Table of contents
Expressionism is an avant-garde artistic and literary movement, which has developed in Germany between the end of the 19th century and about 1925; in an uncomfortable and turbulent atmosphere that preceded the war of 1914; from a pictorial point of view, it appeared as a clear reaction to Impressionism, whose objectivity and scientific optimism were rejected.
The term was born in the context of art criticism (in 1901 the French painter J.-A. Hervé referred it to one of his cycles of paintings; in 1911 W. Worringer used it in an essay dedicated to Van Gogh, Matisse and Cézanne, in the magazine “Der Sturai”), and the first affirmation of an expressionist address, however never configured in an organic movement, was precisely in the field of figurative arts.
Germany was the chosen land of expressionism with Conrad Fiedler, Theodor Lipps and Worringer, whose Abstraktion und Einfühlung came out in 1908; with them the accent shifted to the irreducible determination of the creator (innerer Drang, or inner necessity, the “inner need”, a fundamental principle that Kandinsky would take up again), as well as to the process of deterioration of the relationship between man and the external world, betrayed by the more or less extreme degree of abstract stylization.
Expressionism matures in years in which cultural references are transformed: the whole of Europe rediscovers its “primitives”, the arts of distant peoples (Africa, Oceania, North America, the Far East) supplant Greek-Roman classicism.
The Germans recovered the Gothic and Grünewald (first monograph in 1911), the Belgians Bruegel, the French Romanesque frescoes and paintings of the fifteenth century. El Greco was rediscovered. The variety of stimuli explains the diversity of works, especially since the immediate precursors of expressionism come from very different horizons.
Expressionism in art manifested itself essentially as a rejection of classical harmony: emotional and spiritual facts were represented not through the rendering of “natural” forms, but through the use of accentuations or deformations of different character. At the base of the artistic operation were therefore placed dissonance (the disharmonious relationship between the constituent elements of the work) and dissimilarity (the antagonistic relationship between the artist’s work and visible reality). Artistic creation became a meeting point between an “inside” and an “outside”, between the visible and the invisible, between subjective experience and reality.
Expressionism made use of a whole series of stylistic resources right from the start: in painting, the two-dimensionality, the use of violent colors and very marked outlines, the “gestural” immediacy of the sign and the brushstroke; in sculpture, the search for the veristic and the grotesque, the exaggerated plasticism, the frequent quotation from works extraneous to the postclassicist practice (such as from the Middle Ages or from non-European primitives); in architecture, the notable simplification of forms, the abandonment of criteria of proportionality, the provocative incongruity in the combination of materials and colors.
Born in the bosom of the German art and supported basically to the groups Die Briicke and Der Blaue Reiter, the expressionism has considerable contacts, for analogy of themes and for mutual influence, with addresses manifested outside Germany (in France, in Italy, in Spain, in Russia), and can be considered one of the greatest artistic trends of the first half of the twentieth century. Already towards 1890 the Dutch Van Gogh, the Belgian J. Ensor, the Norwegian E. Munch transformed the principles of Impressionism in an expressionistic sense (modifying, for example, the speckles of color of pointillism in real stripes more suitable to express directly an intense emotional charge).
Even the exasperated language of the bodies sculpted by A. Rodin represents a sort of expressionist proposal. In France, P. Gauguin, H. Toulouse-Lautrec and the self-taught H. Rousseau, in opposition to Impressionism, realized an energetic formal simplification that aimed at reflecting the artist’s emotions more intensely and immediately. In their footsteps, at the beginning of the twentieth century, are the Fauves, especially H. Matisse and G. Rouault. Matisse and G. Rouault. In Germany, Paula Modersohn-Becker creates a naive and “emotional” painting, while Käthe Kollwitz gives vent to a vibrant social protest. From the neo-impressionists, expressionism takes up, but with opposite intentions, the principle of the autonomy of pure color: it now conveys emotions and moods and is no longer functional to the definition of light and atmospheric phenomena.
Deep is the influence of symbolism and Jugendstil (which marks the formative period of almost all German expressionists). Moreover, the interest in the emotional perception of reality clarifies the guidelines of the expressionistic discovery of the primitive: on the one hand, the anti-naturalistic sculptures coming from the islands of the South Seas (art as magic, direct and symbolic visualization of the invisible); on the other hand, the northern European Gothic art (the text by W. Worringer, The Formal Problems of Gothic Art, 1912, provides a theoretical framework for the inspiration of the expressionists by rediscovering the creative spirit of medieval Germany and indicating the coordinates of the Gothic spirit: fantasy, mysticism, tendency to the imponderable, linearity, distortions, dissonances).
Around 1903, some students of architecture elaborate together, in Dresden, a program of pictorial work: it is born so, in 1905, Die Brücke, that assumes, above all at its beginning and in antagonism to the existing social order, a character of medieval guild: the artists live and work in common dedicating ample space to an operativity of handicraft type.
After experiments, some of them conflicting, in the direction of Neo-Impressionism and Jugendstil, the group, stimulated by Van Gogh, Munch and the examples of non-European primitives, elaborated around 1908-09 its own peculiar style, characterized by large chromatic surfaces and violent contrasts; The rediscovery of xylography, a technique widely practiced in Germany since the end of the Middle Ages, also contributed to this evolution. Through the sharp contrast of whites and blacks in compact and simplified forms, it allows the violence of a deliberately barbaric and rebellious language. K. Schmidt-Rottluff, in his landscapes and outdoor nudes, emphasizes dynamic and violent content; E.L. Kirchner analyzes the neurosis of relationships in the jungle of the metropolis; O. Milller emphasizes lyrical cues.
At the same time, the lyrical naturalism of E. Nolde (who very soon broke away from the group) evolved decisively into a form of expressionism marked by theatrical clangour and insistent abandonment to the fairy tale. In these same years, as part of a research in many ways similar, Picasso made his famous painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1906-07), in which contrasts the lyricism of the blue period and the pink period a brutal treatment of surfaces (which in part recalls that of primitive wooden sculpture): from here was to develop, from 1909, in a completely different direction, cubism.
The indications that emerge, on the other hand, from the almanac of the group Der Blaue Reiter reveal a marked romantic character that can be considered a relevant aspect of the expressionist taste: a strong mystical component has a notable importance in the cultural formation of W. Kandinsky; typically romantic, on the other hand, is the idea of a direct relationship between different artistic forms (between figurative arts and music, above all), as well as the recognition of the formal validity of children’s drawing, of popular art, and of the art of the mentally ill.
The second exhibition of the group (Munich, 1912), which had become an international coterie, also saw the participation of artists from the Brücke and other European avant-gardes (G. Braque, P. Picasso, A. Derain, N. Goncarova, M. Lario-nov, K. MaleviC, P. Klee, H. Arp, etc.). Other draftsmen and painters, such as the German L. Corinth, the Austrian A. Kubin, the Lithuanian Ch. Soutine, active in France, elaborate their languages, fundamentally free and instinctive, in singular consonance with elements of German impressionism; a particular role, moving from the decorativism of the Viennese secession, is played by O. Kokoschka, also active in the literary field.
At the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century the area of diffusion of the phenomenon of expressionism is now very large. In Italy, obeying a similar vitalistic drive, the Futurists turn to represent the tension inherent in every event as assumed the quality of artistic fact, as well as protest against classicism, they ask the painting to assimilate and express the meaning of new times, machines, speed, using figurative means such as analysis of movement and figures, repetition of forms, perspective “deep”, “opening fan”, radiant structures, acute angles. As for the languages, in many ways original, of the Belgians and the Dutch, such as C. Permeke, G. de Smet, J. Torop, are also related to German expressionism. In France, only two expressionists are to be found: G. Rouault, who, moving from the gloomy figuration of the world of the uprooted and the irregular, arrives at an expressionism of religious content, based on the suggestion of medieval art; M. de Vlaminck, who creates a violently chromatic style very similar to that of Munch and the Brücke.
As far as sculpture is concerned (where wood is the preferred material), the greatest stylistic achievements are linked to the names of E. Barlach, who, influenced by the expressive form of Gothic wooden sculpture, developed a melancholic and almost obsessive expressionism, and W. Lehmbruck (who was also influenced by the expressive linearism of the German Gothic tradition), whose atelier transformed Jugendstil types into cubic forms, assuming an expressionistic charge thanks to the expressive nature of the German Gothic tradition. Lehmbruck (who was also influenced by the expressive linearism of the German Gothic tradition), in whose atelier the Jugendstil types were transformed into cubic forms, taking on an expressionistic charge thanks to movements that reproduced tensions within the artist’s soul. At the end of the First World War, these artistic groups did not reform and the new trend, rather than protest, was aimed at a drastic renewal.
Among the new expressionist currents, those headed by O. Dix and G. Grosz. Dix and G. Grosz evoke with a striking naturalism the terrors of war and the arbitrariness and abuses of the post-war period, arriving now to the effects of theatrical symbolism, now to caricature, in the framework of precise programs of political denunciation. The greatest personality of expressionism, after the First World War, is that of M. Beckmann, who infuses a new vital force to the angular forms of the artists of the Brücke. The subject of his painting is the active reaction of the artist to the attraction of the environment, signified above all by a typical erotic symbolism.
As for sculpture around the ’20s, the expressionist direction is to stop violent and sharp movements and forms in an almost dance-like tension. The German G. Kolbe developed from Rodin and the Jugendstil; the French H. Laurens and the Lithuanian J. Lipchitz are converted from the cubist fragmentism to the figure, albeit decomposed, the Swiss A.. Giacometti accentuates the neurosis of the figures reducing and thinning the volume to the extreme.
In the field of architecture, expressionistic elements were already being manifested, starting from the early twentieth century, by artists of different backgrounds. For example, in the works of A. Gaudi in Barcelona (1900 ca), which evolving from the neo-Gothic freely rework motifs of ari nouveau: crooked or acute angles, grotesque or popular inventions, contrasting proportions and colors. Stylistic elements that, moreover, are found in art nouveau architects such as C.R. Mackintosh, H. Van de Velde, J. Olbrich.
In the Expressionist generation alongside a prevailing impulse of rigorous concreteness, there coexist shots of individual sensibility, unexpected disharmonies and exaggerations, which are found from time to time in almost all the major architects of this period, from P. Behrens, B. Hoetger, O. Bartning, E. Mendelsohn to W. Gropius, H. Scharoun, M. de Klerk, W.M. Dudok, W.B. Griffin, W.A. Dummond. Expressionistic characters are particularly evident in the German F. Höger, who invents, with the famous Chilehaus in Hamburg (1923), a dynamic and tense architecture, explicit also as an ideological allusion (the building is called Prua di Nave, alluding to the fact that it is a large warehouse for nitrates imported from Chile).
Figurative expressionism found its natural end in the form it took around 1930: it had essentially accomplished its revolutionary mission. Any further development was destined to be definitively interrupted by Fascism and World War II. Only once, in the following decades, was the concept of expressionism invoked in the context of theoretical programs. This happens with the so-called “abstract expressionism” of the American J. Pollock. Of all the ideas of Expressionism, Pollock almost exclusively grasps the reduction of art to an act of individual expression.
The Norwegian Edvard Munch, the Dutch Vincent van Gogh, the Belgian James Ensor, to which we can add the French Toulouse-Lautrec, contributed to the formation of the temperament of the years at the turn of the century.
Ensor was the earliest, executing in 1888 Christ’s Entrance into Brussels (Malibu J. P. Getty Museum), a violent satire with vivid color, whose resonance, however, was limited.
Vincent van Gogh’s work was more widely circulated and provided a broader theoretical basis, giving color a symbolic and expressive power that was as yet unseen (Wheat Field with Crows, 1890: Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum).
Munch perfectly highlights the close relationship that existed at the beginning between symbolism and expressionism (like Hodler in Switzerland and Klimt in Austria), and The Cry (1893; Oslo, Nasjonalgalleriet), which is a true manifesto, owes its effectiveness not less to the graphic stylizations of the Jugendstil than to the new conception of form and color.
The idea of considering Lautrec a forerunner of Expressionism may come as a surprise, but some of his themes, his taste for ellipsis, and the clash of his palette make him, in many ways, a spiritual brother of the Germans (Tattooed Woman, 1894; Bern, private collection).
What brings these artists together is, on the one hand, the importance of lived experience, the painful insertion into society, and on the other, from a technical point of view, the primacy given to color.
Die Brücke (1905-13) is remarkable that, in Wilhelmine Germany, the post-romantic idealism of Marées and Böcklin was able to touch the younger generation more than the apparently more modern representatives of German Impressionism: Slevogt, Liebermann, and Corinth himself. It was equivalent to giving more interest to drawing and layout than to touch, while the renewal of graphic art induced the study of wood engravings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and Gothic art was considered typically Germanic (Worringer: Formprobleme der Gotik, 1911).
But foreign lessons also bore fruit: Munch exhibited in Berlin in 1892 to great acclaim; at the beginning of the century, Gauguin, Cézanne, Lautrec, Van Gogh were exhibited in Berlin (1903), in Munich (1904), in Dresden (1905). The impact with Gauguin sharpened the theme of nostalgia for the lost paradise, of the union between man and nature in a universe freed from all hypocrisy and the notion of sin.
Before the painters of Die Brücke, Paula Modersohn-Becker, who was part of the symbolist group of Worpswede, was inspired by Gauguin to translate a still restrained and meditative expressiveness. But in Dresden, young artists such as Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, and Pechstein drew from all these suggestions very strong stimuli that resulted in a painting of great expressive synthesis.
Die Brücke is qualified by the strictly communal work, the importance and quality of the graphic achievements (especially wood engraving), the color distributed in flat areas, and a deliberate eroticism (Kirchner, Woman with blue sofa, 1910: Minneapolis, Inst. of Art, Schmidt-Rottluff, Two women, wood engraving, 1910). For a few years, Die Brücke managed to reconcile the two conflicting tendencies that had already pitted Gauguin and Van Gogh against each other: solitude in nature and intimate group exchanges.
It was precisely this last aspect that was to repel Emil Nolde, much older and active in the group from 1906-1907; his research testifies to a religious torment completely alien to his young companions. Nolde translated his underlying mysticism into powerful signs (Legend of Mary of Egypt, 1912: Hamburg, Kunsthaus).
Die Brücke was relatively isolated in Dresden; in Pechstein’s wake, the other artists settled in Berlin, where they were to find a much more open environment. They exhibited with Herwarth Walden, in the Der Sturm gallery, which was soon to impose the term ‘expressionism’ universally. It is referred to in 1911 to a selection of paintings by French Fauves presented at the Berlin Secession. The rapidity of exchanges and transformations, as well as the role played by Walden, were to contribute greatly to the complexity of the notion of Expressionism; in 1912 three exhibitions organized by Der Sturm were described as “Expressionist” in which very different works appeared: German (Der Blaue Reiter), French (Braque, Derain, Friesz, Vlaminck) and Belgian (Ensor, Wouters).
Der Blaue Reiter presented even less homogeneity than Die Brücke, but it was then the tip of the German avant-garde. There are few similarities between Kandinsky, Marc, Jawlensky and Macke. The common denominator is the role of color, but each conceives it in his own way: emancipation of the subject for Kandinsky, linked to a pantheistic symbolism for Marc, conception of form in space for Macke, spirituality for Jawlensky, closer to Die Brücke in his predilection for the theme of the human face.
Expressionism, “particular coloration of the soul” (according to the writer Ivan Goll), knows in this period different meanings. The laying bare of human character and drama goes hand in hand with an acute desire to renew the mechanism of perception. The contacts with Futurism in Berlin (Der Sturm, 1912) introduced another element: a feverish rhythm, which overwhelmed forms and concepts and reflected the climate of the imminent war, witnessed especially by Ludwig Meidner, founder of the group Die Pathetiker.
Such acceleration was bound to take the members of Die Brücke by surprise. While Pechstein followed the example of Matisse, Kirchner, in the wake of Munch, expressed his anguish of the metropolis; Heckel, after meditating on Cézanne and Delaunay, gave the landscape a new transparency.
The first general studies on expressionism appeared in 1914 and 1916, and were respectively due to Paul Fechter, Hermann Bahr and Walden himself. At that time, the antinomies between Cubism or Futurism and the German movement could hardly be distinguished: each was in some way a facet of the same emancipatory impulse with regard to naturalism.
The emphasis placed on the work of Cézanne, recently discovered and considered one of the sources of expressionism, might also be surprising. The fact is that these attempts at systematization correspond to the vast international confrontations that took place in Germany shortly before the war, in the Sonderbund exhibition (Cologne, 1912; a panorama of research on color) and in the first German Autumn Salon in Berlin (Der Sturm, 1913).
Expressionism in Vienna
In Vienna, expressionism is more coherent. This is partly due to the symbolism of Klimt, whose intentions are expressed in a drawing, often at the service of an intense eroticism, and partly that of Hodler (who exhibited at the Viennese Secession in 1903).
The efficacy of the image rests in both cases on a graphic tension taken to the extreme, often deforming, whose heir must have been above all Egon Schiele.
Schiele, influenced by Van Gogh (exhibited in Vienna in 1906), took up his profound feelings of sexual frustration and irremediable isolation, which, on the other hand, diminished greatly once the artist married (Seated Nude with Raised Arm, 1910; Vienna, private collection).
Oskar Kokoschka finally provides the link between Vienna and Berlin, where he worked for Walden. Less harsh than Schiele, but more receptive than him, between 1907 and 1914 he produced a series of drawn and painted portraits, which are authentic attempts at introspection (Herwarth Walden, 1910: Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie); but whose immediate legibility is far from the transpositions of Die Brücke or Jawlensky.
Expressionism and Fauvism
The Germans judged the Fauves to be expressionists when they knew their paintings. More recent comparisons (Fauvisme and the Beginnings of German Expressionism, Paris-München 1966) have made it possible to better define the terms of such an identification. In the first place, the Fauves are above all painters; and the German Expressionists engravers. In France, the way of applying color is very different, and the spirit of painting itself is still naturalistic.
Sometimes, however, the Fauves reached a convincing expressive intensity: Vlaminck very early (At the Bench, 1900: preserved in Avignon); Matisse especially in 1906 (Gypsy: in Saint-Tropez) and 1909 (Algerina, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne; Nude, Sunny Landscape: San Francisco, private collection), during the period when his efforts to simplify forms resembled the graphic-derived stylizations of Die Brücke, Derain in particular in the remarkable small painting Characters in a Meadow (1906-1907: Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris); Van Dongen, with more spontaneous ease (Anita, 1905: private collection).
Derain also engraved on wood, with more “negro” perseverance than Picasso: illustrations for Apollinaire’s Enchanteur pourrissant, 1909), and also Vlaminck, whose plates recall, for the balance between blacks and whites, those of the Germans (Chatou Bridge, c. 1914).
Rouault, on the other hand, is an individuality at the margin, whose situation in France is very similar to that of Nolde in Germany. Before 1914, he expressed himself best in large watercolors devoted to religious themes (Ecce homo, 1905: New York, private collection) or inspired by the pitiless spectacle of life (Girl at the Mirror, 1906: Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne).
The war period
The First World War disrupted the Expressionist movement, whose very complexity could have predicted its dissolution. A four-year conflict upset the acquired artistic positions, and other attitudes towards the art of living were imposed, the clearest of which, in affirming a radical break with the past, was that of Dada in Zurich.
The most representative artists of the time translated their personal reactions, for example Kirchner and Kokoschka, both traumatized by the war, into their pathetic self-portraits (Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915: Saint Louis, private collection; Kokoschka, Self-Portrait, 1917: Wuppertal, private collection). Kandinsky was in Russia, Jawlensky in Switzerland, Marc and Macke had disappeared during the war. These various phenomena of dispersion indicate that the young generation had to start from different premises.
Futurism and Dadaism intervene in the early paintings of Grosz and Dix, moved by a heated anti-militarism. Social demands and the need to transform society, whose contradictions Expressionism had just denounced, inspired paintings such as Grosz’s Funeral of Oscar Panizza (1917-18: Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie), while Dix’s Self-Portraits (1914-15) were a prelude to the ferocious repertoire of images of the 1920s.
Max Beckmann had at first been rather hostile to Expressionism, and the 1914 Road (coll. Mathilde Beckmann) contrasts sharply with Kirchner’s contemporary Berlin scenes. The experience of war later inspired him to paint many large compositions, whose complex layout and vehemence are derived from Gothic painting; Night (1918-19: Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen), the masterpiece of this series, is symptomatic of the confusion and anguish that reigned in Germany at the end of the war. An excellent engraver, especially with a dry point, Beckmann remained faithful to the Expressionist tradition, and committed himself to scrutinizing his own face (Smoker, 1916; Self-portrait with burin, 1917), but already with an intention of objectivity, with a distance from himself that are so many signs of an irreversible evolution.
While these important changes were taking place in Germany, the countries north of France (Belgium and Holland) gave birth to other strands of the Expressionist movement.
In Belgium, the starting point was the colony of artists in Laethem-Saint-Martin, where, before 1914, Servaes, Van de Woestyne, De Smet, Van den Berghe and Permeke gathered. In Laethem reigned a primitivistic symbolism illustrated especially by Van de Woestyne and the sculptor and designer Georges Minne.
The exhibition of Flemish primitives (Bruges, 1902) and especially the high figure of Bruegel played an important role in the revaluation of popular subjects (Servaes, Potato Harvesters, 1909: Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts).
The war dispersed the artists: while Permeke, wounded, went to England, De Smet and Van den Berghe took refuge in Amsterdam.
The first executed in England some large paintings, then considered the manifestos of expressionism in Flanders, although they reveal in the layout a strong link with symbolism (The Stranger, 1916: Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts). The other two painters found an environment in Amsterdam that was much more up-to-date with European innovations than that of Laethem.
The Frenchman Le Fauconnier, trained as a Cubist, gave life (from 1915 to 1918 ca.) to a very personal expressionism of a dreamlike or social nature (The Signal, 1915). Parallel to Le Fauconnier, the Dutchman Jan Sluyters had a brief Expressionist interlude between 1915 and 1917, inspired by the small village of Staphorst; the influence of Van Gogh’s Dutch period and that of Cubism come together in a skillful synthesis (Peasant Family of Staphorst, 1917: Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum).
The Belgians also discovered, through magazines, German Expressionism and Negro art. De Smet chose as Sluyters a privileged place, Spakenburg, a fishing village in the Zuideræe, and from Cubism he drew the simplification of drawing (Woman of Spakenburg, 1917: today in Antwerp). Van den Berghe approached Die Brücke; interested in Negro art, he produced powerful wood engravings at this time (Waiting, 1919).
Between the two wars (1919-39)
This period saw, on the one hand, the end of Expressionism proper in Germany, and on the other, the emergence of peripheral Expressionist tendencies from other sources and on different themes.
The decline of pictorial expressionism corresponded to the extension of the movement, which after the war conquered theater and cinema: the style of the sets was inspired by the paintings. The political and social conditions in Germany were such as to direct the interest of young artists towards a form of testimony more linked to contemporary reality, to the detriment of subjectivity. The tension of the expressionism of the origins is dampened Schmidt-Rottluff will remain one of the artists most faithful to the style of his youth (Man walking down the street, wood engraving, 1923), while Kirchner will leave an uneven production, until his suicide in 1938. Dix undoubtedly gave the most violent images of the post-war period (until 1923), those of a world of exploiters and prostitutes in elbow-to-elbow contact with miserable victims (Skat Players or War Mutilates Playing Cards, 1920: private collection). This vision of the atrocious culminates in the Trench (1920-23, which disappeared during World War II), but we can already see that the balanced simplifications of the pre-war period have been totally replaced by hypernaturalistic descriptive excess.
In 1923-24, the fifty etchings of War offered the most relentless document on the conflict (Wounded returning to the rear, Battle of the Somme).
Grosz’s evolution was even more rapid; a member of the Berlin Dada club, he considered caricature a weapon; in him, political struggle prevailed over the creation of new means of expression. Beckmann progressively emptied his compositions in favor of a rather static style, at once evocative and cold (Ball in Baden-Baden, 1923: Munich, private collection). A similar language is adopted by Carl Hofer in his paintings of acrobats, sad clowns who inhabit an abstract universe cut off from its living sources, similar to that of the Weimar Republic (Circus People, c. 1922: Essen, Folkwang Museum).
In different ways, Käthe Kollwitz and Barlach both contributed to the particular climate of this period with their graphic work. Kollwitz’s long itinerary led her, through her drawings and engravings, from the symbolist realism of the late 20th century to an expressionism of testimony and struggle on behalf of the oppressed (The Widow, wood engraving, c. 1922-23); Barlach, much influenced by Gothic sculpture, suffered particularly from Nazi persecution because of the pessimism of his popular types (The Old Woman with Sticks; The Mower, drawings, 1935). But these two artists still belonged to the 19th century in the early years of their careers.
The new phenomenon, which became apparent between 1924 and 1925, was the abandonment of expressionism in favor of a New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) or of a magical realism stylistically opposed to expressionism on all points, and of which Dix above all, then Beckmann and Grosz, would become leaders.
To this art of observation, which exasperates certain effects to the point of the unusual, responds at the same time the birth of Surrealism, which to some extent was to play, at least in its aspect of “premonition”, the same role played by Expressionism before 1914.
After the war, with the return of the old Laethem painters, Belgium saw the development of a coherent expressionist movement. The magazine “Sélection” and the gallery of the same name in Brussels sponsored “Flemish” expressionism, so called because of its analogy with Germany. But the first exhibition (August 1920) paid homage to Cubism and the Paris school.
The fundamental fact of the post-war period is that discipline and expressive vigor are extrapolated from Cubism, as until recently color had been asked to enhance the expression of sensations and feelings.
The social aspect exists in the Flemings as much as in Germany, but in Permeke, De Smet, Van den Berghe, Tytgat it is more rural than urban.
Permeke is the only one to give his characters a monumental dimension (Black Bread, 1923: Ghent, private collection; Gamekeeper, 1927: Courtrai, private collection), while genre scenes are more numerous in him than in his companions (De Smet, Life on the Farm, 1928: Brussels, private collection).
There is no shortage of analogies with some foreign painters engaged in modern figuration, such as Léger in France and Schlemmer in Germany, who one would not know how to place in expressionism, while Van den Berghe soon adopted elements frequent in magical realism or surrealism (series of gouaches on the theme of Woman, 1925).
Frans Masereel, engraver on wood, denounced with rare fidelity the defects of the time, the devouring metropolis; but his images do not stick to the realistic transposition, which German engravers aspired to before 1914 (The City, one hundred woods, 1925: Paris).
After 1930, the saturation of the art market, the offensive return of realism and the very success of the movement were the causes of the decline of Flemish expressionism; however, Permeke continued to enrich his world with the rustic cycle of Jabbeke, reconnecting with the great tradition of Bruegel and Van Gogh (The Potato Eater, 1935: Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts).
The Brabant landscapes of Jean Brusselmans, hostile to Permeke, offer one of the last manifestations of expressionism, and foreshadow the abstractionism of the second post-war period.
On the fringes of the movement, Servaes created between 1919 and 1922 a series of religious works that renewed the modern expression of “sacred art,” as Rouault had done in France and Nolde in Germany, his exanguous forms, released by a tangled graphic web, caused a scandal (drawn and painted Via crucis; two Pietas: Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts).
Le Fauconnier gave life to the school of Bergen, with Sluyters, Leo Gestel and Charley Toorop; but they approached, in a short time, the positions of the German Neue Sachlichkeit.
In 1918, in Groningen, H. N. Werkman and Jan Wiegers founded the group De Ploeg (The Plow).
Werkman chose a very bare, almost abstract figuration, Wiegers, linked to Kirchner, moved towards an expressionism close to that of Die Brücke (Landscape with Red Trees: Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum).
Herman Kruyder, another important exponent of Dutch Expressionism, gravitated towards the Flemish area like De Smet and Van den Berghe.
A little later Hendrik Chabot treated, in a harsh style, subjects close to those of Permeke (The Ortolan, 1935: Stedelijk Museum).
Between 1920 and 1930, expressionism also matured in France, building on the Cubist experience. The search for an exemplary sobriety of expression led to some ambiguity: Dufresne’s paintings of 1918-20, with their calm power and sober colors, surprisingly foreshadowed the Flemish style: Léger’s Mechanic (1920: Ottawa, National Gallery) is an archetypal figure, almost unique in the master’s work, but whose immediate descendants are the characters of Gromaire and especially Permeke. Such assumptions allow to discover for some years a certain number of affinities between Flemish and French.
Goerg’s early paintings, by their deliberate stylization, are reminiscent of contemporary Flemish canvases (the Important, c. 1922: Paris, private collection); but the work of the engraver was to prevail, with a satirical accent that spares no aspect of the social life of the time (the Gaîté Montparnasse, etching, 1925).
Gromaire always protested against the label of “expressionist,” which he linked to Germanic culture; however, a number of his paintings – which transfigure the subject into a symbol, making it the emotional focus – correspond well to postwar expressionism (Lottery at the Fair, 1923: Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne). The series of ten engraved woodblocks Homme de troupe, executed at the end of the war, is of rare evocative power.
The return to social themes is a phenomenon common to the various European tendencies: peasant themes (La Patellière), urban themes (Gromaire, Goerg), whipping up the easy life of the bourgeoisie or drawing attention to the condition of the proletariat. In this respect, Rouault’s Worker’s Apprentice (1925: Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne) is a revealing painting of the spirit of the moment, and stands out within a body of work committed to a more general human definition (lithographed Miserere series). The theme of the brothel prostitute returns frequently, more or less interpreted, from Rouault to Pascin and to Fautrier, whose impressive series of nudes executed in 1926-27 constitutes one of the most original ensembles.
Around 1930, this relative homogeneity of subjects and styles began to disappear. We have to wait for the Spanish War to find an ardent desire to testify that subjects forms to the needs of expression.
The fundamental work became Picasso’s Guernica (1937: Madrid, Prado), accompanied by numerous studies, the most eloquent of which was Woman Weeping (1937: London, Tate Gall.). Totally removed from the socio-historical categories that we have attempted to define, Picasso’s expressionism manifested itself early on (Figures on the Seashore, 1931: Paris, Picasso Museum) with exemplary invention and virulence, fertilized by the artist’s contacts with Surrealism.
Among the reactions aroused by the Spanish conflict should be mentioned the series of Massacres by Pierre Tal Coat (1937), the Goerg of 1938 (The misfortunes of the war: Paris, private collection), comparable to the more exacerbated paintings of Dix, the burins of H. G. Adam (the Pain, 1938: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale).
During the same period, only the coherence of the Mexicans Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, Tamayo and, to a lesser degree, the Brazilians Portinari and Segali, corresponded to that of the Flemish group. While referring, like the Flemish, to their traditional land, exalting their Indian origins, the Mexicans added a revolutionary and social dimension that led them to be more decorators (large wall frescoes) than easel painters. In their most successful canvases, they equal the lyricism of Permeke (Rivera: the Grinder, 1926: Mexico City, private collection).
The cycles of wall decorations inaugurated by Rivera in 1921 in the National Preparatory School of Mexico City had the merit of bringing monumental painting back into vogue; however, despite the interest of the drawing and the obvious dignity of the themes (struggle of the proletariat, glorification of human labor), too often an emphatic realism prevails over stylistic demands (Rivera: National Agricultural School of Chapingo, 1927; Orozco: University of Guadalajara, 1936).
Tamayo, younger, avoided engaging in a folklore that implied a certain submission to conventional vision; in him the influence of Picasso was liberating (the Singer, 1950: Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne).
Portinari and Segali developed a similar expressionism in Brazil, where the acute tension of the drawing and the violent stylization of the forms recall Picasso (Portinari: Sepulture in the Hammock, 1944 São Paulo, Museu de arte contemporânea).
In Italy, Expressionism represented a rather marginal reality, although it was known to many artists. The frantic futuristic experimentation on one side, the divisionist symbolism and the academic classicism on the other, divided the attention of intellectuals and experts, leaving little room for a figurative culture so little in tune with local traditions.
Nevertheless, in some painters, a particular attention towards certain aspects of the language or the most disturbing themes of expressionism is evident. First of all, Umberto Boccioni, whose works between 1908 and 1910 show clear signs of a strong interest in the painting of an Ensor or Munch (The Mourning 1910: private collection).
On a completely different side, Gino Rossi appropriated, in the years 1908-14, some of the most exquisitely pictorial features of the German movement, namely that reduction of volumes to harsh chromatic syntheses.
Lorenzo Viani’s expressionism, on the other hand, is based on a vocation of social commitment to which the strong aggressiveness of the Nordic models offers a more suitable opportunity for expression.
In the artistic biographies of other artists it is still possible to identify moments of reflection on what expressionism had elaborated, but it is never a question of adhesion to any current of the movement.