The early part of the twentieth century saw a surge of creative output among German artists working in an expressionist vein. In contrast to the work of the late–nineteenth century Impressionists, the Expressionists used figural distortion, inspired by their interpretation of African, Oceanic, and pre-Columbian sources, bright colors, and crudely executed compositions to make their statements. Today, many artists are associated with the Expressionists, most importantly Die Brücke (The Bridge) group, formed by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Fritz Bleyl with later additions of Emil Nolde, Otto Mueller, and Max Pechstein, and the looser association of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) artists Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. But the net can be cast much wider than this and has come to include Käthe Kollwitz, Paul Klee, Leo Meidner, Oskar Kokoschka, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Max Beckmann, and others. In the early years, these artists were characterized by their youth, their rejection of the status quo, the dramatic impact of their use of brilliant color and exaggerated gesture, and their unusual embracing of print media, from woodcut to lithography to etching.
Kirchner, in Die Brücke’s Manifesto, saw this as a movement for the young and optimistic: “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 directness and authenticity conveys that which drives him to creation, belongs to us.” Throughout Europe, this was the heyday of anarchism as well as an era ripe with technological advances. Coupled with the nineteenth-century interest in craftsmanship and the independence of the worker to create art that was self-satisfying, not pandering to the art market, this movement was deeply embedded in German tradition. Though it might seem ironic that these artists looked to Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts and to the lithographs of Bavarian Alois Senefelder—the inventor of lithography—for inspiration, the connection with German Volk tradition, and its strong nationalist influence, gives perspective to the seeming dichotomy of their interests during these volatile years.
As the early twentieth century unfolded, an anxiety and wariness seeped into everyday life, reflecting the growing international power struggle between Britain, Russia, and Germany. Artists were among the first to react, choosing a garish palette and articulated frenzy to create compelling images urging their generation to freedom and optimism. And, by expressing themselves through print media, they were able to expand their audience. The work of Die Brücke, so named as a hopeful bridge to the future, was rejected by critics, who saw only the primitivism and the distortions and equated them with anger and dissatisfaction. Lyonel Feininger attempted to explain the positive purpose of their work in a letter to publisher Paul Westheim: “Every single work must be understood as the expression of our most intimate spiritual condition at the special and specific and inescapable moment of release through an act of artistic creation. This is mirrored in the rhythm, the form, the colors and the atmosphere of the picture.”
Prior to World War I, German Expressionism was mainly an artistic movement, but the war and its devastating aftereffects gave rise to a more strongly political agenda and postwar expressionist art described the collapse of German society. Most of these artists served in the war and were deeply affected by it. They returned from the front to document their experiences, creating powerful images that captured not only the devastation of war but also the desolation that followed.
In 1970, the A. D. White Museum at Cornell, predecessor to the Johnson Museum, held the first show dedicated solely to the work of Die Brücke in this country. Forty-two years later, the Johnson Museum’s collection has expanded to include many works by the artists associated with this group and Der Blaue Reiter. Numbering over one hundred works, the Museum’s collection of German Expressionist art is frequently used for exhibition, teaching, and research by a wide range of faculty and students.
We are delighted to be able to highlight in this exhibition a significant group of paintings, drawings, and prints, generously lent to us from a private collection. These works help provide a fuller picture of this complex and highly emotional movement that even in the early years of the twenty-first century continue to make strong connections with audiences.
Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs