Week 6 / March 6: German Expressionism

An abstract oil on canvas painting by Vasily Kandinsky called Garden of Love II

Vasily Kandinsky (born Russia, worked in Germany and France, 1866 – 1944), Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912, oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

German Expressionism

German Expressionism is a large and varied movement that encompasses many different interesting and innovative artists working in a range of media, including painting, sculpture and printmaking, which was a preferred medium for many German Expressionists.

There are two major groups associated with German Expressionism – the Brücke group and Die Blaue Reiter group. Brücke means ‘bridge’ and Die Blaue Reiter means ‘the blue rider.’ We will focus our discussion of German Expressionism on these two groups.

In the discussion of Fauvism, Matisse and the Fauves are concerned largely with formalism in their study of line, color and pattern to use abstraction as a means of engaging the senses and for visual satisfaction. As you learn about the German Expressionists, you will find that as their formal concerns move increasingly towards abstraction, they share many characteristics with the Fauves, particularly energetic lines and bold abstract colors, while their subject matter is clearly different. We see that their concerns are rooted in the modern, urban world around them with their subjects specifically chosen to convey their deeply held opinions and beliefs about society with their depiction of their subject matter reliant on the ‘expressive’ use and treatment of formal characteristics to make these ideas immediate, urgent and compelling when viewed.

We will discuss the historical context in class, but keep in mind that these movements occur in the first decade of the 20th Century in Germany, which began industrializing after France, and unified into a country from small city-states only in 1871. Nationalism is a concept we must consider. World War I begins in 1914.

Continue your note-taking exercises with all of the essays you will read from the online University of Leicester’s German Expressionist Collection. For each paragraph, pull out the essential terms and concepts and define them in your own words to gather and synthesize this information. Here is the link to the introductory area called the Story of Expressionism:

Read brief introduction Story of Expressionism and read each of the two sub-essays contained within the Story of Expressionism:

  • Introduction to German Expressionism within this area read 2 essays: What is Expressionism? and How did it Begin?
  • Expressionist Groups within this area read 2 essays: Die Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider); and Die Brücke (the Bridge)

You should have a good general understanding of the beginning ideas of this style and time period. Now, read about:

Ernst Kirchner, leading painting of the Brücke group:

Vasily Kandinsky is a major artist associated with the Blaue Reiter.

Notice this is not a painting – it is a group of woodcuts that are put together to illustrate a book of poetry. Woodcut is a printing technique and a type of graphic art.

Look around on this website and explore some of the images and biographies for Kirchner and Kandinsky as well as other members of the Brucke (Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde, etc.) and the Blaue Reiter (Franz Marc) as you wish. Think about how and why woodcuts were an important medium for German Expressionists and how abstraction enabled these artists to express complex ideas.

You will hear references to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in some of this material.

WRITING: Note-taking for the Brücke group and Die Blaue Reiter:

After learning about these two different artist’s groups and their ideas and values, for each group, write out separate short paragraphs or an outline of bullet points explaining what the choice of the name signifies for each group by considering the following:

What does their choice of name indicate is important to the group members? What does ‘the bridge’ motif symbolize? What does the ‘Blue Rider’ motif symbolize? What ideas and concepts do these motifs represent for each group?

What visual characteristics and cultural ideas are important to each group?

Try to explain what each group thought about themselves and their art in relation to the society and culture around them. Do the group names indicate their views of themselves in relation to modern society? Explain how.

Use this document to keep track of your notes and information for each of the two groups: week 7 Germ Expr table

For class next week – summary of the 2 required things to do:

  1. Read and take notes on German Expressionism. 
  2. Complete the note taking exercise about the two major German Expressionist groups. Bring this to class for in-class peer review.

Remember / FYI:

The powerpoint is on Blackboard.