prints and drawings galleries, the exhibition presents 50 woodcuts, lithographs and etchings by many of the seminal German artists of the early Twentieth Century.
Each of the Expressionist groups is represented by a range of vigorous works and the exhibition includes prints by the cream of the movement’s printmakers, such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Käthe Kollwitz, Erich Heckel, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and Wassily Kandinsky.
In the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Germany forged a vital multifaceted movement in the arts that encompassed architecture, painting, printmaking and sculpture with a variety of other forms of the arts, including prose, music and theater. This pluralistic modern movement, simply coined as Expressionism, was considered visionary, and it rebelled against the staid constraints of a German Empire society that retreated from the destitute populations crowding into industrialized cities. During these years, art became a tool that encouraged a freer, fairer and more spiritual world, and a world where the emotions were integral to life. As Kirchner, perhaps the most influential artist from this era, stated, Expressionists wanted to “express inner conviction&⁷ith sincerity and spontaneity.”
Prints became a favored medium among German Expressionists, who found that powerful utopian or critical messages could be relayed to numerous audiences through individual sheets, print portfolios, posters, manifestoes or literary journals.
Religious, moral, social and political issues were confronted with an energy and immediacy not previously seen in the art academies. Even the media they used †woodcut, drypoint, lithography and etching †were handled in a startlingly more direct manner, often resulting in distorted and exaggerated forms not found in the technically more refined prints of the day. Aggressive and new use of the media became the hallmark of the German Expressionist artists.
“Expressionist artists confronted their themes and issues head-on with the media they chose. By rendering brittle lines into copper, gouging bold shapes into wood or drawing quick marks onto plate or stone, they responded in their styles and subjects to a new, fast-paced and increasingly materialistic age,” said Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus curator of prints and drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.
“Through these bold advances, they truly revolutionized the printmaking processes. They were aware of the lauded tradition in German Renaissance printmaking, particularly the virtuosic woodcuts and engravings of Albrecht Dürer early in the Sixteenth Century,” states Phagan. “However, Expressionists modernized the print into an immediate, driven and often harsh statement of the inner life.”
By entering the psychological world of the individual, these artists managed to uncover the tragedy and turmoil of the period, marked by insecurity and loss, as well as by hope. This period extended roughly from the beginning of the Twentieth Century to the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933.
Over time, Expressionist artists looked as well to non-European cultures for inspiration, especially Africa and the South Seas region, which were common travel destinations for many of these artists. European prints were also of interest, especially to the Die Brucke group, which looked to woodcuts by Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin and Felix Vallotton. Many also sought out Japanese woodblock prints with their flat shapes, saturated colors and jutting diagonals.
Actually, Expressionism was never a cohesive movement; rather, there were various centers of activity. The groups involved were all informed and inspired by the varied artistic, social, political and natural environments in which they lived.
Die Brucke (bridge) was the first of these groups, a community that emerged in 1905 in Dresden and collapsed in 1913 in Berlin. At the beginning, its founders were all fellow students of architecture and included Kirchner, Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Restrained by the historic nature of architecture, however, they ventured into the visual arts and made works based on their freely recorded feelings and emotions.
They were joined later by others, including Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller.
Die Brucke artists were largely self-taught in woodcut, and their woodcuts introduced a modern printmaking renaissance in Germany. With their relatively quick process of carving into wood and printing the inked block by hand, they made prints with simplified lines or stained-glass colors that recorded their raw, bohemian lives unified with their surroundings, all the while defying academic standards of draftsmanship and traditional notions of illustration.
Kirchner is represented in the show by “Woman, Tying Shoe,” a woodcut melding a figure to her surroundings, both inside and outside. Heckel and Schmidt-Rottluff also contributed profoundly to the development of the woodcut. Heckel is represented by five woodcuts in the exhibition, while Schmidt-Rottluff’s powerful living line can be observed in two. Pechstein brought his experience as a painter into the group. His woodcut “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven” boasts the kind of highly linear flowing line that boosted the emotional quality of his works.
Above all, Die Brucke consisted of intellectuals who saw academic and mainstream art as superficial and false, and sought its complete renovation. This included a rejection of academic, impressionistic and realistic styles. These Expressionist artists believed that self-expression equaled completeness of life, and, therefore, they honored intuition and spontaneity. Their philosophy was transformed into real life †Die Brucke artists came to live together in a communal setting, and they were ruled by both momentary inspirations and the chaos of everyday life.
The group’s major successor, Der Blaue Reiter, was formed in Munich in 1911 and lasted until the beginning of World War I in 1914. Its founders included Kandinsky, Franz Marc and August Macke, and they were joined later by Heinrich Campendonk and others.
The movement takes its name from Der Blaue Reiter, an almanac edited by Kandinsky and Marc of new art and music, fostered by the expressions of the “inner wishes” of artists rather than through conventional styles. Cezanne and Matisse were featured, for instance, as were works from Die Brucke and children’s art.
In the almanac, Marc spoke of fighting like “wild ones against an old, organized power” and promoted, like Kandinsky, spiritual matters over materialism. The group held exhibitions and wrote manifestoes, and, in 1912, Kandinsky’s theoretical work Uber das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art) was published in Munich. At the same time, Kandinsky was making paintings and, to a lesser extent, prints, without recognizable subject matter but with visual symbols drawn from his search for a new world of the spiritual rather than the materialistic. “Impassioned Image” includes four prints by Kandinsky that demonstrate his lively sense of rhythm between colors, lines and abstract shapes.
World War I shattered the lives of artists, many of whom volunteered or were drafted. After the war, numerous artists produced prints and print portfolios of their wartime experiences and of the ensuing political turmoil brought on by revolution. Many artists also formed into groups informed by political or utopian programs. The Arbeitsrat fur Kunst (working council for art) in Berlin, for example, promoted the idea of a democratic art under the aegis of architecture. Interestingly, former Die Brucke members Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff and Pechstein were on its board. The architect Walter Gropius was on its executive committee, and, in 1919, he established the Bauhaus in Weimar, attracting Feininger as faculty, among others, and, later Kandinsky and Paul Klee.
The Arbeitsrat fur Kunst would eventually merge with the Novembergruppe, made up of artists who worked in the new contemporary styles. Pechstein was on its executive committee. Both of these organizations and others of the time, including the Bauhaus, were built upon the search for community and creation of a better world †clear Expressionist aims.
German Expressionists continued to make prints in the 1920s and early 1930s, although the movement itself declined due to the devastating economic climate and the development of new artistic concerns, such as photomontage and advertising techniques. The social outlook familiar from Expressionism continued, however, in Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity), a new trend that developed with Germany’s World War I defeat and the beginnings of the German Republic.
These artists displayed the cynicism that reflected the tragedy of the war, and established an active shift from individual reality and hopes for a new world to a more socially engaged criticism. Rather than searching for new worlds, they sought “fidelity to positive, tangible reality,” and made paintings and prints, often highly detailed, of industrial and street scenes and of portraits.
The Neue Sachlichkeit is represented in “Impassioned Images” by works of Otto Dix and George Grosz, who sometimes adapted the stylistic exaggerations of Expressionism. Grosz captured the chaos of postwar Berlin, a landscape of decay and vices, worthy of this trenchant satire. Dix’s themes were similar, as he was also disillusioned by an existence in a world of disgust, horrors, decadence and indifference.
Max Beckmann exhibited at the Kunsthalle, Mannheim, in 1925 at a well-known exhibition that featured artists of Neue Sachlichkeit. His art had undergone a major transformation of style due to his frontline war experiences (where he met Heckel). His work thereafter became aggressive and severe, tragic in an existential way.
By 1933, German Expressionist artists were denounced by the new regime of the Third Reich, which promoted a heroic nationalism and naturalistic representation. It was not until many years later, after World War II, that German Expressionists’ distinctive and enduring works became accepted again as apart of a vital, innovative art movement.
The Syracuse University art collection comprises more than 45,000 objects acquired over the past 130 years. Its primary focus is American art, but exhibitions like “Impassioned Images” demonstrate the great diversity of the collection. An opening reception will take place Friday, September 5, beginning at 5 pm. A lecture by Barbara C. Buenger, professor of art history, University of Wisconsin-Madison, will follow at 6 pm. It is free and open to the public.
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is at 24 Raymond Avenue. For information, 845-437-5632 or www.fllac.vassar.edu.
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