An important early statement of intent came in 1906. In the catalogue to their first group exhibition, held in Löbtau, Dresden, they issued their rallying cry. This was in the form of a founding “manifesto” of the Künstlergruppe Brücke (Bridge Artists’ Group). Printed in stylized, quasi-primitive lettering, the text reads:
WITH FAITH IN DEVELOPMENT AND IN A NEW GENERATION OF CREATORS AND APPRECIATORS, WE CALL TOGETHER ALL YOUTH. AS YOUTH, WE CARRY THE FUTURE AND WANT TO CREATE FOR OURSELVES FREEDOM OF LIFE AND OF MOVEMENT AGAINST THE LONG-ESTABLISHED OLDER FORCES. EVERYONE WHO WITH IMMEDIACY AND AUTHENTICITY CONVEYS THAT WHICH DRIVES HIM TO CREATE BELONGS WITH US.
The “drive” to create came from the core members of the Brücke group: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl. Bleyl left the group in 1907 to pursue a career in architectural design. Max Pechstein and the Swiss artist Cuno Amiet joined in 1906. Upon invitation, Emil Nolde, an older artist, became a member for a short while (1906-1907) and later they were joined by Otto Mueller.
The woodcut medium was central to the Brücke from an early stage. In painting, although there were differences between individual artists’ work, the early canvases are often characterized by intense, non-naturalistic colouring and loose, broken brushwork. They reveal a lively engagement with recent art in Europe. Kirchner, Heckel and others absorbed and worked through the implications of modern international art; of French postimpressionism – Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat and Van Gogh – and, a little later, of Matisse and Munch.
In 1910, Kirchner painted Standing Nude with Hat, a work that draws directly from a sixteenth-century image. He attached enormous emotional and professional importance to the painting, regarding it as one of his most significant early works and as an image of his ideal of feminine beauty at the time.
The woman is Dodo, Kirchner’s then girlfriend, who appears in many of his Dresden works. However, Kirchner was working from another, much older “model” too – the seductively smiling Venus painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1532.
Many other artists of the era, from Kandinsky to Kollwitz, worked extensively with the woodcut. Works like Nolde’s Prophet of 1912 convey a strong sense of how a small, monochrome image could achieve a monumental effect, powerfully expressive of both the subject – the gaunt head of an ancient seer – and the hard wooden physicality of the hewn printing block. Evoking the messianic aspect of the Prophet, the critic Gustav Schiefler wrote in 1927:
“Everything: beard, hair, background lines, appear in him to be reflected from an inner fire”.
Munich was the other major site of pre-war Expressionism’s flourishing. There, in the old capital of German art nouveau or Jugendstil, other shifting constellations of artists were working, exhibiting and exchanging ideas together in the rich cultural environment of the city, or to be precise, its famous bohemian artists’ quarter, Schwabing.
There were many Russians, like Alexander Sakharov, captured in an extraordinary portrait by his friend Alexei von Jawlensky. At thirty, Kandinsky was a Russian who found himself in this milieu after leaving a promising career as an academic lawyer in Moscow. He headed for the artistic life in Munich in 1896, and quickly graduated from art student with the painter Franz von Stuck, to an important figure in the Munich avant-garde. He was a co-founder and president of the “Phalanx” school and exhibiting group (1901-1904) and of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (New Artists; Association of Munich) or NKVM in 1909.
Through these activities he established a reputation as an effective organizer, and worked and exhibited together with many other Russian émigrés and German artists, including Gabriele Münter, who became his companion for the duration of his most formative years.
Stylistically, Kandinsky and his colleagues began to push the boundaries of their painting in the late summer of 1908. Four of them – Kandinsky, Münter, Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin – made a painting trip to the village of Murnau in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps.
Today, the term Expressionism is usually used to refer to a smaller group, chiefly Kandinsky, Marc, Münter, Jawlensky, Werefkin, Klee and Macke. These last two enjoyed a particularly creative friendship for a short time before the war, travelling to Tunisia together. The Blaue Reiter circle included some very close friends, but they were less a “group” than the Brücke had been in 1910, for example. Their styles, subjects and theoretical concerns were much more diverse. They did not always agree on fundamental issues – particularly around the nature and role of the “spiritual” in art, yet this milieu proved one of the most fertile of the pre-war Expressionist era.
A potent aspect of Expressionism was the conviction, held by its creators that their endeavours were carrying art into a wholly new realm of experience. Expressionist art could display spectacular technical innovation, as even relatively early works by Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka make clear. However, formal, surface qualities were a means, not an end. Expressionism aspired to give form to nothing less than a new kind of inward vision. It involved a heightened perception that appeared, to some viewers, to verge on clairvoyance. Expressionists sought an intimate, subjective, and deeply resonant communication between the artist and the viewer. Kokoschka described it 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”.
In attempting to give expression to repressed aspects of the psyche, expressionist art, literature, theatre, dance and music therefore tended to emphasize what was unruly, violent, chaotic, ecstatic or even demonic. Eros and Thanatos, sex- and death-drives, were recurrent underlying themes…
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