Whoever renders directly and authentically that which impels him to create is one of us. So began the manifesto of the German movement Die Brücke, condensing to a single line the core essence of the Expressionist philosophy: to produce art of the emotions, of frankness and intensity of feeling, and of the deeply personal and spiritual.

‘Die Bettler’, woodcut – Heinrich Campendonck

Emerging and evolving throughout the early 1900s right up to the interwar period and Hitler’s eventual ascent to power, German Expressionism was born on a wave of resistance and reaction. Its members renounced the traditional values held in art institutions and society at large, and sought to establish an avant-garde movement that would cut a swathe through those elements of contemporary culture they saw as most destructive and damaging: the rise of the urban landscape and its mechanised industrialisation; the austerity and prudishness of state-sponsored art and religion; and, above all, the predominance of conventional representation in art and the ideology of realism.

woodcut – Erich Heckel

Though by the later years of Expressionism’s chronology it had come to encompass the work of a number of distinct groups, individual artists, and stylistic schisms, its birth is generally traced to that of two major movements: Die Brücke (‘The Bridge’) first convened in Dresden in 1905 and figure-headed by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff; and later, in 1911, Der Blaue Reiter, formed in Munich by Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and the young Paul Klee.

‘Anbetung’ (‘The Adoration’), woodcut – Georg Alexander Mathéy

Both groups traced back their key themes to the Sturm und Drang literature of the late 1700s and the Romantic movement that soon followed it. In Romanticism, the all-important primacy of the individual and the spiritual power of the natural world were set against the proprieties of Church and State, a struggle Die Brücke and Der Blau Reiter readily took up. Their members would retreat to the Bavarian Alps, depicting themselves in harmony with their uncorrupted surroundings as they bathed in lakes or lay naked on hillsides like old-world peasant shepherds.

Though the cityscape – particularly that of Berlin – offered vibrant colour, promiscuity, and the sordid allure of sex, drink, and dancing, in the midst of Germany’s accelerated industrialisation urban life seemed noxious and alienating. Life in the city was intoxicating, in the most literal sense of the word; nature, by contrast, was pure, physically and spiritually. Through the symbolism of each movement’s name – the ‘Bridge’ and the ‘Blue Rider’ – the Expressionists sought a brighter future: a crossing to a better land; a lone horseman leaving society behind.

‘Grosse Auferstehung’, woodcut – Wassily Kandinsky

At its core, Expressionism was concerned with emotion and the individual experience in opposition to accurate, literal, realistic representation. Confronted with a landscape or a portrait, Expressionist artists sought to depict their experience of and response to the subject more-so than the subject itself, holding a mirror to the soul rather than the source of the illustration. Their art came from within, and to express this more abstract, visualised approach they naturally turned to more abstract forms of expression.

In colour, they joined the Fauvists in using rich, primal, often clashing tones to elicit a more base emotional response from the viewer. In form, subjects were exaggerated, simplified, and emboldened in designs that took inspiration from unusual sources, such as African and Oceanic folk art. And in subject matter, they sought imagery that would tap into and reflect our unrefined human element, our hopes, fears, feelings and desires wrought out in stylised rural landscapes, portraiture, in nudes both sensual and innocent, and in religious iconography.

‘Der Hirte’, woodcut with hand colouring – Richard Seewald 

Among the many techniques and processes employed within German Expressionism – painting in oils, etching, lithography, drypoint – perhaps their most iconic remain their woodcuts. Preferred especially by Kandinsky and the Brücke group, the woodcut offered a medium that in every element of its production reflected the ethos of the Expressionist movement. Images produced in wood had to be forcibly excised from the tough surface of the block, echoing the artist’s extraction and expression of his inner emotional response.

With a natural grain that lent the printed impression a visible texture and often limited artists to a more simple, dynamic composition, woodcuts forced the printmaker to make the very most of the carved block. The resulting images retain a natural, rough hewn intensity due in great part to the limitations of the material. Their stark quality would often negate the need for colour, relying purely on the strength of compositional elements and highly contrasting black and white forms.

‘Businessman’, woodcut – Franz Masereel

Though the German Expressionist movements were born of an essentially optimistic ideal, a desire to revitalise the stale world of art academies and the bourgeoisie and offer a spiritual balance to the sight of mechanised factories, their experiences of the First World War and the subsequent economic and political turmoil forced an inevitable redirection in their art. With many young artists having actively participated in the war, either drafted to the frontline or as medical orderlies tending the horrifically wounded, the imagery of the war left an indelible mark on their art.

‘Tröstung’ (‘Consolation’), lithograph – Georg Ehrlich

Depictions of the conflict turned gas attacks and machine-gunned victims into troops of nightmarish ghouls and grim reaper skeletons heralding a coming apocalypse. Death becomes a dominating figure, both as wartime undertaker and as postwar political allegory, embodying the unthinking generals who sent millions of young men to their graves and the corrupt politicians who exploited the unrest that followed. Artists such as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, and especially George Grosz took the visceral, emotional energy of Expressionism and adapted it to this new social narrative through anti-establishment posters, print suites, and satirical caricatures at a time when politicians and the judiciary were increasingly eager to silence their commentary.

‘Schönheit, dich will ich preisen’, offset lithograph – George Grosz

It is difficult to escape the stifling grasp of many of these wartime works, and indeed a number of the most iconic have become almost emblematic of German Expressionism as the movement’s most remembered images.

Yet at its roots, and what paved the way for the anger and cynicism that became so vital a cause in Germany’s postwar social disintegration, were the founding principles of the early Expressionists: art that championed strength as much as solace, sexuality as much as spirituality, the purity of nature and the imperfect beauty of the human condition, and that would defy the rigid mores of a highly conservative society. It was, in hindsight, a remarkably modern and liberal vision, and one that seems increasingly relevant to today’s unstable world.

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