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Drawing The Line
Realism and Abstraction in Expressionist Art

March 20, 2018 to July 06, 2018

Realism and abstraction are frequently cast as opposing forces in modernism’s developmental narrative. For reasons that had to do less with art-historical inevitably than with geopolitics, abstraction was declared victorious in the United States after World War II. Reflecting wartime alliances, American abstraction traced its lineage to France, while the Germanic tradition of figural Expressionism was largely sidelined. To the extent that Germany’s contributions to modernism were acknowledged, Munich’s Blaue Reiter group, which experimented most overtly with abstraction, received greater attention than the comparatively representational work of artists based elsewhere in German-speaking Europe. Wassily Kandinsky’s esoteric theories, endorsed by Galka Scheyer on the West Coast and Hilla Rebay at the fledgling Guggenheim Museum (originally the Museum of Non-Objective Painting) in New York, seemed to affirm the formalist dogma that dominated the American art world in the third quarter of the twentieth century.

However, neither Kandinsky nor his Expressionist colleagues in Germany and Austria believed that art should be free of all extrinsic content, or as the critic Clement Greenberg put it, that an artist should be concerned solely with the “arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.” In the Blaue Reiter Almanac, Kandinsky described two fundamental formal approaches, “the great realism” and “the great abstraction,” both of which, he said, ultimately serve the same end: to express “the inner resonance of the thing.” The German critic Paul Fechter, who authored the first book on the subject in 1914, similarly identified two strands of Expressionism: the “extensive,” which retains ties to recognizable subject matter, and the “intensive,” which entirely renounces such imagery. Whether realist or abstract in their orientation, Expressionists were driven by a need to re-envision the world.

Germany and Austria industrialized relatively late and, unlike England and France, had failed to establish effective democratic institutions to channel the concomitant social upheaval. Artists coming of age in German-speaking Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century objected equally to the rigidity of the old aristocratic order and to the materialism associated with bourgeois capitalism. Inspired by the Nietzschean ideal of human perfectibility, the North-German Brücke group hoped to build a “bridge” to a better future by uniting “the entire younger generation” in opposition to “entrenched and established tendencies.” For the most part, first-generation Expressionists eschewed political solutions, instead focusing on spiritual self-improvement. “When religion, science and morals…are in danger of failing,” Kandinsky observed, “man turns his eyes away from the exterior world, onto himself.” At the same time, many Expressionists sought a connection to universal forces beyond the self, situated in nature, the infinite or the occult.

Although Germany’s component principalities made remarkable contributions to the fields of music, literature and philosophy prior to national unification in 1871, the territory as a whole had historically ceded artistic leadership to France. The chain of “isms” emanating from the French capital—Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, “Primitivism”—continued to inform Germanic modernism, but the German responses were nonetheless distinct. Whereas French artists tended to deconstruct their subjects aesthetically, the Expressionists attacked them metaphysically. The French (with the notable exception of Paul Gauguin) responded to “Primitivism” in largely formal terms, while German artists sought an Edenic ideal in cultures untouched by the forces of modern civilization. Symbolism—a multinational movement that attempted to find objective visual correlatives for subjective states—had a far more profound impact in German-speaking Europe than in France.

Germans and Austrians proved especially receptive to fin-de-siècle ideas that revealed, or purported to reveal, the truth behind surface appearances. Kandinsky equated the discovery of subatomic particles with the literal dissolution of matter. X-rays, which make it possible to see through solid objects, came to be associated with clairvoyance. The physicist Ernst Mach contended that there is no real difference “between bodies and sensations . . . between what is without and what is within, between the material world and the spiritual world.” Enormously popular in German-speaking Europe, Theosophy posited that the “astral plane” could be accessed through a “subtle invisible essence or fluid” that radiates from all living beings. Artists were encouraged, by such contemporary thinkers as Joséphin Péladan, Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach and Stanislaw Przbyszewski, to consider themselves “seers,” possessed of a vision that was spiritual as well as artistic.

Accordingly, the Expressionists transformed color, line and composition into vehicles for exploring the mystical, emotional or psychological underpinnings of their subjects. Urfarben (the “source colors” of the rainbow), which had been used by the Neo-Impressionists to replicate optical effects, lost their connection to observable reality. Not only are these colors purer and brighter than intermediate mixed hues, but they carry greater emotional weight, especially when clashing complementaries are juxtaposed. “Color,” wrote Kandinsky, “is a means to exercise a direct influence on the soul.” In his 1810 book, Zur Farbenlehre (On the Lessons of Color), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had proposed a vocabulary of symbolic color equivalencies: red was associated with beauty, orange with nobility, yellow with goodness, green with utility, blue with mediocrity and so on. The Theosophists also believed in mystical color associations, though theirs were somewhat different. (Blue, for example, connoted purity of thought.) Clairvoyants could ostensibly see these colors emanating from human bodies as “auras” and “thought forms”—phenomena painted variously by Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele.

Like color, Expressionist line did not adhere to the strict requirements of realistic verisimilitude. Japanese woodblock prints and Jugendstil graphic design, both of which jettisoned three-dimensional interior modeling in favor of evocative contours, were decisive influences. The woodcuts of Gauguin and Edvard Munch, caricatures from the satirical magazine Simplicissimus, Medieval religious imagery and tribal carvings added an element of exaggeration to the mix. German and Austrian artists saw line as an expressive tool in its own right. Many of them employed jagged, angular or broken lines and bizarre striations for emotional effect. Some aimed for concision and economy of means, while others retraced outlines repeatedly to arrive at a quintessential form. Drawing the moving figure was a practice common among the Brücke artists in Dresden, as well as Schiele and Kokoschka in Vienna. These men all sought to capture spontaneous visual responses, what Ernst Ludwig Kirchner called “the ecstasy of first sight.” Kandinsky, on the other hand, developed a more cerebral language of symbolic lines.

Whether approached in aesthetic or metaphysical terms, line constituted a crucial boundary between figure and ground, subject and surrounding cosmos. From Gothic woodcuts to Jugendstil design, many of the sources that influenced the Expressionists treated positive and negative space equally. The resultant two-dimensional flattening of the picture plane was especially well suited to landscapes, whose components (buildings, sky, trees, mountains, etc.) can readily be reduced to abstract shapes. By visually uniting these elements, artists conveyed a sense of mystical harmony with and within the natural or human-built environment. Lyonel Feininger and Schiele each interpreted (or misinterpreted) Cubism in this vein. Kandinsky, who between 1910 and 1913 gradually relinquished representational subject matter altogether, equated the picture plane with infinity or utopia. Fragmentation of form could be used by artists with a more figural bent to suggest the immateriality of the soul and the fusion of the body with the spirit realm. But there is a limit to how much the human figure can be abstracted and still remain, well, human. The contrast between artistic representations of “real” people and the two-dimensional surfaces upon which they “lived” was more likely to evoke alienation than harmony. For some Expressionists, the line dividing figure from ground, physical from spiritual, was an impermeable barrier that only served to highlight the fragility of the self in the face of a surrounding existential void.

Despite certain broad affinities among its artists, Expressionism was not a coherent style in the manner of Impressionism or Cubism. German-speaking Europe had multiple cultural centers, essentially revolving around its different art academies. In the final decade of the nineteenth century, a number of Secession initiatives arose to counter the dominance of those academies. The Secessions did not espouse specific stylistic programs, but rather sought to provide exhibition outlets for the rising avant-garde and to foster international cultural exchange. Collectively, their aim might be summed up by the motto of the Vienna Secession: “To the age its art; to art its freedom.” As a younger generation came to the fore in the twentieth century, the Secessions foundered. Nevertheless, they bequeathed to their Expressionist successors a mandate to pursue the Kunstwollen—artistic aims—of the time on their own individual terms. Artists, dispersed among the preexisting academic centers in such cities as Dresden, Berlin, Munich and Vienna, took up the challenge in disparate ways.

Die Brücke, established in Dresden in 1905, was the first and, initially, the most cohesive Expressionist group. Its founding members, Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl, were former architecture students at the Dresden Technical Institute, and though the curriculum there covered drawing, only Kirchner, who spent one semester at a progressive studio school in Munich, had any dedicated fine arts training. Kirchner brought back from Bavaria an appreciation for Jugendstil graphics and Gothic woodcuts, as well as an interest in primeval cultures, which was soon affirmed by the Oceanic and African art in the Dresden ethnographic museum. This yearning for the “primitive” would take Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein (both of whom joined Die Brücke in 1906) to the South Seas in 1913-14, and Otto Mueller (a member from 1910-13) to the Balkans in the 1920s.

At first the Brücke artists attempted to create a refuge from modern civilization in their own backyard. Working communally in a storefront studio, they endeavored (in Kirchner’s words) “to bring art and life into harmony with one another.” During the warmer months, they decamped to the countryside, where they pursued a shared resolve to “study the nude in free naturalness.” Printmaking was central to the Brücke initiative, both in forging a collective identity and in soliciting financial support from “passive members,” who were rewarded with an annual print portfolio. Woodcut, with its melding of Medieval and contemporary influences, its stark contrasts and exaggerated forms, is the graphic technique most often associated with Die Brücke. But the artists were equally innovative in their etchings and lithographs, transforming what had been essentially reproductive techniques into original expressive vehicles. The group ethos disintegrated after 1911, when Heckel, Kirchner and Schmidt-Rottluff decided to join Mueller and Pechstein in Berlin. Leadership conflicts caused Die Brücke formally to disband in 1913.

While Germans at the turn of the twentieth century were struggling to cement a national identity, Austria-Hungary was being torn apart by ethnic, economic and political tensions across its far-flung empire. There was little unity among the Austrian Expressionists, little of the utopianism that marked the Germans’ quest for radical transformation. Brücke artists tried to subordinate themselves to a communal ideal; Austrians were more concerned with redefining the self in the face of intellectual challenges by such contemporaries as Mach and Sigmund Freud. Kokoschka, who claimed to have “x-ray vision,” aspired to extract the souls of his subjects from their external physical shells. Schiele probed his own persona incessantly, testing the boundary between pretense and essence. In his oils, Schiele continued a tradition of Symbolist allegory that owed much to the example of Gustav Klimt. Mortality and human frailty were recurring themes for both artists.

The Jugendstil-inflected work of Klimt and the Wiener Werkstätte strongly influenced Kokoschka and Schiele during their student years, but by 1910 each had emerged with a distinctive Expressionistic idiom. Kokoschka’s raw, painterly style derived from artifacts he had seen in Vienna’s ethnographic museum. Schiele, on the other hand, retained a propensity for elegant lines and structured compositions that can be attributed to his more conventional academic training and to Klimt’s lingering impact. From 1910 on, Kokoschka spent considerable stretches of time in Germany, where he made contact with members of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter. Appropriating the heavier impastos and bolder colors of those colleagues, he hereafter was frequently classified as a “German” Expressionist. Although Schiele also exhibited in Germany, he had little success there. Both geographically and artistically, he remained isolated in the Austrian environment. Austria’s third great Expressionist, Richard Gerstl, who committed suicide in 1908, was totally unknown until his rediscovery in 1931. Independently working his way through the formal and tonal lessons of Neo-Impressionism, Gerstl arrived at the first iteration of what was later called “Abstract Expressionism.”

Less disjointed than the Austrian Expressionists, but more informal that the Brücke group, Der Blaue Reiter was an alliance of international artists who exhibited together in Germany between 1911 and 1913. Because this period coincided with the publication of Kandinsky’s most famous theoretical writings, in the Blaue Reiter Almanac and On the Spiritual in Art, his ideas came to be associated with artists whose styles were actually quite diverse. Kandinsky had moved to Munich in 1896, along with two other Russian artists, Alexei Jawlensky and Marianne Werefkin. Soon Kandinsky assumed a leadership position, founding the Phalanx group and school in 1901, and in 1909, the Neue Künstlervereinigung (New Artists’ Association), an alternative to the increasingly conservative Munich Secession. In addition to the three Russians and Gabriele Münter (a former Phalanx student), the NKV pulled into its orbit Feininger, Alfred Kubin, Paul Klee, August Macke and Franz Marc—all of whom later showed with Der Blaue Reiter.

During the years of their association, the Blaue Reiter artists, each in his or her own way, explored the distinction between what Kandinsky called the “great realism” and the “great abstraction.” “Primitivism” (here incorporating not just tribal art, but domestic folk art, the work of self-taught painters like Henri Rousseau, children’s art and, for Klee and Kubin, the art of the mentally ill) represented the “great realism”: art without artifice. By emulating untrained creators, Blaue Reiter artists hoped to recapture a primordial innocence that would enable them to reveal their subjects’ “inner truths.” Marc’s search for an unspoiled, “natural” state of consciousness prompted him to identify with nonhuman animals and to try to depict the world through their eyes.

The path to the “great abstraction” lay beyond nature, in the realm of pure imagination. Kandinsky was looking for a visual equivalent to music; an art that would be free of any representational associations. “In color,” Macke declared, “there is counterpoint, violin, ground bass, minor, major, as in music.” Klee and Feininger, both trained as violinists, tried to imbue their art with the emotional immediacy of music. Nonetheless, neither they nor Kubin, Münter, Jawlensky or Werefkin ever entirely gave up recognizable imagery. Even Kandinsky, slow to digest his own philosophical pronouncements, was still painting landscape forms as late as 1913. He worried that a completely abstract artwork might too easily be confused with a “necktie or a carpet” pattern—confounding the essential link to the spiritual. Macke and Marc were the only other Blaue Reiter artists to break through, albeit tentatively, to abstraction. When they perished in World War I, Kandinsky became the sole surviving non-objective painter among the first-generation Expressionists.

The Expressionists’ search for spiritual authenticity was an implicit protest against capitalistic materialism. Nevertheless, after the carnage of World War I and the political turmoil that followed, their approach appeared hopelessly bourgeois. Prewar utopianism was superseded by the practical necessity of dealing with the socioeconomic problems of the Weimar era. Denounced as self-indulgent and incomprehensible, abstraction was deemed incapable of addressing these new realities. The artists who came of age in Germany after 1918, however, readily adopted the more realistic innovations of their prewar predecessors.

There was, in fact, considerable stylistic continuity between the first- and second-generation Expressionists. Fragmented images, erratic lines and crazed croppings were ideally suited to Otto Dix’s on-the-spot renderings of trench warfare. These same tropes were subsequently used by Max Beckmann to convey the sense of dislocation and unease endemic to Weimar society. Expressive exaggeration, verging on caricature in the case of Dix and George Grosz, was a perfect way to critique contemporary decadence. Often the compositions of all three artists are packed with detail, compressed into a claustrophobic, flattened space. At other times, isolated figures are presented as icons of alienation. By means of these formal devices, each artist was able to transform his subjective experiences into an emotionally compelling commentary on the human condition. Expressionism’s most significant legacy lies in the creation of a pictorial language that amalgamates abstract elements with references to the visible world.