The term ``Expressionism'' can be used to describe various art forms but, in its broadest sense, it is used to describe any art that raises subjective feelings above objective observations. The paintings aim to reflect the artists's state of mind rather than the reality of the external world. The German Expressionist movement began in 1905 with artists such as Kirchner and Nolde, who favored the Fauvist style of bright colors but also added stronger linear effects and harsher outlines.
Although Expressionism developed a distinctly German character, the Frenchman, Georges Rouault (1871-1958), links the decorative effects of Fauvism in France with the symbolic color of German Expressionism. Rouault trained with Matisse at Moreau's academy and exhibited with the Fauves, but his palette of colors and profound subject matter place him as an early, if isolated Expressionist. His work has been described as ``Fauvism with dark glasses''.
Rouault was a deeply religious man and some consider him the greatest religious artist of the 20th century. He began his career apprenticed to a stained-glass worker, and his love of harsh, binding outlines containing a radiance of color gives poignancy to his paintings of whores and fools. He himself does not judge them, though the terrible compassion with which he shows his wretched figures makes a powerful impression: Prostitute at Her Mirror (1906; 70 x 60 cm (27 1/2 x 23 1/2 in)) is a savage indictment of human cruelty. She is a travesty of feminity, although poverty drives her still to prink miserably before her mirror in the hope of work. Yet the picture does not depress, but holds out hope of redemption. Strangely enough, this work is for Rouault-- if not exactly a religious picture-- at least a profoundly moral one. She is a sad female version of his tortured Christs, a figure mocked and scorned, held in disrepute.
The artists of Die Brücke drew inspiration from van Gogh, Gauguin and primitive art. Munch was also a strong influence, having exhibited his art in Berlin from 1892. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), the leading spirit of Die Brücke, wanted German art to be a bridge to the future. He insisted that the group, which included Erich Heckel (1883-1970) and Karl Schmidt-Rottluf (1884-1976), ``express inner convictions... with sincerity and spontaneity''.
Even at their wildest, the Fauves had retained a sense of harmony and design, but Die Brücke abandoned such restraint. They used images of the modern city to convey a hostile, alienating world, with distorted figures and colors. Kirchner does just this in Berlin Street Scene (1913; 121 x 95 cm (47 1/2 x 37 1/2 in)), where the shrill colors and jagged hysteria of his own vision flash forth uneasily. There is a powerful sense of violence, contained with difficulty, in much of their art. Emil Nolde (1867-1956), briefly associated with Die Brücke, was a more profound Expressionist who worked in isolation for much of his career. His interest in primitive art and sensual color led him to paint some remarkable pictures with dynamic energy, simple rhythms, and visual tension. He could even illuminate the marshes of his native Germany with dramatic clashes of stunning color. Yet Early Evening (1916; 74 x 101 cm (29 x 39 1/2 in)) is not mere drama: light glimmers over the distance with an exhilarating sense of space.
Die Brücke collapsed as the inner convictions of each artist began to differ, but arguably the greatest German artist of the time was Max Beckmann (1884-1950). Working independently, he constructed his own bridge, to link the objective truthfulness of great artists of the past with his own subjective emotions. Like some other Expressionists, he served in World War I and suffered unbearable depression and hallucinations as a result. His work reflects his stress through its sheer intensity: cruel, brutal images are held still by solid colors and flat, heavy shapes to give an almost timeless quality. Such an unshakeable certainty of vision meant that he was hated by the Nazis, and he ended his days in the United States, a lonely force for good. He is perhaps just discernible as a descendant of Dürer in his love of self-portraits and blend of the clumsy and suave with which he imagines himself: in Self-Portrait (1944; 95 x 60 cm (37 1/2 x 23 1/2 in)), he looks out, not at himself, but at us, with a prophetic urgency.
Thanks to the BMW Foundation, the WebMuseum mirrors, partners and contributors for their support.