The start of the twentieth century saw great changes within art. The Great War had broken apart countries, communities and human bodies. For the artistic community wholeness could only come about through modernity. Expressionism was the first major artistic movement after the war which gave artists the means by which to explore and interpret that modernity. Expressionism, by its very nature, did not create or follow a single message other than a desire to seek the wholeness of the German soul. Expressionism explored the emotional experience of life and death.
Expressionism was a modernist movement that started initially in poetry and painting. The Expressionists artists sought to to present the world from a subjective perspective but a perspective that was distorted and twisted to heighten the emotional response. Meaning was to be found through the emotional experience rather than the physical reality of seeing or hearing a piece of art.
Expressionism had started to develop before the Great War but it was the horrors of that war which saw the art form flourish as many artists across Europe, but predominantly in Germany and Austria, sought to make sense of what had just happened.
The German Expressionist art movement started around 1905 when a group of four German artists, led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, formed Die Brücke in Dresden. This was followed in 1911 by a group that formed Der Blaue Reiter in Munich. The name was inspired by Wassily Kandinsky’s painting Der Blaue Reiter. Artists such as Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Auguste Macke and Franz Marc gravitated together as they moved, artistically away from impressionism. Feeling constrained by the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and the growth of cities, these artists rejected realism and sough an emotional response to the machine age.
Expressionist painters sought the subjective interpretations and emotions of their artistic subjects. Emotional reaction was as important as the aesthetic image produced. Kandinsky, one of the major Expressionists artists, worked with simple shapes and colours to allow the viewer to experience the emotions of paintings. The movement also shaped dance with proponents such as Anita Berber, Rudolf von Laban, and Pina Bausch.Emotion was key and dancers would use dramatic poses and deliberately wild movements to generate the response of the audience. Dances would subvert traditional such that a ballet piece would be danced in a bizarre costume with deliberately non graceful movements.
German cinema was hugely influenced by Expressionism. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922) all used the new techniques with lighting and props. Shadow and light were used to convey heightened mood and props that were ‘obvious’ used perspectives that jarred causing the viewer to questions what they saw. Filming used camera shots at different angles removing any sense of normality leaving viewers no alternative but to immerse themselves in the unreal world presented to them on the screen. This use of lighting and props carried over into the theatre where it was accompanied by bare stage sets and dialogue that was sparse in content and declaimed in heightened tones. Characters were mythic and action was symbolic. Theatre audiences could not relax the only response available was emotional not cerebral.
Expressionism also influenced architecture. Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany and Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion of the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition being two of the greatest examples. Architecture was an interesting medium in which to find Expressionism as the fleeting emotional nature of the art was difficult to render into the permanence of a built structure. Equally it could be argued that the prime function of a building is emotional as it is what houses human life.
Expressionism like all artistic movement was not static and soon evolved into many forms. By the late 1920’s in Germany Dadaism and Neue Sachlichkeit were challenging Expressionism in the artistic world. Expressionism and the art forms that followed it were hated and labelled degenerate by the Nazis and many artists fled then Hitler came to power. However, the art of the Expressionists inspired others around the world and continue to do so to this day.