Expressionism Essays

A new vanguard emerged in the early 1940s, primarily in New York, where a small group of loosely affiliated artists created a stylistically diverse body of work that introduced radical new directions in art—and shifted the art world’s focus. Never a formal association, the artists known as “Abstract Expressionists” or “The New York School” did, however, share some common assumptions. Among others, artists such as Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), Franz Kline (1910–1962), Lee Krasner (1908–1984), Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), William Baziotes (1912–1963), Mark Rothko (1903–1970), Barnett Newman (1905–1970), Adolph Gottlieb (1903–1974), Richard Pousette-Dart (1916–1992), and Clyfford Still (1904–1980) advanced audacious formal inventions in a search for significant content. Breaking away from accepted conventions in both technique and subject matter, the artists made monumentally scaled works that stood as reflections of their individual psyches—and in doing so, attempted to tap into universal inner sources. These artists valued spontaneity and improvisation, and they accorded the highest importance to process. Their work resists stylistic categorization, but it can be clustered around two basic inclinations: an emphasis on dynamic, energetic gesture, in contrast to a reflective, cerebral focus on more open fields of color. In either case, the imagery was primarily abstract. Even when depicting images based on visual realities, the Abstract Expressionists favored a highly abstracted mode.

Context
Abstract Expressionism developed in the context of diverse, overlapping sources and inspirations. Many of the young artists had made their start in the 1930s. The Great Depression yielded two popular art movements, Regionalism and Social Realism, neither of which satisfied this group of artists’ desire to find a content rich with meaning and redolent of social responsibility, yet free of provincialism and explicit politics. The Great Depression also spurred the development of government relief programs, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a jobs program for unemployed Americans in which many of the group participated, and which allowed so many artists to establish a career path.

But it was the exposure to and assimilation of European modernism that set the stage for the most advanced American art. There were several venues in New York for seeing avant-garde art from Europe. The Museum of Modern Art had opened in 1929, and there artists saw a rapidly growing collection acquired by director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. They were also exposed to groundbreaking temporary exhibitions of new work, including Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936–37), and retrospectives of Matisse, Léger, and Picasso, among others. Another forum for viewing the most advanced art was Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art, which was housed at New York University from 1927 to 1943. There the Abstract Expressionists saw the work of Mondrian, Gabo, El Lissitzky, and others. The forerunner of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—the Museum of Non-Objective Painting—opened in 1939. Even prior to that date, its collection of Kandinskys had been publicly exhibited several times. The lessons of European modernism were also disseminated through teaching. The German expatriate Hans Hofmann (1880–1966) became the most influential teacher of modern art in the United States, and his impact reached both artists and critics.

The crisis of war and its aftermath are key to understanding the concerns of the Abstract Expressionists. These young artists, troubled by man’s dark side and anxiously aware of human irrationality and vulnerability, wanted to express their concerns in a new art of meaning and substance. Direct contact with European artists increased as a result of World War II, which caused so many—including Dalí, Ernst, Masson, Breton, Mondrian, and Léger—to seek refuge in the U.S. The Surrealists opened up new possibilities with their emphasis on tapping the unconscious. One Surrealist device for breaking free of the conscious mind was psychic automatism—in which automatic gesture and improvisation gain free rein.

Early Work
Early on, the Abstract Expressionists, in seeking a timeless and powerful subject matter, turned to primitive myth and archaic art for inspiration. Rothko, Pollock, Motherwell, Gottlieb, Newman, and Baziotes all looked to ancient or primitive cultures for expression. Their early works feature pictographic and biomorphic elements transformed into personal code. Jungian psychology was compelling, too, in its assertion of the collective unconscious. Directness of expression was paramount, best achieved through lack of premeditation. In a famous letter to the New York Times (June 1943), Gottlieb and Rothko, with the assistance of Newman, wrote: “To us, art is an adventure into an unknown world of the imagination which is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is critical.”

Mature Abstract Expressionism: Gesture
In 1947, Pollock developed a radical new technique, pouring and dripping thinned paint onto raw canvas laid on the ground (instead of traditional methods of painting in which pigment is applied by brush to primed, stretched canvas positioned on an easel). The paintings were entirely nonobjective. In their subject matter (or seeming lack of one), scale (huge), and technique (no brush, no stretcher bars, no easel), the works were shocking to many viewers. De Kooning, too, was developing his own version of a highly charged, gestural style, alternating between abstract work and powerful iconic figurative images. Other colleagues, including Krasner and Kline, were equally engaged in creating an art of dynamic gesture in which every inch of a picture is fully charged. For Abstract Expressionists, the authenticity or value of a work lay in its directness and immediacy of expression. A painting is meant to be a revelation of the artist’s authentic identity. The gesture, the artist’s “signature,” is evidence of the actual process of the work’s creation. It is in reference to this aspect of the work that critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term “action painting” in 1952: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”

Mature Abstract Expressionism: Color Field
Another path lay in the expressive potential of color. Rothko, Newman, and Still, for instance, created art based on simplified, large-format, color-dominated fields. The impulse was, in general, reflective and cerebral, with pictorial means simplified in order to create a kind of elemental impact. Rothko and Newman, among others, spoke of a goal to achieve the “sublime” rather than the “beautiful,” harkening back to Edmund Burke in a drive for the grand, heroic vision in opposition to a calming or comforting effect. Newman described his reductivism as one means of “freeing ourselves of the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend … freeing ourselves from the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, and myth that have been the devices of Western European painting.” For Rothko, his glowing, soft-edged rectangles of luminescent color should provoke in viewers a quasi-religious experience, even eliciting tears. As with Pollock and the others, scale contributed to the meaning. For the time, the works were vast in scale. And they were meant to be seen in relatively close environments, so that the viewer was virtually enveloped by the experience of confronting the work. Rothko said, “I paint big to be intimate.” The notion is toward the personal (authentic expression of the individual) rather than the grandiose.

The Aftermath
The first generation of Abstract Expressionism flourished between 1943 and the mid-1950s. The movement effectively shifted the art world’s focus from Europe (specifically Paris) to New York in the postwar years. The paintings were seen widely in traveling exhibitions and through publications. In the wake of Abstract Expressionism, new generations of artists—both American and European—were profoundly marked by the breakthroughs made by the first generation, and went on to create their own important expressions based on, but not imitative of, those who forged the way.

Stella Paul
Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004

"Everyone who renders directly and honestly whatever drives him to create is one of us."

Synopsis

Expressionism emerged simultaneously in various cities across Germany as a response to a widespread anxiety about humanity's increasingly discordant relationship with the world and accompanying lost feelings of authenticity and spirituality. In part a reaction against Impressionism and academic art, Expressionism was inspired most heavily by the Symbolist currents in late nineteenth-century art. Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and James Ensor proved particularly influential to the Expressionists, encouraging the distortion of form and the deployment of strong colors to convey a variety of anxieties and yearnings. The classic phase of the Expressionist movement lasted from approximately 1905 to 1920 and spread throughout Europe. Its example would later inform Abstract Expressionism, and its influence would be felt throughout the remainder of the century in German art. It was also a critical precursor to the Neo-Expressionist artists of the 1980s.

Key Ideas

The arrival of Expressionism announced new standards in the creation and judgment of art. Art was now meant to come forth from within the artist, rather than from a depiction of the external visual world, and the standard for assessing the quality of a work of art became the character of the artist's feelings rather than an analysis of the composition.

Expressionist artists often employed swirling, swaying, and exaggeratedly executed brushstrokes in the depiction of their subjects. These techniques were meant to convey the turgid emotional state of the artist reacting to the anxieties of the modern world.

Through their confrontation with the urban world of the early twentieth century, Expressionist artists developed a powerful mode of social criticism in their serpentine figural renderings and bold colors. Their representations of the modern city included alienated individuals - a psychological by-product of recent urbanization - as well as prostitutes, who were used to comment on capitalism's role in the emotional distancing of individuals within cities.

Most Important Art

The Scream (1893)

Artist: Edvard Munch

Throughout his artistic career, Munch focused on scenes of death, agony, and anxiety in distorted and emotionally charged portraits, all themes and styles that would be adopted by the Expressionists. Here, in Munch's most famous painting, he depicts the battle between the individual and society. The setting of The Scream was suggested to the artist while walking along a bridge overlooking Oslo; as Munch recalls, "the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence...shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature." Although Munch did not observe the scene as rendered in his painting, The Scream evokes the jolting emotion of the encounter and exhibits a general anxiety toward the tangible world. The representation of the artist's emotional response to a scene would form the basis of the Expressionists' artistic interpretations. The theme of individual alienation, as represented in this image would persist throughout the twentieth century, captivating Expressionist artists as a central feature of modern life.

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Expressionism Artworks in Focus:

Expressionism Overview Continues Below

Beginnings

With the turn of the century in Europe, shifts in artistic styles and vision erupted as a response to the major changes in the atmosphere of society. New technologies and massive urbanization efforts altered the individual's worldview, and artists reflected the psychological impact of these developments by moving away from a realistic representation of what they saw toward an emotional and psychological rendering of how the world affected them. The roots of Expressionism can be traced to certain Post-Impressionist artists like Edvard Munch in Norway, as well as Gustav Klimt in the Vienna Secession, and finally emerged in Germany in 1905.

Edvard Munch in Norway

The late nineteenth-century Norwegian Post-Impressionist painter Edvard Munch emerged as an important source of inspiration for the Expressionists. His vibrant and emotionally charged works opened up new possibilities for introspective expression. In particular, Munch's frenetic canvases expressed the anxiety of the individual within the newly modernized European society; his famous painting The Scream (1893) evidenced the conflict between spirituality and modernity as a central theme of his work. By 1905 Munch's work was well known within Germany and he was spending much of his time there as well, putting him in direct contact with the Expressionists.

Gustav Klimt in Austria

Another figure in the late nineteenth century that had an impact upon the development of Expressionism was Gustav Klimt, who worked in the Austrian Art Nouveau style of the Vienna Secession. Klimt's lavish mode of rendering his subjects in a bright palette, elaborately patterned surfaces, and elongated bodies was a step toward the exotic colors, gestural brushwork, and jagged forms of the later Expressionists. Klimt was a mentor to painter Egon Schiele, and introduced him to the works of Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh, among others, at an exhibition of their work in 1909.

The Advent of Expressionism in Germany

Although it included various artists and styles, Expressionism first emerged in 1905, when a group of four German architecture students who desired to become painters - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Erich Heckel - formed the group Die Brücke (the Bridge) in the city of Dresden. A few years later, in 1911, a like-minded group of young artists formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich, after the rejection of Wassily Kandinsky's painting The Last Judgment (1910) from a local exhibition. In addition to Kandinsky, the group included Franz Marc, Paul Klee, and August Macke, among others, all of whom made up the loosely associated group.

The Term "Expressionism"

The term "Expressionism" is thought to have been coined in 1910 by Czech art historian Antonin Matejcek, who intended it to denote the opposite of Impressionism. Whereas the Impressionists sought to express the majesty of nature and the human form through paint, the Expressionists, according to Matejcek, sought only to express inner life, often via the painting of harsh and realistic subject matter. It should be noted, however, that neither Die Brücke, nor similar sub-movements, ever referred to themselves as Expressionist, and, in the early years of the century, the term was widely used to apply to a variety of styles, including Post-Impressionism.

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Expressionism Overview Continues

Concepts and Styles

Die Brücke: Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel, and Bleyl

Influenced by artists such as Munch, van Gogh, and Ensor, the members of the Dresden-based Die Brücke group sought to convey raw emotion through provocative images of modern society. They depicted scenes of city dwellers, prostitutes, and dancers in the city's streets and nightclubs, presenting the decadent underbelly of German society. In works such as Kirchner's Street, Berlin (1913), they emphasized the alienation inherent to modern society and the loss of spiritual communion between individuals in urban culture; fellow city dwellers are distanced from one another, acting as mere commodities, as in the prostitutes at the forefront of Kirchner's composition.

Unlike the pastoral scenes of Impressionism and the academic drawings of Neoclassicism, Die Brücke artists used distorted forms and jarring, unnatural pigments to elicit the viewer's emotional response. The group was similarly united by a reductive and primitive aesthetic, a revival of older media and medieval German art, in which they used graphic techniques such as woodblock printing to create crude, jagged forms.

The group published a woodcut broadsheet in 1906, called Programme, to accompany their first exhibition. It summarized their break with prevailing academic traditions calling for a freer, youth-oriented aesthetic. Although mostly written by Kirchner, this poster served as manifesto stating the ideals of Die Brücke. The members of Die Brücke drew largely from the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in terms of both their artistic project and their philosophical grounding. Their name came from a quote from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85) that states, "What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end." The group exhibited and collaborated through 1913, when Kirchner penned Chronik der Brücke (Brücke Chronicle) and the collective effectively dissolved.

Der Blaue Reiter: Kandinsky, Macke, Klee, and Marc

The artists of Der Blaue Reiter group shared an inclination towards abstraction, symbolic content, and spiritual allusion. They sought to express the emotional aspects of being through highly symbolic and brightly colored renderings. Their name emerged from the symbol of the horse and rider, derived from one of Wassily Kandinsky's paintings; for Kandinsky, the rider symbolized the transition from the tangible world into the spiritual realm and thus acted as a metaphor for artistic practice. For other members such as Franz Marc, Paul, Klee, and Auguste Macke, this notion became a central principle for transcending realistic depiction and delving into abstraction.

Although Der Blaue Reiter never published a manifesto, its members were united by their aesthetic innovations, which were influenced by medieval and primitivist art forms, Cubism, and Fauvism. However, the group itself was short-lived; with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Franz Marc and Auguste Macke were drafted into German military service and were killed soon after. The Russian members of the group - Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky, and others - were all forced to return home. Der Blaue Reiter dissolved immediately thereafter.

French Expressionism: Rouault, Soutine, and Chagall

Expressionism's elasticity has meant that many artists beyond Germany's borders have been identified with the style. Georges Rouault, the French artist sometimes described as an Expressionist, may have influenced the Germans, rather than the other way around. He learned his vivid use of color and distortion of form from Fauvism, and, unlike his German Expressionist counterparts, Rouault expressed an affinity for his Impressionist predecessors, particularly for the work of Edgar Degas. He is well known for his devotion to religious subjects, and particularly for his many depictions of the crucifixion, rendered in rich color and heavy layers of paint.

The Russian-French Jewish artist Marc Chagall drew upon currents from Cubism, Fauvism, and Symbolism to create his own brand of Expressionism in which he often depicted dreamy scenes of his Belarusian hometown, Vitebsk. While in Paris during the height of the modernist avant-garde, Chagall developed a visual language of eccentric motifs: "ghostly figures floating in the sky, the gigantic fiddler dancing on miniature dollhouses, the livestock and transparent wombs and, within them, tiny offspring sleeping upside down." In 1914, his work was exhibited in Berlin, and had an impact on the German Expressionists extending beyond World War I. He never associated his work with a specific movement, and considered his repertoire to be a vocabulary of images meaningful to himself, but they inspired many, including the Surrealists. Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, "When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is."

Chaim Soutine, the Russian-Jewish, Paris-based painter, was a major proponent of the development of Parisian Expressionism. He synthesized elements from Impressionism, the French Academic tradition, and his own personal vision into an individualized technique and version of the style. The artist's expressive style has proved highly influential on subsequent generations.

Austrian Expressionism: Kokoschka and Schiele

Austrian artists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, were inspired by German Expressionism, but interpreted the style in their individual and personalized manners never forming an official association like the Germans. Kokoschka and Schiele sought to express the decadence of modern Austria through similarly expressive representations of the human body; by sinuous lines, garish colors, and distorted figures, both artists imbued their subjects with highly sexual and psychological themes. Although Kokschka and Schiele were the central proponents of the movement in Austria, Kokoschka became increasingly involved in German Expressionist circles; he left Austria and moved to Germany in 1910. Initially Kokoschka worked in a Viennese Art Nouveau style, but starting in 1908 he instinctively worked as an Expressionist, passionately seeking to expose an inner sensibility of the sitter in his early portraits. Schiele left Vienna in 1912 but remained in Austria, where he worked and exhibited until his death in the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918.

Later Developments

While certain artists rejected Expressionism, others would continue to expand upon its innovations as a style. For example, in the 1920s, Kandinsky transitioned to completely non-objective paintings and watercolors, which emphasized color balance and archetypal forms, rather than figurative representation. However, Expressionism would have its most direct impact in Germany and would continue to shape its art for decades afterwards. After World War I, Expressionism began to lose impetus and fragment. The Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement developed as a direct response to the highly emotional tenets of Expressionism, while the Neo-Expressionists emerged in Germany and then in the United States much later in the twentieth century, reprising the earlier Expressionist style.

New Objectivity: Dix, Grosz and Beckmann

Already by 1918, the Dada manifesto claimed, "Expressionism...no longer has anything to do with the efforts made by active people." But its ethos would have a vivid afterlife; it was crucial in the early formation of artists Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Max Beckmann, who together formed the movement known as the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). These artists sought, as the name suggests, an unsentimental and objective approach to artistic production. Their naturalistic renderings of individuals and urban scenes highlighted this new aesthetic and paralleled the general attitude of practicality that characterized Weimar culture.

Neo-Expressionism: Baselitz, Kiefer, and Schnabel

The emergence of Georg Baselitz's paintings of layered, vibrant colors and distorted figures in the 1960s, and of Anselm Kiefer's images buried amidst thick impasto built up from a variety of materials on the canvas in the 1970s, signaled an important and influential revival of the style within Germany, which would eventually culminate in a global Neo-Expressionist movement in the 1980s. Artists in New York City, like Julian Schnabel, also employed thick layers of paint, unnatural color palettes and gestural brushwork to hearken back to the Expressionist movement earlier in the twentieth century.

The original Expressionist movement's ideas about spirituality, primitivism, and the value of abstract art would also be hugely influential on an array of unrelated movements, including Abstract Expressionism. The Expressionists' metaphysical outlook and instinctive discomfort with the modern world impelled them to antagonistic attitudes that would continue to be characteristic of various avant-garde movements throughout the century.


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