What Causes German Expressionism?
an exploration of Deutche Geist

What Causes German Expressionism?

In my life-long studies of art I have always been struck by the singular nature of German Expressionism. It has a style all its own, a color scheme, a mindset, even its own nationality. What was it about German Expressionism that spoke with enough impact to be heard around the world and yet was never duplicated beyond the borders of Germany? What were the causes of this art movement?

Being of German extraction myself this has always interested me. Even more so as I have gotten older and noticed in my own artistic explorations that, even though I would experiment widely, my art style always seemed to return to a German Expressionist look. I therefore decided that this was of enough importance to me to devote a research paper to this question.


Let's start with some basic definitions to help define the area of our exploration.

What is German?

German Expressionism, unlike Futurism and other art movements that appeared in numerous countries, was almost entirely limited to Germany, or Germanic areas, so we should first have a basic understanding of where Germany came from before the first part of the 20th century and the beginning of German Expressionism.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire the area that is now Germany became a part of the Holy Roman Empire (the First Reich) under Charlemagne in 800 AD. With the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, Germany broke up into an accumulation of small nation and city states that maintained their independence and sovereignty even as many of the nation states around them were being formed. It consisted of a number of various sized independent regions, small nation states: Prussia and Austria, smaller states: Saxony, Bavaria, Wuerttemberg, etc, and even free city states: Frankfurt and Hamburg. These small independent regions were constantly under a number of outside threats, such as the French and the Ottoman Empire. Germany was once again unified (the Second Reich) under the Kaiser in the late 1800s in a weak and inefficient parliamentary form that was "achieved under Prussian domination, based on economic and military strength rather than cultural heritage." 1 It was done away with after the disaster of World War I and was unfortunately replaced by the Weimar Republic which was not only weak but also corrupt. This a natural recipe for the rise of National Socialism and the disaster of World War II.

What is German Expressionism?

German Expressionism can basically be defined by its use of bright colors, bold strokes of paint, dark lines, high contrast imagery which strove to display the inner nature of the person or object, as opposed to the replication of the image as in Renaissance art, or the depiction of the light from the image as in Impressionist art. "Expressionist artists built on the discoveries of the Post-Impressionists, who rejected Impressionist devotion to optical veracity and turned inward to the world of the spirit. "They employed many languages to give visible form to their feelings, but generally they relied on simple, powerful forms that were realized in a manner of direct, sometimes crude expression, designed to heighten the emotional response of the viewer. The essence of their art was the expression of inner meaning through outer form." 2

Art historian Norbert Lynton helped define German Expressionism with this description, "All human action is expressive; a gesture is an intentionally expressive action. All art is expressive - of its author and of the situation in which he works - but some art is intended to move us through visual gestures that transmit, and perhaps give release to, emotions and emotionally charged messages. Such art is expressionist." 3

There were two main groups of German Expressionist artists that rose to prominence. One was Die Brucke ("the bridge"), led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The other was called Der Blau Reiter ("the Blue Rider"), led by Vassily Kandinsky. Although both movements did express differing visions, they both displayed the many characteristics of German Expressionism. 2

German expressionism was also about a certain time, the early part of the 20th century. As pointed out by art historian Victor Miesel, "All Europe was in a state of ever-increasing discontent. Rapid industrialization and urbanization, such revolutionary discoveries as Freud's theory of dreams (1900) and Einstein's theory of relativity (1905), a succession of political crises; these were events which filled Europeans everywhere with apprehension." 4

It was during this time that "painters abandoned realism and countryside landscapes for nightmare depictions of impoverished lives in ravished cities, their bold strokes of dark lines bending and creaking under the strain. Writers clipped their sentences to the barest essence, their voices almost always pounding away full blast, and in all the arts, there was a near-obsession with death and decay and an apocalyptic sense that civilization had come to the end of its rope." 3

German Expressionism not only developed in the world of painting, but also in sculpture, literature, drama, and cinema. "In German cinema, in the years immediately following WWI, expressionism was characterized by extreme stylization of sets and decor as well as in the acting, lighting, and camera angles. The grossly distorted, largely abstract sets were as expressive as the actors, if not more. To assure complete control and free manipulation of the decor, lighting, and camera work, expressionist films were always shot in the studio, never outdoors, even when scenes called for exterior shooting. Lighting was deliberately artificial, emphasizing deep shadows and sharp contrasts; camera angles were chosen to emphasize the fantastic and the grotesque; and the actors externalized their emotions to the extreme." 3


Now let's take a look at the many varied influences that helped create German Expressionism and see if they can give us any clues as to the nature and causes of this art style.

The colors of the earlier Fauvist painters were appropriated by the German Expressionists with minimal credit being given to them, perhaps because the Fauvists were French. This separation became even more apparent later as pointed out by art historian Victor H Miesel, "After this event (the fourth exhibition of the Sonderbund) German writers quickly transformed Expressionism into an elastic concept comprising an anticlassical, antirational, and finally anti-French outlook..." 4

The visual movement of Italian Futurist art and a belief in the coming age of technology, as in most places at the turn of the century, were major influences on German Expressionism. However in German Expressionism it took a turn for the dark side after World War I when the negative potential of technology became more obvious, resulting in a revulsion from the "perfect" world of futurism which led many nations head long into World War I.

Anarchism and the stressing of the importance of individuality was a central belief in many German expressionist artists. This Utopian outlook combined with a rebellious life style was pointed out by Stephen Eric Bronner, "In them (German cities), they lived by the principles of hostility to all external authority, liberation from the conventions of bourgeois society and frequently, in the circles they formed, by the somewhat contradictory impulses of communitarian brotherhood." 5 Art historians Seth Taylor and Walter de Gruyter pointed out, "In contemporary Germany, Loewenson noted in Die Decadence der Zeit, it is German culture which produces decadence. The ordered life (Lebensordnung) which is forced upon people is hostile to individuals, to the geniuses who do not conform. The "herd" philosophers of the universities are against the genius who arrives at results which go against established conceptions." 6

Gothic art, or the art of the middle ages, some that had even been described as Expressionist art, had a great influence on not only the visual look of German Expressionist art but also upon its mindset. One of the often used words in German Expressionist writing is the German prefix "ur", which means primal, primordial, original.

Religion, pro and con, was central to German Expressionism with a history that covers Nordic paganism, Roman paganism, Roman Catholicism, and finally Lutheranism, with the Lutheran Reformation that actually started in Wittenberg Germany in 1617 AD.

Naturalism was touted by a number of German Expressionist artists as a cure for the ails of modern industrial life with many of their paintings depicting subjects running around naked and cavorting with nature. This could be a reaction against the normally cold climate of the region, or a reaction against the rules of religion, or even a mimicking of the theme of the earlier neo-classical paintings. Naturalism is still apparent today in many areas of Germany. not to mention most of Europe.

Nationalism also was an influence on German Expressionism, in spite of their anarchist leanings, with it taking on some of the natural mindsets of the German people, as stated by Victor H Miesel "...however, the word was changed into something German for Germans. It was framed by ideas like "Kultur," "Geist," "Reich," and "Volk," ideas which had a special significance for Germans since they all pertained to a widely-held ideal of divinely sanctioned national character and destiny." 4

Youth was a vital component in the makeup of German Expressionist artists, as it was in most revolutionary art styles, but it could be seen as even more profound here as it represented a revolt against the "Fatherland" and male authoritarianism prevalent in German culture. Sociologist and art critic Wolfgang Rothe looks at the mindset of these German artists and writers he calls "the generation of 1910" by saying, "Young people were angered and repelled by the all too contradictory aspects of feudal aristocracy, economic expansionism and unquestioning belief in scientific progress, regression into ultra-nationalism and a deluded sense of global mission, inner consolidation of the young Reich with its aspirations to world power, the sanctification of the status quo entailed in "education and property," and hectic industrialization's disruptive impact on established social structures."1 To reinforce the youth angle let me also point out that of the four artists who started Die Brucke the oldest, Kirchner, was 24. 9

Drugs were also a part of German Expressionist life with many of the rebellious young artists experimenting and some even becoming addicted, as noted by Stephen Eric Bronner, "Gross' cocaine habit produced unpleasant physical and psychological effects, of which he himself must have been aware, since he repeatedly institutionalized himself in vain efforts to end his habit." 3 Also, in reference to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, "Due to his "secret hunger strike", his dependence on sleeping potions and morphine, and his excessive drinking and smoking, Kirchner continued to deteriorate dramatically physically and mentally." 1


Let's now examine 11 of the most famous German Expressionist painters and I have simplified the artist selection process by just including artists listed on my Deutsche Geist coversheet. We will examine each of them and incidents from their lives that may have contributed to their becoming German Expressionist artists, looking for possible cause and effect and shared similarities between the artists beyond just being German.

Kathe Kolwitz, 1867

Kathe Kolwitz lost a son in World War I and this feeling of loss was reflected in a number of her art works. She married a doctor and lived in one of the poorest working class sections of Berlin where she saw the negatives of early industrial life first hand. Later she was persecuted by Nazis and her work was included in their degenerate art show in 1937. During World War II air raids destroyed her apartment. 7

Kurt Schwitters 1887

Kurt Schwitters was born the only child to affluent parents. He suffered childhood epileptic attacks and was always a loner. He studied art at the Art Academy Dresden, later entering the German military in 1917 as a draftsman. He developed Merz (found art) and was a master of collage. His Merzbau (art house) was destroyed by German bombing in 1943. He was persecuted by Nazis and his work was included in their degenerate art show in 1937. Later his second Merzbau in Norway was accidentally burned down in 1951. 7

Otto Dix 1891

Otto Dix studied art at Art Academy Dresden. He joined the military and fought in World War I in 1918. He was persecuted by Nazis and included in their degenerate art 1937. He was arrested in 1939, yet later joined the Volkssturm (people's storm) in a last ditch defense of homeland at end of World War II. He was captured and interned in France as POW. 7

Anselm Kiefer 1945

Anselm Kiefer, although he was a major German artist, came later than the original German Expressionist movement and so can not be included in this analysis.

George Grosz, 1893

George Grosz' father died when he was 7. He studied art at the Art Academy Dresden. He volunteered in Army in World War I but was released a few months later after a surgical operation after which he received treatment for psychological disorders. He founded dada and changed name from Gross to Grosz in protest against nationalism and patriotism. He later joined the communist party. He was persecuted by Nazis and his work was included in degenerate art show 1937. He was the self proclaimed saddest man in Europe. 7

Max Beckman, 1884

Max Beckman's father died when he was 10. He failed the entrance exam to the Art Academy Dresden and later attended the Art School in Weimar. He was a medical volunteer for a year in World War I, but suffered a breakdown and was discharged. He was persecuted by Nazis and his work was included in degenerate art show 1937. 7

Egon Schiele, 1890

Egon Schiele's older sister died at age of 10. He was Austrian and so attended the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He spent 24 days in prison in 1912 for making "pornographic" art works of underage girls. He was inducted into the military and served as a clerk from1915 to 1918. He died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. 7

Emil Nolde, 1867

Emil Nolde was earlier than the main group of German Expressionist artists. He was a loner and painted a lot of art work with religious connotations. He joined the Nazis in 1933 but later figured out his mistake. He was then persecuted by Nazis and his work was included in degenerate art show of 1937. 7

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was drafted into the army in World War I, but was later discharged due to nervous and physical collapse. He was struck by automobile in 1917. He was persecuted by Nazis and his work was included in degenerate art show of 1937. He later committed suicide in 1938. 7

Erich Heckel, 1883

Erich Heckel was born into a middle class family which moved frequently during his youth. He was a student of architecture and later co-founded the Bridge, He served as a hospital orderly in World War I. He was persecuted by Nazis and his work was included in degenerate art of 1937. His studio was later destroyed in an air raid. 7

Hannah Hoch

Hannah Hoch was famous for her collages which addressed the roles of women in "decadent" Weimar era. She was persecuted by the Nazis and his work was included in degenerate art show of 1937. 7


I must admit at this point that I went into this project with a certain mental mindset as to the causes of this "dementia" called German Expressionism. From my initial studies of German Expressionist painters and their tormented lives I had developed a concept that there must be something wrong with them, and therefore with German Expressionism, perhaps even with Germans.

I am glad to say that, after this analysis, I have come to a much different, less negative conclusion about the nature of German Expressionism and the artists that lived it.

The euphoria of unproven optimism that swept the western world at the start of the 20th century based on the promise of a better life based on technology was not limited to Germany. If anything they were guilty of naiveté for believing that only good would come out of it. They were a young, optimistic generation who believed they could rebuild the world into a better place with only their belief as a blueprint. They discarded the art standards and social mores of their forefathers and lived their lives in small communal groups that practiced free sex, drugs, and modern art.

Does this sound familiar yet?

This is the exact, same pattern that re-emerged in the 1960's with the youth culture, only this time it was sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. Both instances took place during a time of increased militarism, pre-World War I in the first case and the Vietnam War in the latter. The German Expressionists did get a more massive dose of reality though because many of them actually volunteered for military service, some under threat of the draft, and the scale of the conflict was much greater and closer to home, but overall the similarities are striking.

The artists and their troubled lives could just as easily been transposed with names and dates of artists from the 1960s with slight variations on the outcomes. Killed in Vietnam as opposed to killed in World War II. Died of drug overdose vs. committed suicide. Suffered from Post Traumatic War syndrome as opposed to received psychological treatment. In fact, if you threw the rise of the Nazis on top of the 60s youth movement I am not sure they would have coped as well as the earlier group did.

I have therefore come to the conclusion that there is no deep, dark hidden meaning behind German Expressionist art. No terrible angst of the German soul that cries out for compassion. Just the voice of a generation of young, brilliant, overly optimistic youth who didn't see any reason why they shouldn't rebuild the world into a new world and attempted to do so. Sometimes blind optimism is needed when attempting the impossible but there are always consequences.

Both of these movements are roughly 50 years apart. If this is a cycle then it should be about time for another batch of unbridled optimism to sweep us to God knows where. Are you ready?


1 Heller, Reinhold (2003) Confronting Identities in German Art. David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago

2 Sinaiko, Eve, Hammond, Anna and Doyle, Katherine Rangoon (Ed.) (1998) History of Modern Art. Prentice Hall, NJ.

3 Hudson, David. German Expressionism 15 Oct, 2003

4 Miesel, Victor H. (1970) Voices of German Expressionism. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

5 Bronner, Stephen Eric (Ed.)(1988) Passion and Rebellion, the Expressionist Heritage. Columbia University Press, New York.

6 Taylor, Seth & de Gruyter, Walter (1990) Left-Wing Nietzscheans, the Politics of German Expressionism 1910-1920. Berlin, NY.

7 Benson, Timothy O. (1993). Expressionist Utopias. Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Museum Associates.

8 The Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, (1980) Expressionism, a German Intuition 1905-1920. New York: Author

9 Jager, Nita (Ed.) (1970) Brucke. Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, Cornell University.


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