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Expressionism - an Artistic Dilemma

Updated on May 1, 2020
Claudiu Ursu profile image

Graduate of History and Philosophy specialized in Aesthetics, from Romania.

The Scream (1893)
The Scream (1893) | Source

Expressionism must capture pure subjectivity, as it manifests within the spirit.

What is expressionism? This is an artistic movement unlike any other, in that it poses a particular degree of difficulty in trying to uniformly define it. Although problematic, I will try to outline its most essential characteristics. I will focus mainly on the works of Edvard Munch to illustrate these particularities. Although not yet an expressionist, Munch asserts many of the movement’s principles through his body of work. I will try to outline what I found to be the two main characteristics, from which the others erupt and take form. These characteristics have to deal with pure emotion and an abandonment of the real world. It is here that we will witness a first release of the caged, pure and instinctual nature of man.

The problem that presents itself to us from the beginning is that of the genesis of expressionism. Moreover, the very definition of the term "expressionism" will prove to be an extremely delicate issue, due primarily to the uncertainty of the historical location of this current. For, as Ashley Bassie remarked in her Expressionism, expressionism did not have a unitary meaning, rather its significance was influenced by the region in which it manifested itself.[1]

Therefore, if expressionism, as a unitary artistic current, finds a coherent form in Germany and Austria of the early twentieth century, we must keep in mind that it was already present on the art scene of the world through the works of Munch or Van Gogh, for example. These historical roots are relevant because they act as a catalyst for the German spirit to manifest. For, indeed, the thematization and uniformity of this current, which will henceforth be called Expressionism, is the great contribution that the German space makes to the world in the twentieth century.[2] But, leaving aside for the moment the contribution of the German space, we note that expressionism is beginning to manifest itself as a reaction towards the Impressionists. Until 1912, the term was used to refer generally to progressive art in the European space, especially in France, an art that was intended to be different from that of the Impressionists, even anti-Impressionist.[3]

Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter

Thus, we can already operate with a classification of expressionism, as follows:

a) we can talk about a proto-expressionism or an anti-Impressionist phase, to designate the works of those artists from outside the German space and who anticipate the new artistic turn of the twentieth century (artists including, for example, Van Gogh and Munch).

b) we can talk about expressionism itself, about German expressionism, as a theme and standardization of the movement. Here we must mention the two artistic groups that formed in Germany in the early twentieth century, Die Brucke in 1905 and Der Blaue Reiter in 1911. Art in late nineteenth-century Germany was still strongly romantic. It was dominated by certain artistic conventions that saw in historical and literary subjects the only expressions that truly deserved the name of art.[4] The German consciousness was dependent on an occult conservatism, an idealized image of reality, an image that did not aim to penetrate deeper into the essence of things.

The first essential feature is that of strong and unaltered emotion.

The Kiss (1897)
The Kiss (1897) | Source

Topics such as sexuality, madness, were left in the shadows of doubt. They were subjects unworthy of the very form of art that saw perfection only in the transcendence of the subject. The year 1892 would be the turning point for German artistic culture. The German conscience would confront the works of Edvard Munch, an artist unknown to this space, but who would exert a major influence through his radical style.

The themes that Munch addresses have to do exclusively with the intimate side of man, with the side that escapes the passive, impressionistic eye. "He was invited to exhibit and presented fifty-five works, including several versions of the Kiss. This image came to the surface several times in Munch's exhibition. For him, it was related to the idea of ​​the destructive power of passion. What he meant by this idea had nothing to do with the defamatory potential that such a passion could have. Munch approached this idea in a much deeper way: a woman's passion had the power to enslave a man, to arouse envy and - here in an almost literal way - eat into the strength of the individual."[5] The painting, in addition to the description he gives to the woman; a woman interpreted almost as a Homeric force, a force that gives and will be consumed in the act of giving together with the rest of humanity; it gives us the first key to a possible understanding of the claims of expressionism.

The two lovers consume each other in the act of kissing, the body becoming an amorphous mass. The myth of the androgynous can be seen here, but I think Munch intends even more through this picture. Munch seems to be proposing a total loss of corporeality here.

The manner in which it must be presented must be subject to a simple principle: it must appear in its authenticity. Any form of sweetening, from color to technique, is excluded.

Abandoning the world to rediscover authenticity.

Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride of The Wind (1913-1914)
Oskar Kokoschka, The Bride of The Wind (1913-1914) | Source

A second feature, which has already been announced above, is the renunciation of finding ideal forms in the world. The world is abandoned in an act of rediscovering authenticity. The expressionist artist is reluctant to the idea of nature. The expressionist artist “[…] did not believe in perfection that can be realized in this world even though he did uphold the notion as a secret ideal. Instead, he opposed the principle of the ratio with a principle that struck him as more important: artistic creation as reflecting the tensions of human existence, reality as an imaginative counterimage. The world, as a reflection of the ego, becomes transcendent. The direct relationship to visible Being is replaced by the vision, in which the sense of self is exalted.” as Paul Vogt notes in his book.[6]

It is not the eye as an element of the body that is how these emotions acquire their relevance, but precisely that pre-reflexive, unconscious capacity that allows us to be affected, this is what legitimizes the purpose of the body. Therefore, an eye will not be painted respecting the requirements of anatomy, but that of an idea. It becomes a symbol; we are not interested in merely depicting women weeping, but to capture the bare essence of what it means to weep, of anguish. So what do the expressionists try to capture? Genuine emotion. How do they want to do this? Through the symbol of the body, a body that in its affectation loses its biological, anatomical character and becomes a materialization of an essence. In this sense, the true meaning of the distance from the world can be seen, because only an abandonment of it can allow the gaze to return to the origin of its impulse. Emotion thus becomes a gateway to the wall of the Self, to borrow Huxley's metaphor.

Neil Donahue also recognizes this fundamental feature of abandoning the world. When he speaks of the early expressionists, he acknowledges that they have taken their models from philosophy, psychology, literature, and will distance themselves critically from their predecessors by what he calls a hermeneutics of suspicion; the being the attitude, he tells us, which would have allowed these artists to exceed that threshold of the appearances of the immediate world, expressiveness becoming the only limitation imposed on the artist.[7]

The renunciation of figurativeness, one that is still present in the works of Munch and Van Gogh, will become the creed of the twentieth century, expressionism becoming an abstract one as in the case of Rothko or Pollock. As fundamental features, we notice the expressiveness, the strong and undisguised emotion, the liberation from the world, and the sensory. In the act of creation, the expressionist artist reveals himself, through his art, to the world, he is not interested in objects as they are presented to the senses, but as they are presented to the soul. To have a maximum expressive effect, the expressionist artist will give up accuracy, figurativeness, will distort, will mold reality according to his own emotions.

[1] Ashley Bassey, Expressionism, p. 7

[2] Paul Vogt, Expressionism – A German Intuition 1905-1920, p. 17

[3] Ashley Bassey, Expressionism, p. 7

[4] Ashley Bassie, Expressionism, p.13

[5] Ashley Bassie, Expressionism, p.13, Original text [ He had been invited to exhibit and arrived with fifty-five works, including one or more versions of The Kiss (p.15). This image re-surfaced many times in Munch’s oeuvre. For him, it was tied up with the idea of the destructiveness of passion. He meant this not in terms of its potential for social disgrace, but more profoundly: a woman’s passion had the power to enslave men, arouse jealousy and – here almost literally – eat into the strength of the individual.]

[6] Paul Vogt, Expressionism – A German Intuition 1905-1920, p. 17

[7] Neil H. Donahue, A Companion to German Expressionism, p.6

© 2020 Claudiu Ursu


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