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German Expressionism

1910 to 1940's Germany

German Expressionism - A Stan Klos Website

By Neal McLaughlin

German Expressionism is perhaps the most complex, diverse and saddest movement ever to be included in the history of Modern Art. This movement was not limited strictly to the field of painting: the philosophies and goals touched the lives of every artist whether they were involved in the fields of literature, drama, stage design, dance or film.

Initially, German artists used the idiom "Expressionism" as a means to convey their artistic philosophy and practice. However, the phrase would eventually be applied to represent any approach to art that would demonstrate a distorted reality as well as a depiction of the artist's mental state of being.

By the end of the Second World War German Expressionism would consist of three distinctive and different camps: each with their own philosophies and goals.

The first and perhaps the most influential of these three camps was the "Die Brücke," or The Bridge, as these artists, influenced by Freudian theories, believed that their movement was a bridge towards a better future.

Living and working as a group in the German cities of Dresden and Berlin,
The artisans of The Bridge, initially founded by four students of architecture, concentrated on imitating the styles originally practiced by the art communities of the Middle Ages.

Fritz Bleyl (1880-1966), Ernst Kirchner (1880-1938), Erich Heckel (1883-1970) and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff (1884-1976) the founding fathers of The Bridge dominated the art scene through paintings that depicted the social classes, wealth, German nightlife and the chaos that reigned in their cities.

When it came to philosophies and ideology these expressionists shared identical views. As the term "Expressionists" suggest, the works created by theses artists were renderings of their individual and personal perceptions of their subject. Usually these paintings were done as they had actually been interpreted in the field. The use of unaltered nudes, as well as a variety of other people portrayed in natural surroundings now yet tainted by the industrialization of Germany.

The "Die Brücke", while expressionists in theory, actually had foregone the use of broad lines and multiple layers of strong colors and instead applied their many layers of personally mixed colors. Often times these hues were thinned by petroleum in order to achieve a smoother application and to allow more freedom in their techniques.

These artists were less concerned with the speed and spontaneity associated with expressionism than they were of creating works of art that would challenge and undermine the accepted taste.

When Germany entered World War I many of the expressionists had voluntarily enlisted into the armed forces anxious to experience the affects of war first hand believing that it would greatly influence their artistic ambitions.

Many of them believed that the Great War would actually be the starting point from which many changes to their country's social status would occur, which at that time was in desperate need of a total overhaul.

The Individual artisans affiliated with the school of the Northern Expressionists, although never formally introduced to one another, shared philosophies and ambitions that were actually one and the same

Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Paula Modersohn-Becker (1867-1907) and Christian Rohlfs (1849-1938) subscribed to the theory that their art should be as simplistic and down-to-earth as possible, hence forth, they consciously omitted any demonstrations of personal emotions.

Even as the German Expressionists began to call upon their personal experiences to illustrate the negative aspects of German life in a more symbolic and representational style, artists Nolde and Rohlfs refused to alter their ways. But continued to paint scenes that incorporated many of the German mythological subjects such as gnomes, goblins and other German legendary beasts.

While the Northern Expressionists more or less kept to themselves and maintained their own individuality there is little or no evidence that they had any feelings, good or bad towards the theory and practice of the Die Brüke.
However, the Munich based "Blaue Reiter" unwaveringly and openly cited their disdain and opposition to every principle and ambition of the Die Brüke.

Started by exiled Russian artist Wassilly Kandinsky (1886-1944), and include amongst the ranks: Alexi Jawlensky (1864-1941), Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938) and Vladimir von Berekhteyev, the Blaue Reiter had desired to work hand-in-hand with all of the individual art movements. However, they believed and were insistent that all works of art portray the world as it truly existed. They did, however, permit the artists some leeway in regards to their personal perspectives.

The most perplexing and controversial group of German Expressionists were those of the group formed by August Macke (1887-1914). The Rhenish Expressionists maintained that their thought and ideas were best portrayed through the use of form only.

The only actual link between the individuals of the Rhenish camp were their choices of subject matter and their philosophy. Following The Great War, they truly believed that all people had become merely a collective group of individuals who fell to the mercy of their society and its politics.

At the close of World War I those artists who had enlisted for the sake of the experience had returned; disillusioned, depressed and many were found to be suffering from war-induced depression as well as battle related injuries.

These men, who at one time were of high hopes, had returned to a Germany that was enduring a terrible economic, social and political collapse. Bitter and charged with an abundance of anger the extremist from both wings had unwittingly found themselves united under one crusade: to overthrow the current government.

Their collective anger would soon ignite into a raging inferno when Germany agreed to sign the Versailles Treaty in 1919. This declaration was responsible for pouring salt into unhealed wounds.

Germany was forced not only to endure the humiliation of losing a long and hard fought war; they were now required to relinquish a vast amount of German real estate for the growth of Poland and Czechoslovakia. It was also demanded that Germany is held responsible for enormous amounts of money in post-war compensation and this had undoubtedly crushed the already wavering German economy.

A sense of betrayal permeated all levels of the German society. In response, or retaliation, depending on the point of view, the German people tossed aside all of their traditional values and ideas as the expressionists began a campaign to denounce the corrupt upper-class as well as to depict the despair and struggle of the common man.

Paintings took on a gloomy political theme, showing the dearth that had become a large part of the German's people lives. The once celebrated Expressionists movement had now become a confrontational rebellion, successful in its efforts to stray from what was acceptable and showing urban life as sinister and morbid.

This is not to suggest that that their new philosophy and outlook on life was accepted with open arms. It did in fact meet with strong resistance and outrage. The new subject matters, some bearing resemblance to caricatures and paintings of graceless nudes and figures that depicted the demented, insane and the sinister lead to sort of an anti-rebellion.

Adolph Hitler, outraged by such anti-German publicity embarked upon his own crusade to rid Germany of all the "degenerate" art within his Reich. This attempt to sensor the openly disgruntled expressionists lead to many of them fleeing to the United States.

It was here that they were warmly welcomed and almost immediately a great deal of the German art was assembled in the major cities of New York, St. Louis and Chicago where they found a home in American museums.

Irregardless of the attacks launched against expressionism in 1923, regardless of France's refusal to acknowledge the achievements of the German artists and in spite of Hitler's crusade to rid The Reich of these "degenerates" the contribution of German Expressionism upon the art world cannot be discredited.

Thanks to the Die Brücke and their revival of print making and the Dresden group's ambition with lithography, artists are able to reproduce their renderings at a remarkable rate and a more cost effective method, thus allowing their works to be enjoyed by many more people.

Even today it is possible for the most financially challenged to enjoy the works of many great artists at a very minimum cost. With out the woodcutting art of Die Brücke or the plate making of the Dresden group; imagine the excitement and beauty that would be forever lost!

Research Links


Expressionism: Artists and their Works
... In the mid-20th century, Abstract Expressionism (in which there is no subject at ...
Franz von Stuck, 1863-1928, German Painter/Sculptor, Franz von Stuck: Sin, 1893 ...

... Franz Marc (German,1880-1916 ... is recognized for its influence on cubism and modern
expressionism in its ... artists or use of the images within my art history section ...

LookSmart - Directory - German Expressionism in Film History
... (It's free.). German Expressionism in Film History - Read essays on the monumentally
influential film movement characterized by externalized emotions. ...

German Expressionism
... of German Expressionist Film (1919-1926/33) Another well done essay, dealing more
with the history of the movement than interpreting the films. Expressionism ...

German Expressionism
... together over eighty documents crucial to the understanding of German Expressionism,
many of ... to top) Rose-Carol Washton Long is Professor of Art History at the ...

Gallery Ludorff - Fine Art dealing and consulting - Expressionism ...
... The ones who want to investigate german art history of the 20th ... then his
gallery`s portfolio focused on german impressionism, german expressionism, post ...

History of Expressionism
History of Expressionism. ... The term expressionism was first applied to painting in
1911 ... The most important expressionist group was the German school, originated ...

German Art
... Expressionism See what German Expressionism was all about in 1890s-1920, with
About Art History Guide Andrea Mulder-Slater. Gruenewald ...

History of Art & Architecture: Graduate Program
... The Program concentration in 20th century German Art was established by Donald Gordon
(1969-84), a specialist in the study of German Expressionism and the work ...

Art Periods, Art Movements
... Etruscan Art Etruscan art history resources. Expressionism ... Expressionism. Artlex
Artist Dictionary. ... German Expressionism, a view from an admirer. ...

German Expressionism
... Expressionism, a parallel movement to Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism, is Germany's
first ... 20) may be the most innovative in the history of German culture; it ...

About the Curators
... course primarily for the production aspect, but during the research portion of the
class I really became engrossed with the history of German Expressionism. ...

Powell's Books - Voices of German Expressionism by Victor H Miesel
... Voices of German Expressionism by Victor H Miesel. ... Miesel, Victor H. Publisher: Tate
Gallery Publications Subject: History - Expressionism Subject: History ...

History: Undergraduate Modules: HI136: Seminar Five
... Cinema. P. Coates The Gorgon’s Gaze. German Cinema, Expressionism and the
Image of Horror D. Cook A History of the Narrative Film, ch. ...


New Page 1

German Expressionism is the term used to refer to a number of related creative movements which emerged in Germany before the first world war which reached a peak in Berlin, during the 1920s. Developments in Germany were part of a larger Expressionist movement in north and central European art and culture.

Developments in many media

Expressionism as a movement spanned across many media to include theater, architecture, music, painting and sculpture. Architecture, in particular, serves as an iconic way to bring the inner emotions of the individual into the public sphere, and therefore is most closely tied to the concepts of German Expressionism.[original research?]

The German Expressionist movement in painting started from about 1905 with Die Brücke (The Bridge) group in Berlin, and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich from around 1911.

Drama too was part of the Expressionist movement in Germany, with playwrights like Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller coming under the influence of Frank Wedekind in expanding the range of what could be depicted on stage.

German Expressionist film making (also referred to as Expressionism in filmmaking) is probably the best known part of the movement. During the period of recovery following World War I, the German film industry was booming, but because of the hard economic times filmmakers found it difficult to create movies that could compare with the lush, extravagant features coming from Hollywood. The filmmakers of the German UFA studio developed their own style by using symbolism and mise en scène to add mood and deeper meaning to a movie.


The first Expressionist films, The Golem (1920), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Destiny (1921), Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), Schatten (1923), and The Last Laugh (1924), were highly symbolic and deliberately surrealistic portrayals of filmed stories.

One of the best expressionist actors was Fritz Kortner, who played also in Viennese films and Berlin films. The dada movement was sweeping across the artistic world in the early 1920s, and the various European cultures of the time had embraced an ethic of change, and a willingness to look to the future by experimenting with bold, new ideas and artistic styles. The first Expressionist films made up for a lack of lavish budgets by using set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The plots and stories of the Expressionist films often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal, and other "intellectual" topics (as opposed to standard action-adventure and romantic films); the German name for this type of storytelling was called Kammerspielfilm ("chamber film" in English). Later films often categorized as part of the brief history of German Expressionism include Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), both directed by Fritz Lang.

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)The extreme non-realism of Expressionism was short-lived, and it faded away (along with Dadaism) after only a few years. However, the themes of Expressionism were integrated into later films of the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in an artistic control over the placement of scenery, light, and shadow to enhance the mood of a film. This dark, moody school of filmmaking was brought to America when the Nazis gained power and a number of German filmmakers emigrated to Hollywood. They found a number of American movie studios willing to embrace them, and several German directors and cameramen flourished there, producing a repertoire of Hollywood films that had a profound effect on the medium of film as a whole.[citation needed]

Two genres that were especially influenced by Expressionism were the horror film and film noir. Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios had made a name for themselves by producing such famous horror films of the silent era as Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera. German emigrees such as Karl Freund (the cinematographer for Dracula in 1931) set the style and mood of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s with their dark and artistically designed sets, providing a model for later generations of horror films. Directors such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, and Michael Curtiz introduced the Expressionist style to crime dramas of the 1940s, influencing a further line of film makers and taking Expressionism through the years.

More Recent Films Influenced by German Expressionism

Werner Herzog's 1979 film "Nosferatu the Vampyre" was a tribute F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens". The film uses Expressionist techniques of highly symbolic acting and symbolic events to tell its story[1]. Notably it links the vampire myth with the black death through the use of black rats.

Ambitious adaptations of the style are depicted throughout the contemporary filmography of director Tim Burton. His 1992 film Batman Returns is often cited as a modern attempt to capture the essence of German Expressionism. The angular building designs and severe-looking city squares of Gotham City evoke the loom and menace present in Lang’s Metropolis. One may even notice the link between the evil character of Max Shreck portrayed by Christopher Walken, and Nosferatu's star, Max Schreck.

Burton's influences are most obvious through his fairy tale suburban landscape in Edward Scissorhands . The appearance of the titular Edward Scissorhands none too accidentally reflects the look of Caligari's somnambulist servant. Burton casts a kind of unease in his candy-colored suburb, where the tension is visually unmasked through Edward and his gothic castle perched above the houses. Burton subverts the Caligari nightmare with his own narrative branding, casting the garish “somnambulist” as the hero, and the villagers as the villains.

The familiar look of Caligari's main character can also be seen in the movie The Crow. With the tight, black outfit, white makeup, and darkened eyes, Brandon Lee's character is obviously a close relative to Burton's film Edward Scissorhands.

Burton was also reportedly influenced by silent films and German Expressionism for his film adaptation of the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007 film), he himself described the musical on stage as a "silent film with music".

Other examples
F. W. Murnau's 1927 Hollywood film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Woody Allen's 1992 film, Shadows and Fog, is a pastiche of expressionism, taking cues from several films, such as the plot of M (1931) and the look of Nosferatu.
The 1967 version of the James Bond film Casino Royale had an extended sequence set in an 'expressionist' mansion. Being a spoof, it parodied the practicalites of attempting to climb crooked stairs whilst insane.
The film version of Sin City (2005) is also cited as a return to the style.[2]
The Red Hot Chili Peppers's video for their song Otherside (2000) has elements of the German Expressionist style. It can also be seen in the video Predictable from Good Charlotte and Rob Zombie's music video for Living Dead Girl.
The rock videos within the movie Queen of the Damned by the fictional band "The Vampire Lestat" also share the same German expressionist scenery as Otherside and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The 2000 Metz mixed drink Judderman advertisement was expressly filmed in the style of 1920s German cinematic expressionism.
The film Dr. Caligari (1989) Stephen Sayadian. Modern day neo German Expressionism mixed with classic surrealism.
Thom Yorke has referred to the influence of German Expressionism in the creation of the artwork for his solo work "The Eraser". (
There is also the use of German expressionism in the work of David Lynch, most notably Eraserhead and Lost Highway, both films seemingly bent on insanity created by a lack of being able to cope with adult themes such as fatherhood and infidelity.

Cinema and Architecture
Many critics see a direct tie between cinema and architecture of the time, in the sense that the sets and scene artwork of expressionist films often reveal buildings of sharp angles, great heights, and crowded environments, such as the frequently shown Tower of Babel in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.[citation needed]


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