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An Introduction to Expressionism

Since the end of the 19th century, terms originating from the visual arts are attached to
tendencies, spiritual movements and even the ZEITGEIST. One of the most powerful of
those was and still is "expressionism" which covers a wide range of predominantly artistic
fields: painting and graphics, sculpture, architecture, prose and verse, drama, stage design,
music and, last but not least, film.
The origins of the term "expressionism" are covered in myth.
One is that in 1910 Paul Cassirer was asked about a painting of Max Pechstein: did he still
consider this impressionism? And he supposedly answered 'rather expressionism`. This
phrase was caught by another artist who liked it and consequently it made its way to the
critics and thus into the public life.
More detailed research proves that already in 1850 Tait's Edinburgh Magazine wrote about
an "expressionistic school of modern painting". In 1880 Charles Rowley lectured in
Manchester about, among others, an "expressionistic wing" of contemporary painters. And
in the United States in 1878 Charles de Kay published his novel "The Bohemian" in which
a group of writers appear, who call themselves "expressionists".
However the Anglo-Saxon use of the term "expressionism" does not fit a clearly defined
style of painting nor a specific artistic movement. And neither does the French, who first
used it in a plural version for a 1901 exhibition by the rather obscure painter Julien-Auguste
Herv.
In fact, in its true meaning it first appears connected to a 1911 Berlin exhibition of
BERLINER SEZESSION. To this some French painters like Braque, Dufy, Picasso and de
Vlaminck are invited to present their work and in the catalogue they are labeled
"expressionists". Unfortunately today we don't know who was responsible for this label.
More important however is the question what expressionism in fact is all about. In August
1911 Wilhelm Worringer in the magazine STURM (the most influential magazine of
expressionism) attaches expressionism to those French painters who are the heirs of
Czanne, Van Gogh and Matisse - painters who have broken away from the prevailing style
and aesthetics of "impressionism". This distinction soon becomes generally accepted and
encompasses both French and German artists.
Important is the will, NOT to represent reality any more. Because "imitation can never be
art, may it origin from paintings or nature itself", as Herworth Walden puts it in his preface
to the catalogue of the Autumn Saloon 1913 in Berlin. "The painter paints what he en-
visions in his innermost, the expression of his being ... his inner visions". Whereas Herbert
Khn in 1919 in the magazine DIE NEUE SCHAUBHNE states "impressionism
portrayed its own object. The meaning of a painting was its object. Nothing more. Nothing
less. It was imitation of an outer reality." According to these statements, expressionism is a
reaction against naturalism and its chains and burdens on the individual.
In order to prefer ones owns subjectivity and oppose all faithfulness to concrete reality the
creative individual has to consider two human organs: heart and brain. This is in direct
contrast to impressionism, which is counting on the senses. - One result is abstraction. The
other is an explosion of suppressed violence, which in painting means distorted forms and
grimaces. Or as art critic Wilhelm Hausenstein put it 1919: expressionism is "form born out
of deformation... form born out of imagination".
These widely accepted definitions bring up some new problems: how do we divide much of
ethnic art from expressionism? How the Russian futurists? How the French Fauvism? How
primitivism? Let's leave these questions to the academics and not deal with them at this
point.
Let's instead stress that most of the involved artists, who all more or less belonged to the
German language area, had a kind of common ideal: the willingness to break away from
traditions, to break with the past. This plus an enthusiasm for creative intuition lead to a
kind of desire for change of the prevailing order - be they artistic or political.
These tendencies can be noticed in a whole generation of artists born around 1890. They
cling to magazines talking about revolutions and hopes for a new world. When the term
"expressionism" is finally invented, it only polarizes what already is in existence for much
longer as a state of mind: anger and disgust against triviality and what is called
"soullessness of reality". Franz Marc asks: "the world is giving birth to a new age; there is
only one question: has time already come to cut off ties with the old age?"
We can see that expressionism is not only an artistic, aesthetic style but rather a movement,
closely tied to German history between 1910 and 1925. The country is suffering from
forced industrialization, which led to a collapse of values and this to fragile human
interrelations, frenetic city rhythms and dependences of all kinds. A gap between two
generations is emerging. No wonder the father-son-conflict is so much prevailing in
expressionistic drama! Antagonism against all kinds of authorities is developing: family,
teachers, army, the Kaiser himself. Not astonishing, some of the artists were attracted by
anarchism, others by Friedrich Nietzsche. Instead, solidarity with fringe and minority
groups is sought: the impoverished, the suppressed ones, prostitutes, insane, youth. Since
the cataclysm of WWI pacifism prevails for a time before some of the artists engage in
active politics as revolutionaries and/or socialists.
Obviously not all expressionists agreed with Yvan Goll who in 1921 called expressionism
"the poetry of war and revolution". But there is no denying that the revolutionary defeat
accelerated the dissolve of the movement. The dream of a new, better age is over. The final
blow to an already crisis-laden movement is dealt by the economic crisis in post-war
Germany when the solidarity between artists and masses cracks in famine, unemployment
and general misery. A new era starts: back to order. In literature and painting we call it
"New Realism" (Neue Sachlichkeit).
But expressionism didn't die in one day. Especially in film (scripts by Carl Mayer) and
theatre (under direction of Leopold Jessner) it lingered on. And in some of the later works
of some artists the expressionistic fire can still be detected, like in Schnberg's composition
MOSES AND AARON of 1932. And even though it mainly was a German movement,
traces are to be found in many countries, including Hungary, The Netherlands, Belgium,
France and Latin America. Even after 1945 influences can be found in the Dutch group
COBRA, American Jackson Pollock or Danish Asger Jrn, to name just a few.
After this more general outline, a few more words to the different artistic areas in which
expressionism happened.
Painting and Graphics

Many aspects of this area have already been mentioned before. It seems important to
mention that artists' groups played a vital role:
In 1905 at the Salon d'Automne in Paris an exhibition showed art by Matisse, de Vlaminck,
Dufy, Kandinsky and Jawlensky etc for which the term "les FAUVES" (The Wild Ones)
was coined. At the same time students of architecture in Dresden formed the artist's group
BRCKE (The Bridge) which based their work on the same names as the French: Seurat,
Gauguin and Van Gogh.
The FAUVES were no group in a strict sense as it was no "school" with a binding aesthetic
program but rather individualistic. Braque for example joined in 1906 but left already in
1908. Despite aiming for individual emotion and sensitivity, their paintings mainly showed
landscape, people and objects of every-day-life.
The BRCKE members did not reside in one place like the FAUVES group and had other
specific Germanic influences like James Ensor, Edvard Munch and Paula Modersohn-
Becker, in dealing with Jugendstil and natural lyricism. Members were Emil Nolde, Ernst
Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmitt-Rottluff etc.
1911 a short-lived group called DER BLAUE REITER (The Blue Horseman) was formed
in Munich, consisting of Kandinsky, Marc and Mnter etc. It held only two exhibitions
before dissolving on which even Klee, Kubin, Arp and Malewitsch etc were represented.
Italy added the FUTURISTS to contemporary painting who considered the antique art in
museums as "graveyards" but at the same time demanded by right of tradition a superior
position in the arts world. Art thereby became a political question.
Even Russia added to expressionism since 1906 with a group called "The Sky Blue Rose"
which worked in close collaboration with western artists.
As mentioned before, WWI changed a lot of attitudes. For a younger generation of painters
like Otto Dix and George Grosz expressionism was just a transitional stage in their artistic
development.

Sculpture

Modern sculpture developed much slower than painting, mostly because of economic
reasons like lack of commissioned work or high prices for material. It was only with the
Russian and the German revolutions that the question of integration of sculpture into social
life was raised, mainly by the NOVEMBERGRUPPE of which Emy Roeder and Matar
were most prominent.
In general, sculptors tied to expressionism were pretty rare. This looks strange as both arts
despise imitation of nature. Instead, dynamics, movement and rhythm prevail from now on.
But hardly any of the famous sculptors of the time like Archipenko, Lehmbruck, Rodin and
Barlach can be labeled "expressionists".
Architecture

Quite naturally architecture didn't stay aside when around 1910 all artistic conventions were
questioned. With its social impetus included in the better-age vision, town planning
becomes a thrilling new aspect in artistic life.
Hitherto since industrialization, towns had grown more or less anarchic with people living
in cramped and pretty much unhygienic conditions. Now steel, glass and armored concrete
seem to provide new means of solving these problems.
Though fractured into many groups, the new generation of architects opposes to the
dominant JUGENSTIL with its decorations and aims towards more functional solutions.
Already in 1898 Englishman Ebenezer Howard had proposed garden-cities to re-establish
harmony between men and nature. Now Walter Gropius and young Le Corbusier aim at
using the new building material for new purposes.
As many of the architects are socially aware, they join political groups. Their favorite
buildings are factories, hospitals, workers accommodations and theatres. A synthesis of
different arts, cooperation with the masses and a "master" whose inner visions are followed
are true proofs of expressionism.
Like in the other arts, architectural expressionism vanishes after the defeat of revolution
when a new "back to reality"-order starts prevailing. Architects who actually intended to
build had to adept and sacrifice part of their fantasies, while others who stayed purists only
had their plans and drawings.

Music

Of all arts discipline, music is most problematic to include into expressionism. Once
because it lacks a clearly defined language and second because it always strives after
expression so that it is only a question of how much so. No composer ever called himself
expressionist. Arnold Schnberg, Anton von Webern, Alban Berg and Paul Hindemith
rather stand for a movement trying to break away from programmatic music.
Already by the end of the 19th century Debussy introduced dissonant chords and Richard
Strauss tried to reach the limits of tonality. But it was around 1910 when Schnberg broke
the chains of the tonal system, the traditional law of harmony. Composers expressed their
spontaneous feelings, thus interrupting the constant flow of their compositions and thus
obviously leading to musical anarchy. Adorno called expressionistic music a precise
seismographic registration of a traumatic shock.
Quite naturally expressionism focused on the opera as GESAMTKUNSTWERK -
combining music, ballet, mimics, costumes and words and thus since Wagner being mirror
and center. Most famous is Alban Berg's WOZZECK of 1925. But even ballet itself
changed by breaking from traditional rules and concentrating on the expression of the self
via emotions in mimics and movements, the beginning of modern ballet.
Poetry and prose

At first expressionism was considered to be a reaction against naturalism, neo-romanticism


and Jugendstil. A writer should not re-act to impressions but act - he should be an "auteur
engag". And he or she should write in a condensed, short style and leave the rules of Syn-
tax as far behind as possible.
Most important predecessors to expressionistic poetry were the Italian futurists, especially
Marinetti's manifesto of 1909, which demanded highest possible accentuation of
substantives, few adjectives and verbs unconjugated in the infinitive form. These techniques
were generally accepted until the time of the Dadaists when they still influenced Kurt
Schwitters and Richard Hlsenbeck. Even Alfred Dblin in his novels until 1924 uses
Marinetti's techniques of adding substantives and verbs in long chains, uninterrupted by
comma.
Other poets like Georg Heym and Georg Trakl thought themselves more in line with
Rimbeaud than Marinetti and still others like Gottfried Benn, Johannes R. Becher and Franz
Werfel sought their own style and found it in different ways.
The spectrum of expressionistic style in prose is all encompassing - even including Franz
Kafka who belongs here despite his rather conventional use of grammar.
The main topic of expressionism in writing is the idea of the new human being.
Interestingly, this topic can already be found in the 5 prophets as they were called, the 5
main philosophers who strongly influenced expressionism: Jesus Christ, Charles Darwin,
Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Where the constant question was: how
can mankind be saved and rescued (if at all), these 5 offered viable solutions, different as
they were from each other. And the writers felt like reformers, as kind of messiahs: shaking,
shocking and waking humankind to the dangers of tomorrow, trying to help them.
As an anecdote in history it is perhaps worth mentioning that some people tried to save
expressionistic literature under the Nazi rule, stressing that it was a true German art
discipline. However, it was condemned as "degenerate art" as well.

Drama

Like in some other disciplines of art mentioned earlier, there has been much discussion if
there existed indeed something called expressionistic drama: too many aesthetic and
individual styles have been involved, too many authors. All of them left expressionism after
some time, and whereas some became communists, others became ardent Nazis.
But despite so many differences, there are striking similarities as well. The conflict between
the generations as topic especially in early expressionistic drama has already been
mentioned, as well as the pacifist mood under the impression of WWI. Suicide is a common
tool in solving the dramaturgy. The scream against prevailing social conditions is a
common aesthetic element uniting most writers. As is reduction in the form of subjectivity:
the author well isolated from reality, encapsulated in himself. In contrast, there is a rapid
change of locations as expressionistic drama is developed in scenes, not in dialogue: the
visual is predominant, not the intellectual.
Foremost artists to be mentioned here are Bert Brecht, Georg Kaiser, Carl Sternheim, Ernst
Toller and Frank Wedekind.

Stage Art

Under stage art here is included mis-en-scne or director, actor, lighting, backdrops and
settings.
Expressionism in stage art seems to be a state of mind, born out of anxiety and leading to
revolt. Where naturalism has been simply a blueprint of outer reality, expressionism retreats
into inner visions, thoughts and dreams. Thus it is a cultural upheaval, a true social crisis
felt like a strong earthquake.
The most influential result of expressionism on stage is the strengthening of the importance
of the director who changes and modifies a play according to his visions and his individual
subjectivity. He can do so because he understands the intentions of the authors and as an
artist he is capable of bringing them into light on stage as best as possible. In order to
achieve this the director has to concentrate on the central idea of the play - which in turn
leads to a kind of symbolism and even abstraction. As well as de-naturalization of the stage.
(Leopold Jessner)
Equally important is the actor who does not play a traditional role any more but expresses a
state of mind by way of words, minimal gestures and abandoned movements. (Fritz
Kortner, Werner Krauss)
Backdrops and settings heavily demand de-naturalization of the stage. This was done by
way of "wrong perspectives", distorted elements and asymmetry. Horizontal lines were
replaced by sloping ones. In short: all the techniques so well known from the film DAS
CABINET DES DR CALIGARI. Often walls were used to reflect the encapsulation of the
individual but with a door or window as a symbol for the freedom of thought to pass
through it. In the extreme, the stage was so de-naturalized that it appeared naked: black or
simply with black curtains to leave space for the imagination of the audience and a spotlight
following the actors.
Lighting in general was not meant as decoration but as interpretation. Thus spotlights
change with shadows or even darkness, partial lighting is preferred to illumination and
strong contrast is highly desirable.

Film

The expressionistic tendency to deal with inner visions proved immensely popular in
Germany where the "deep and fearful concern with the foundations of the self" (as Siegfried
Kracauer puts it) joined an underlying current in German literature since the Middle Ages
occupied with the notion of the Doppelgnger ("double) as is most clear in the case of Dr
Faustus. The result was a "haunted screen" as Lotte Eisner puts it. Its terrors were those of
morbid psychological states and troubled dreams.
When film for the first time transgressed beyond the boundaries of theatre it was in
Scandinavia where in a rather symbolic way real nature was used as backdrop for fitting
psychic atmosphere. Or to put it even stronger: landscape became the lead "actor" by
providing expressive images. Particularly Mauritz Stiller's HERR ARNES PENGAR of 1919 is
worth mentioning today.
Usually DAS CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI is considered the first truly expressionistic film. In it
an insane tells another insane a story about a medium used for criminal acts. The painted
backdrops show distorted forms and shapes, lines are sloping, and the make-up of the actors
stresses triangles. These techniques are directly taken from painting and theatre. All this to
express mood and intentions of the protagonists.
This kind of expressionism however lead into a dead end street as distorted backdrops
proved ridiculous in other films than those dealing with insanity. Strictly speaking not more
than 10 of such films were ever made and some critics suggest calling this kind of films for
"caligarism": expressionistic painting used in film.
Instead artists like Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau and Paul Leni, together with scriptwriters Carl
Mayer and scriptwriter/director Henrik Galeen created truly expressionistic films by
substituting painting with architecture and thus giving room and space and volume to the
moving image. Paul Wegener's second version of GOLEM 1920 uses lighting and shadows to
create spatial deepness and stresses architectural proportions as does Fritz Lang 1924 with
the magic forest in NIBELUNGEN. In DER MDE TOD (Destiny) by Murnau 1921 sharp edges
and polished surfaces substitute the clay-shaped objects of GOLEM.
Though neither Wegener nor Lang ever considered themselves expressionists, their films
are journeys to the end of the unconsciousness, portraying states of mind by way of
symbolic landscapes, which are so individual that they had to be artificially constructed in
the studio. The locations or rather their set-ups express the lingering drama. This is true of
so different films as DAS WACHSFIGURENKABINETT by Paul Leni 1924, the high-tide mark of
fantasy and dreamlike decorations, as of FAUST by Murnau 1926 in which the metaphysical
implications are reached by spatial design. But it is with DER STUDENT VON PRAG by Galeen
1929 that symbolic, mystical expressionism reaches its end.
What follows is more a kind of "theoretical realism" as Jean Mitry calls it, influenced by the
Kammerspiel films in which Faustic Lucifer is followed by Frank Wedekind`s earthly
spirits. These films are realistic in their topics, symbolic in their intentions and
expressionistic in their formal device - montage triumphs over dark/bright lighting. The
roads, the nocturnal streets of the cities become dark temptations, not to find the self but
something different - and humans end in despair and misery. Most convincing of all did
Murnau direct DER LETZTE MANN (The Last Laugh) 1924. Though the plot follows narrative
convention, it is mainly condensed into an arrangement of objects loaded with meaning.
Social realism is discernible but in a symbolical way. The film deals with a social problem,
but more in a psychological than social/political way. The problem itself is portrayed in a
symbolical way, not as an objective reality. Thus Murnau captures a stylized reality instead
of using pre-fabricated symbols. The last truly expressionistic film avoids the traps so many
others were caught in: instead of starting off from literature and meanings Murnau starts off
from film and things. DER LETZTE MANN was the technically most innovative film to come
out of Weimar - far, far away from the stagy concept of CALIGARI.
Conclusion

After this tour de force through a whole artistic era maybe much of what I postulated earlier
has become more concrete:

Expressionism is born out of an eruptive change in society leading to fear and anxiety and
hopes within the minds of artists concerned. Either by way of stylizing, sometimes to the
extreme of pure abstract shapes, or by way of using new materials with inherent new
techniques, these artists break completely with the traditions of the past and all reality - they
follow their inner visions and fears and dreams by expressing them. Though pacifistic in
intention for a short time under the direct impression of WWI, the break with traditions
leads generally to a more revolutionary approach to life and consequently to a social and
socialist political concern - awaiting the era of the new man. When the revolutionary hopes
vanish, expressionism fades away to be substituted to new styles more in line with the poli-
tical "back to order".
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