Roman Art history - The Expressionist artist 1905 - 1920

"Roman Art history - The Expressionist artist 1905 - 1920" submitted by RomeTour Editorial Team and last updated on Thursday 28th April 2011

Roman Art history - The Expressionist artist 1905 - 1920, Italy


Expressionism originated as a critical reaction to the crisis and contradictions in European society to which both Impressionism and Positivism had failed to respond. A vast, multi-faceted movement that resists any single definition, Expressionism involved literature, music, theatre, figurative arts and stage design and found fertile ground for its development in the German tradition that had produced the Romanticism of the Sturm and Drang.

"The Expressionist artist doesn't look, he sees; he doesn't relate: he lives; he doesn't reproduce: he recreates; he doesn't find: he seeks". Kasimir Edschmid's statement of 1917 refers to Expressionism in poetry: for the naturalistic or Impressionist artist reality is observed from the outside, whereas the Expressionist artist must immerse himself in it and experience it from the inside.

"We call forth the young, we strive to conquer freedom in our lives and actions. We welcome all those who reproduce their creative impulse". These words pronounced by Kirchner in 1913 emphasize the importance of expressive immediacy and of almost violent, primordial instinct in a work of art meant to oppose tradition.

Also, "the medium of painting is colour as background and outline" (Kirchner 1913). Thus Expressionism began with Die Brücke (The Bridge) 1905; its initial nucleus formed by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Fritz Bleyl, was later enlarged to include Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Müller. In 1911 they moved from Dresden to Berlin where they found their themes of interest in a sort of "natural" human condition and dealt with urban reality and politics while continuing to "translate" form into colour.

In 1913 Die Brücke was dissolved and the individual members continued to work autonomously.

In the meantime, in 1911, Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), which like The Bridge sprang from the same opposition to Impressionism, Positivism and contemporary society, but did not search so much for a physiological contact with the primordial element as much as to capture reality's spiritual essence which eventually led to lyrical and expressive abstractionism.

After the lacerating wounds of World War I, George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann exasperated the dramatic realism of Expressionism, and created satirical and accusatory works in the years preceding the rise of Nazism.

Art Timeline 1905 - 1920

Owing to the breadth of the period considered, the exhibit "The Expressionists. 1905-1920" allows the identification of the elements of continuity - albeit expressed in different forms- that persist in Expressionist art from 1905 to a later date: Expressionism is in fact almost a state of mind, a way of "assaulting" life and reality that anticipated trends present in modern art even after World War II.

The more than 150 works on display come largely from public museums and illustrate how the key moments in Expressionist art took form in oil, tempera, in watercolour, sculpture, graphics - from xylography and litography to engraving.

Another original aspect of the exhibit is the presence of sculptures rarely displayed or little known by artists such as Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, Marc, Macke, painters who sought to render the expressive possibilities of the brushstroke and colour in carving and fusion. The statues enrich and add new facets to the already complex array of figurative elements.

Lehmbruck's preference for elongated figures and his terse modelling offers a fascinating contrast to Barlach's massive physicality, yet both modes of expression participate in the creative climate of Expressionism.

"One of the goals of Die Brücke is to attract all the revolutionary and restless elements and this is clear in the name itself: bridge". The letter that the group born in Dresden in 1905 sent to Nolde inviting him to join their ranks, reveals the meaning of the symbolic name.

"The world already exists, there is no sense in reproducing it: the artist's main duty is to inquire into its depths and fundamental significance, and to recreate it" (K. Edschmid, 1917).

"The Expressionists. 1905-1920" exhibit consequently displays Kirchner's paintings with their jarring colours, aggressive anti-naturalism and, after 1911, the urban images of streets, bridges and cafés seen through the distorted lens of a ferocious social polemic: examples of the work of Schmidt-Rottluff that tend towards a sharp synthesis and a marked monumentality, Heckel's oils and their aggressive trait and broken lines, the oils of Pechstein whose expressionism is mediated with contemporary French figurative culture, Muller's melancholy gypsy scenes, his slender female nudes and landscapes suspended in a mythical dimension, and the works by Nolde with broad brushstrokes of colour and dramatic contrasts.

Besides painting, the exhibit offers samples of Expressionist graphic art that from a formal standpoint exasperates and dramatizes outline. As Kirchner wrote in 1913, "xilography enhances the linear element to the utmost degree thanks to its great simplification (…), litography renders the drawing in the most direct way (…) in engraving on metal, the elegance of the line is heightened by the use of shiny metal".

The name The Blue Rider (1911) derived from the combination of Kandinsky's passion for the fairy-tale image of knights and Marc's aesthetic interest in the beauty of horses, as well as from their common love for the spiritual, poetic colour blue. Along with others, including Macke and Klee, these artists aimed with different approaches at representing the soul's secret resonance and acting upon it through the mysterious force of colour freed from the constraints of naturalistic figurative art.

"The Expressionists. 1905-1920" exhibit shows the passage, in Kandinsky's production, from an approach that blends the popular element, art nouveau and the lesson of the Fauves into a lyrical-symbolical abstraction. Marc's work, on the other hand, offers the viewer transparent colours and magical spaces of enchanted in which animals embody the vitality of the natural flux. Klee, who during his trip to Tunisia in 1914 discovered the colours that permeate his mathematical combinations of signs and surfaces ordered according to abstract structures and fine graphic marks. On the same trip August Macke experienced the Mediterranean light that enriched his lyrical and enchanted vision of reality..

Other artists emerged alongside The Bridge and The Blue Rider experiences. Among them are Christian Rohlfs whose landscapes, architectural elements and still lifes reflect a lyrical blend of Expressionism, Ludwig Meidner whose hallucinated dynamism shapes cities on fire or devastated by earthquakes, and Paula Modersohn-Becker, who died at the early age of thirty-one, and whose powerful, archaizing taste is imbued with expressive style and human sympathy.

World War I induced reflection on the strength of art grounded precisely in that dramatic and contradictory actuality: Expressionism itself gave birth to a new Expressionist-realism. The work of Grosz exemplifies this outcome and caused great scandal among the bourgeoisie of the time for the deliberate vulgarity in the choice of subjects - prostitutes, drunkards, murderers, military men in obscene attitudes, disquieting means to expose the militarism and bourgeoisie of pre-Nazi Germany. Dix followed suit with works reflecting the harshness of contemporary reality and the horrors of war.

In Magdalena Müller's words, "In its last stylistic phase, Expressionism becomes a revolutionary force. The battle is no longer fought with form and colour as in the first Expressionists, and content becomes the ultimate protagonist of the work of art".

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