Expressionism is a movement that occurred mostly within Germany at the beginning of the 20th Century. It can be divided into three different cities and central hubs, with their own particular group, each with its own style. Die Brucke started in Dresden in 1905, Der Blaue Reiter in Munich in 1911, and in Vienna, Austria. Despite each groups' individual style, Expressionism is marked by a lack of naturalism, simplified and distorted forms, and exaggerated, often unnatural colors. It can also be said that Expressionism saw a rebirth of printmaking, viewing it as a viable medium. Various social, political, aesthetic, and commercial influences drove those within the movement toward printmaking. Although many worked in multiple mediums, printmaking and drawing reached a new level of urgency during this period.
The first group to be formed was Die Brucke (The Bridge) was founded by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmitd-Rotluff, and Fritz Bleyl. Working as a tight-knit group, Die Brucke showed together, worked together, traveled together, and developed an anti-bourgeois, bohemian lifestyle together. They often used simplified and distorted forms with unnatural colors to evoke an emotional response from the viewer. Their works were mostly of depictions of everyday life: images from holidays, street life, models in the studio, or nightclubs and dancehalls.
After Die Brucke was founded, a much looser group called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) was founded by Russian immigrant Vasily Kandinsky and by German native Franz Marc. Kandinsky and Marc saw art as a way to create a new spiritual age. They believed that abstracted forms and prismatic colors contained spiritual values that worked against corruption and materialism. Abstracted forms and prismatic colors, as well as a flattened perspective are hallmarks of Der Blaue Reiter's style. Kandinsky and Marc also used animals in their work. Marc saw animals as being a symbol of rebirth, whereas Kandinsky literally painted a "blue rider" (a blue horse with a rider), which he adopted to try to move beyond realistic representation.
There are really only two major artists in Austrian Expressionism: Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Scheile. The two were essentially rivals, but their work can be categorized by its use of the nude portrait. Usually posed in a sexual or psychologically charged manner, Austrian Expressionism is known for its awkward and emotional figures. Because of their rival stature, each asrtist developed their own personal and emotional style.
Forming after the dissolution of Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter, another group of Expressionists popped up. Named after the month in which the Weimar Revolution took place, the Novembergruppe served as an attempt to establish a new unity between art disciplines and the working class. Novembergruppe was established in December 1918 in Berlin, only one month after the Weimar Revolution, and was founded by a group of radical left-wing artists such as Max Pechstein and Cesar Klein. The group aimed to shape national renewal by creating a greater relationship between progressive artists and the public; essentially to bring about a dialogue between art and the masses. Novembergruppe disbanded in 1929.
Erich Heckel (1883-1970)
Erich Heckel helped found Die Brucke in Dresden in 1905. Following the other members of the group, he moved to Berlin in 1911. After serving in the Red Cross medical corps during World War I, he returned to Berlin and joined various socialist artists' organizations such as the Novembergruppe. After his involvement in the war, his work began to change. Initially creating more vibrant works that depicted nudes, cabaret scenes, and nature, his work became more melancholic and subdued. Working as both a painter and a printmaker, Heckel made a majority of his prints between 1903 and 1923.
Untitled (Bathers), 1923, is a good example of both Heckel's penchant for depicting nudes in nature, as well as the Expressionists' tendency to create angular, distorted figures. The bathers are posed in a frontal and almost uninhibited way, which directly suggests the Expressionists' disdain for traditional values concerning both art and sexuality. Die Brucke in particular took a rather relaxed approach to nudity which is seen in the awkward posing and almost absence of self-consciousness - indicated by the standing bathers and the twisted seated bather.
Max Klinger (1857-1920)
Max Klinger is cited as being an influence to many of the Expressionist artists because of his belief that black-and-white printmaking served as the best vehicle to explore the darker aspects of life as well as the imagination. Born in Leipzig, Klinger studied in Karlsruhe and eventually moved around Europe for a period of time. Often considered to be a symbolist and an important precursor to Surrealism, he worked as a painter, printmaker, and sculptor. He gained much recognition after returning to Leipzig in 1893, and was eventually appointed professor at the Royal Academy of the Graphic Arts in Leipzig, as well as a member of the Vienna Secession.
The ten Klinger pieces that belong to the Collection come from a portfolio titled Opus XI: On Death, 1897. Although little information is known specifically about the portfolio, each of the etchings within the portfolio features images of Death, and the dead or dying. The theme of death is prominent within Klinger's work, and his images are often influenced by his dreams, adding a more surreal quality to the work. Much of Klinger's work has been attributed to the beginnings of the Surrealist movement, and influenced Kathe Kollwitz in her early career. The etchings found within Vom Tode are prime examples of this. Vom Tode was donated to Wayne State University in 1970 by Art History professor, Ernst Scheyer. Having earned his doctorate and Ph.D. in Germany, Scheyer also worked as a curator in Breslau and Cologne and as an honorary curator of research at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Before his retirement in 1971, Scheyer served as a highly celebrated professor for 35 years.
Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945)
Working primarily as a printmaker, Kathe Kollwitz also worked as a painter and sculptor. Like many others within the movement, Kollwitz used her prints as a means to express social criticism; however, she did so much earlier than most of her contemporaries. Despite depicting scenes of the poor and oppressed, her work was far less male-centric and focused greatly on women and children. Her later works were centered more on the themes of pacifism, sacrifice, and mourning and showcased an increasing abandonment of her earlier naturalistic tendencies as a means to better articulate pure emotion. This transition is seen most prominently in her portfolio Kreig (War), published 1923, that depicts scenes and emotional responses to the tragedies of World War I.
Kollwitz's pieces Die Mutter (The Mothers) and Die Witwe I (The Widow I) are plates from her portfolio Kreig (War), published 1923. Both woodcuts depict grief stricken women: whether as a group, holding onto the children the war hadn't killed, or as a singular, painful expression of personal loss. The grasping of children by the women in Die Mutter could also be seen as a representation of the loss of Kollwitz's son during World War I, and ultimately her regret in his involvement. Self-Portrait, 1923, displays an aged and weary Kollwitz. The stresses of the war are clearly seen on her face by the many lines dissecting it and the pronounced weight of her features, but she maintains a sense of composure, usually seen in her self-portraits, that her other figures do not. Her etching Frau Kind Tuffern (Return from the Market), 1932, features a familiar theme of women and children. This particular scene is more domestic than many of her other works and features a mother bending over to feed her hungry child as they return home from the market. Kollwitz's image Kindersterben (Infant Mortality), 1925, is from the portfolio she made after Krieg, titled Proletariat. Created because of her support of Socialism, Proletariat features portraits of the starved, over-worked, and dying working class. Kindersterben depicts a ghostly figure holding an infant's coffin, one of the victims of the poverty-stricken, post-war society that Kollwitz was living in. All of her work ultimately calls for an emotional and compassionate response from the viewer.
Georg Kolbe (1877-1947)
Primarily known for his sculptural work, Georg Kolbe was also a printmaker and painter. His sculptural work is heavily influenced by Aristide Maillol and August Rodin. After participating in World War I, his work became more Expressionist and featured fairly attenuated, more stylized figures. Kolbe's primary subject matter is that of nudes in motion, often times they are dancers. Many of his works were destroyed during World War II, either by bombings or by being melted for war purposes.
Kolbe's sculpture Assunta (Assumption), which was originally produced in 1921, features an elongated, slender woman posing as if in thought. The piece is perhaps referencing the biblical story of the assumption, the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into the afterlife. The figure in the sculpture is posed with knees bent with one foot slightly off the ground as if to suggest that she is being lifted up like the Virgin Mary.
Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919)
Born in Duisburg, Wilhelm Lehmbruck studied in Dusseldorf, and eventually moved to Paris in 1910. He left Paris in 1914 to serve as a paramedic in World War I, but left due to severe depression and moved to Zurich. Once the war was over, he moved back to Berlin where he committed suicide in 1919. Although he is known for his sculptures, Lehmbruck also created many prints and drawings.
Orpheus and Eurydice, 1913, is a sensual depiction of the death of Eurydice. As the story goes, Eurydice was taking a walk when she was set upon by a Satyr. In attempts to escape the Satyr, she fell into a pit of vipers and suffered a fatal bite. Her body was discovered by her husband Orpheus. Overcome with grief, Orpheus began to play a song so saddening that the gods began to cry. They advised Orpheus to travel to the underworld and to play his music to soften the hearts of Hades and Persephone. He succeeded, and they allowed Orpheus to return to the upper world with Eurydice under one condition: that he walk in front of her and not look back until they both reached the upper world. Orpheus, taken with anxiety, looked back upon Eurydice, and she disappeared back to the underworld. Lehmbruck's drawing suggests the finding of Eurydice's body or perhaps her vanishing back to the underworld.
Otto Mueller (1874-1930)
Otto Mueller moved to Berlin in 1908, and became a member of Die Brucke in 1910. After fighting in World War I, he relocated to Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) where he taught at the art academy. For a majority of his career he made prints and paintings of sylvan nudes, until 1920 when he began making work centered on Romani (gypsy) women.
Similar to many other Die Brucke artists, Mueller's lithograph Zwei Figuren am Waldbach (Two Figures on Forest Stream), 1921-22, depicts angular nudes in nature. Following in the Expressionist trend to portray nudes as uninhibited; the figures are full frontal and posed in a sexual manner. The figures nudity is frank and open, despite their faces being obscured by their hair. This frankness is typical of many Expressionist works, and is a reaction against the social mores of the time. Not only do the figures embody an open sexuality, but they function effortlessly and harmoniously in nature - potentially serving as an opposition to the strictness of the Wilhelmine period, which is when Wilhelm I ruled as German Kaiser from 1871-1918.
Edvard Munch (1863-1944)
Born in Norway, Edvard Munch initially enrolled in a technical school to become an engineer. In 1881, Munch enrolled in the Royal School of Art and Design of Christinia, a decision that his father (who was a priest) disapproved of. In 1892, he moved to Berlin where his work was received with much controversy. Munch's work and time spent in Berlin left a lasting impression on him. Depicting scenes wrought with emotional and psychological themes, his work heavily influenced the Expressionists, who adopted his inward-looking approach to creating art. After four years, Munch moved to Paris, and ultimately to Oslo where he died.
Munch's woodcut The Pretenders: The Last Hour, 1920, comes from a series of woodcuts based off of Henrik Ibsen's play The Pretenders. Set in the thirteenth century, it centers on a historical conflict between Norwegian king Haakon Haakonsson and his father-in-law, Earl Skule Baardsson. Haakon rose to power in 1217, and fighting between the two began when Haakon married Skule's daughter in 1225. In 1239, Skule proclaimed himself king and war broke out. Skule was put to death in 1240. Munch's image could be interpreted as the final hour of Skule's life as depicted in Ibsen's play.
Max Oppenheimer (MOPP) (1885-1954)
Born in Austria in 1883, Max Oppenheimer eventually moved to Berlin in 1912. Originally producing anxious and energetic portraits of Austrian and German literati, he eventually began creating work depicting music in a manner influenced by Cubism and Futurism. Oppenheimer lived in Switzerland from 1915 to 1924, returning to Berlin in 1926. After a short stay in Vienna, he was forced to escape to the United States in 1939 because of the widespread persecution of Jews during World War II.
Oppenheimer's portrait of Thomas Mann is consistent with his early works of portraits of various literati. Mann's work is noted for its insight into the psychology of artists. Similar to the works of other Austrian contemporaries, like Oskar Kokoschka, it could be said that Oppenheimer's portrait of Mann is a psychological one, corresponding to his writings.
Herman Max Pechstein (1881-1955)
Max Pechstein became a member of the Die Brucke group in Dresden in 1906. After moving to Berlin in 1908, Pechstein was eventually kicked out of Die Brucke for showing with the Berlin Secession. He was instrumental in the left-wing artists' group, Novembergruppe, after his participation in World War I. Many of his paintings were stolen by the Nazi's (being deemed "degenerate art") during World War II. Known primarily for his colorful paintings of nudes and landscapes, Pechstein was also a prolific printmaker, producing roughly 900 different prints in his lifetime.
The scenes depicted in these two pieces are familiar to Die Brucke because of the group's penchant for spending time at the Morizburg lakes or on the Baltic coast. Even though it was created after his removal from the group, the etching Mondschein (Moonlight), 1922, is an example of how Die Brucke made etchings more improvisational (as opposed to the more meticulous nature of traditional etchings): the lines are hurried and disorderly, sharp and angular, suggestive of an uneven, quick sketch. Contrastingly, Pechstein's drawing, Untitled (Two Fishing Boats), is much more relaxed, curvy, and neat. Stylistically it still follows the simplistic and abstracted forms of German Expressionism.
Renee Sintenis (1888-1965)
Born Renate Alice Sintenis in Silesia (which encompassed most of what is now Poland and smaller parts of the Czech Republic and Germany), she studied at the Berlin School of Arts and Crafts. She is primarily known for her sculptures and prints of playful young animals or athletes. Showing with the Berlin Secession in 1915, her popularity grew throughout the 1920s, ultimately winning an Olympic medal in 1932 for one of her sculptures.
Although Sintenis functioned as an independent figure to the movement, both etchings (The Colt and The Fox, 1944) are examples of the simplistic and flat styling of black and white prints. The German Expressionists used scenes of nature to depict a calmer, uncorrupted life free of war and full of spiritual solace. Sintenis displays this idea by picturing the animals singularly and at rest, posed in inquisitive and reflective stances.
Text by Devon Parrott