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At the start of the XIX century, a series of German artists form a group called Die Brucke – in English, The Bridge – referring to Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought on how human life can be a bridge to a better future. This group of Expressionists start by painting works influenced by Vincent van Gogh and other Post-Impressionists, but between 1905 and 1908, they were able to develop a distinct style of their own with bright colors and thick layers of paint. The group created this style collectively, for they all worked together critiquing and copying each other’s work, as to achieve a sense of unity.
The only member with formal artistic training was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. He decided to begin the group after being disappointed in an exhibition and seeing what the artists of the time were producing, so he calls Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Fritz Bleyl to join him. Rote Akte (Red Nudes) is a painting that exemplifies the works being produced at this time, as it portrays two nude women in nature with elongated body shapes and faces that look more like masks. He plays with the unnatural colors of the scene.
The group rejected the accurate mimicry of nature, as they produced a more representative art form. These artists wanted to create a direct form of confronting the viewer, directly with their state of mind. There was a reevaluation of the beauty standards, as artists start to distort lines, radically simplify details, and use intense colors, not considered natural. Art’s function is now being questioned and consequently used to go against oppression and portray what is wrong in society – as seen in the dense, angular environment and macabre colors of Two Men at a Table by Heckel. This piece was influenced by Dostoiévski’s novel, The Idiot.
The Expressionists felt the need to distinguish themselves from the urban bourgeois society, which is the origin of most of them and ends up moving to rural areas and live amongst the community. This change brings a new fascination for primitive societies, and, because of this, artists start to collect and imitate German Folk Art, as an attempt to recover the lost vital force of art. The Expressionists rediscovered and were very much influenced by artists of the Northern Renaissance, like Albrecht Durer and Mathis Grunwald. Most notably, the expressive power of the black and white woodcut prints produced by them. Paul Gauguin was also an inspiration to these painters, as he no longer painted realistic colors and plans figures into simple shapes.
In 1908, the artists of Die Brucke decided it’s better for their career if they move to Berlin and by 1911 all members had relocated. Kirchner paints a scene from the Berlin streets in Two Women in the Street, filled with tension and excitement of the urban life. The women’s faces are triangular, showing his interest in the Primitivism movement. There is no concern in perspective, and there is no horizon, just unnatural colors to represent an environment. The brushstrokes are explosive and harsh, giving the typical trembling sensation of the Expressionists paintings. The group also decides in this period that working separately and developing a unique style is more beneficial to each artist, leading to the end of the group in 1913.
One of the most famous artists of this period is Wassily Kandinsky. In 1896 he moved to Munich and, after a period of formal art training, decides to become a teacher, confounding the Phalanx School of Painting. The Russian painter was very influenced by Fauvism and Alexei von Jawlensky’s work, who he met in Murnau. This is seen in the painting Church in Murnau, where he uses vivid colors and simplifying details to its mere essence, concentrating purely in colors and shapes.
In 1909, Kandinsky formed a group called Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen, or the Association of New Artists of Munique, with the intention of organizing exhibitions for the Expressionist artists of Germany. The art shows were mostly not well-received by the critics, but this enabled Kandinsky and Franz Marc to meet, resulting in future collaborations. Marc’s work is mainly based on animals, most probably because of his deception with humanity and it’s growing materialism, as seen in Grazing Horses IV (The Red Horses).
The elongated bodies of Kirchner can also be seen in Amedeo Modigliani’s paintings, but with a different stylization, like in Portrait of Lunia Czechovska. Another artist to play with the human anatomy was Egon Schiele. The loose paint strokes and trembling lines he uses in Embrace are characteristic of the Expressionism, evoking great emotion.