GSE logo

Body and Soul
Expressionism and the Human Figure

October 07, 2003 to January 03, 2004

Of the various “isms” that have come to define early modern art, Expressionism remains one of the most elusive. Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism and Suprematism were comparatively cohesive stylistic movements, consciously formulated as such by their creators. Expressionism, by way of contrast, was a label used mainly by art critics and dealers to describe a much broader trend. Although Expressionism is today considered a quintessentially Germanic style, it is believed that the first appearance of the term in a contemporary context occurred in a 1911 introduction to an exhibition of French art—including works by Braque, Derain, Picasso and others—at the Berlin Secession. During this period, German and foreign modernists were routinely exhibited side-by-side, with little attempt to distinguish between the two groups. And indeed there was much that avant-garde artists throughout Europe had in common. All rejected, with varying degrees of ancillary political conviction, bourgeois society and the academic realism favored by the dominant culture. All modernists sought, in different ways, to create a new language of form and color. For a time, then, Expressionism was synonymous with international modernism, which was not incorrectly perceived to be a pan-European movement, much like Symbolism before it.

However, by the second decade of the twentieth century, the nationalist stirrings that would eventually erupt in World War I were already beginning to temper the internationalist bent of early modernism. In 1911, over one hundred conservative artists and critics signed a statement protesting the prevalence of French influence on German contemporary art. Wartime propaganda completed the job of stigmatizing French sympathies in Germany, temporarily eradicating even casual mentions of the enemy’s culture in both Axis and Allied lands. The tendency to ascribe national labels to early modern styles—Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism and, of course, German Expressionism—may be considered in part a legacy of the heated political rifts that divided Europe for much of the past century. It is perhaps no coincidence that nationalistic stylistic labels were especially prevalent in those countries that were the most volatile and therefore most in need of coherent identities. In Germany, an effort was made to isolate and codify aspects of Expressionism that could be characterized as particularly Germanic.

The face-off between the two great powers, France and Germany, fostered a simplistic view of modern art, with the French valued chiefly as formal innovators and the Germans identified primarily with emotional issues. Rather than looking to modern foreign stylistic influences, the Expressionists were heralded as heirs to the Medieval tradition of Mathias Grünewald, whose Isenheim Altarpiece was a touchstone for many German artists. Germans through the centuries were said to be bound by a drive to express profound feelings and spiritual insights. It was noted that German portraits, from the Middle Ages onward, had placed exceptional emphasis on sitters’ inner, psychological selves. And portraiture, for reasons that were partly economic, remained a far more significant genre in early twentieth-century Germany and Austria than it was in other European countries. Furthermore, while human imagery had become largely a formal pretext for artists like Picasso, the figure remained of central interest to most German artists. Expressionist stylization appeared to be directly responsive to the humanistic content of its subject matter, whereas Cubism was an abstract construct that bore little organic relationship to a work’s ostensible subject.

The stereotype of German modernists as more emotionally engaged than their French counterparts is not entirely inaccurate, but it is incomplete. Because Expressionism was not a cohesive movement, it had disparate manifestations that defy blanket characterizations. In addition to the nucleus of artists who constituted the Munich-based Blaue Reiter group (Alexej Jawlensky, Wassilij Kandinsky, August Macke, Franz Marc, Gabriele Münter, Marianne Werefkin) and the North German Brücke (Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Mueller, Hermann Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff), there were satellite artists, such as Paul Klee and Emil Nolde, who moved in and out of the orbits surrounding these groups. And then there were the Austrian Expressionists: Richard Gerstl and Egon Schiele, who were sui generis, and Oskar Kokoschka, who relocated to Germany in 1910 and assimilated many prevalent stylistic traits there. Furthermore, while the Blaue Reiter and Brücke groups were relatively short-lived (lasting, respectively, from 1911-12 and 1905-13), aspects of Expressionism survived into the 1920s and can be found even in the work of artists, such as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz, who disdained the movement.

The art historian Frank Whitford has identified intuition, insight and transcendence as the hallmarks of Expressionism. “The purpose of art,” he writes, “was to make manifest a new, higher, transfigured reality.” There were, however, many ways to achieve this end. The most intellectually rigorous method was that followed by the Blaue Reiter group and promulgated in their 1911 Almanac and in Kandinsky’s 1912 treatise On the Spiritual in Art. The German word for “spirit,” Geist, is broader in scope than its English-language counterpart, and the Blaue Reiter focused on the full range of feelings, ideas and perceptions associated with the inner life. Believing that all true art springs from “inner necessity,” Blaue Reiter artists searched for a universal visual language in European folk art, non-Western tribal art, the work of children and that of the mentally ill. They concocted elaborate formulae establishing correlations between specific colors and human emotions or principles. Above all, they sought to demonstrate parallels between art and music, which, as a subject-less art form, was deemed to be intrinsically purer. The privileging of the spiritual over the material world ultimately demanded a complete renunciation of the latter: from music it was only a few short steps to the abandonment of representational subject matter. Despite the identification of formalism with the French approach, it is Kandinsky, a Russian working in Germany, who is generally credited with creating the first abstract painting.

Herein lies one of the key paradoxes of Expressionist figuration: for the body can be perceived as both an obstacle to and a vehicle for the expression of the inner soul. Whereas Kandinsky ultimately took this paradox to one logical extreme by embracing abstraction, members of the Brücke group maintained a more conventional relationship to the human figure. Spiritualism assumed concrete, extremely personal forms, especially for Nolde, who practiced an idiosyncratic, pantheistic variant of Christianity. The Brücke’s orientation was from the start more outward looking than that of the Blaue Reiter. Brücke artists believed that a new formal vocabulary would implicitly encourage new modes of perception with larger social implications, and through their circle of intimates, they attempted to create a model of communal brotherhood. The group’s interest in tribal culture was essentially a lifestyle choice: a rejection of bourgeois European mores and an affirmation of their own libertine sexual habits. Images of naked women cavorting like tropical natives in the wilderness abound in the work of all these artists. Nolde and Pechstein actually journeyed to the South Seas, while Mueller found a “primitive” cultural paradigm closer to home, travelling with a band of Gypsies in Eastern Europe. Woodcut, a technique the Brücke group collectively and individually brought to unprecedented artistic heights, facilitated the creation of a concise, semi-abstract visual language that simultaneously referenced tribal art and a venerable German printmaking tradition. This bold style accentuated the dramatic impact of Brücke nudes and portraits, most of which depicted the artists’ lovers, friends or close supporters.

The visionary acuity often ascribed to Expressionist artists—resting on their purported ability to see beyond surface appearance and into a subject’s true being—is another paradoxical aspect of the movement. As the contemporary German theorist Kasimir Edschmid put it, “No one is in any doubt that the superficial reality which we perceive cannot be the truth.” However, the further removed an image becomes from realistic representation, the more dependent its impact is on formal innovations that clearly derive from the artist rather than the subject. This is why Brücke portraits and nudes, with their reliance on flat, primitivist stylization, seem less intimate and psychologically revelatory than the more realistic works produced by the Austrians Gerstl, Schiele and Kokoschka. Anecdotes suggesting clairvoyance appear in the biographies of both Kokoschka and Schiele, and yet it is difficult to know today whether their portraits are accurate reflections of the sitters’ personalities or projections of the artists’ own reactions. It is as an exploration of the artist’s self that Expressionism achieves its most cogent insights. These insights surface most noticeably in the diverse feelings of anxiety, fascination, rapture and disgust revealed in depictions of the naked female body and, naturally, in self-portraits. In a self-portrait, the artist’s identification with the subject is total, and it is not surprising that self-portraits are among the most common recurring motifs favored by both Austrian and German Expressionists.

The rejection of “superficial reality” had implicit political connotations. “Reality” was associated with all the loathsome trappings of bourgeois culture, starting with the academic conventions of representational art, but including as well industrial capitalism, materialism and the attendant power structure. On some level, the Expressionists hoped that this culture would be swept away by an apocalyptic transformation. Therefore many artists welcomed the outbreak of World War I, only to have their idealism shattered by battlefield realties. Some--Macke, Marc--were killed almost instantly, while others--Kirchner--endured a slow emotional death in the war’s aftermath. The battlefield was also the figurative birthplace of a new generation of artists, who having served in and survived the trenches, were under no illusion about the injustices and cruelties of war. For the artists who came of age in the late teens and early 1920s, Expressionism’s focus on the inner spirit appeared at best naïve and at worst offensively reactionary. Its counter-cultural aspirations notwithstanding, Expressionism suddenly seemed little more than a bourgeois indulgence.

Nevertheless, both the style and the substance of Expressionism lived on in the two artistic movements that grew out of the turmoil of World War I: Dadaism and Neue Sachlichkeit. The revolutionary promise of the Weimar Republic offered an opportunity to put Expressionism’s utopian ideals into action. Pechstein and Ludwig Meidner were among the older artists who became involved with politically charged arts organizations such as the Novembergruppe (November Group) and the Arbeitsrat für Kunst. (Working Council for Art). Käthe Kollwitz, never fully an Expressionist, adopted that movement’s use of iconic, emotionally evocative figures in service to her socially progressive message. Skewed perspective, angular forms and caricature—all features of the Expressionist style—surface in the work of Weimar-era artists such as Beckmann, Dix and Grosz. However, these devices were now clearly directed toward the external environment: used as a means to dissect a society that all three artists believed was hopelessly corrupt and decadent.

In fact, it could be argued that, just as the concept of “German Expressionism” first coalesced in the 1920s, it was the artists of the Weimar era who served to cement the earlier movement’s association with humanistic subject matter. Artists throughout Europe did have much in common before World War I, including an attraction to non-objective imagery. But afterward, as formalist tendencies became entrenched elsewhere, it was the Germans who remained transfixed by the process of interpreting and remaking the physical world. Thus expressive figuration became the thread that linked several generations of German artists and vouchsafed them the coherent identity their defeated nation craved. And it was these artists’ shared, socially transformative visions that set the stage for their censorship by Hitler, who rightly understood Expressionism in all its guises as a challenge to the existing order.

We would like to convey our warmest thanks to all the collectors and colleagues whose generous loans made this exhibition possible. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for the prints and full dimensions for all other works.