History of Expressionist Painting (1880-1930)
Although expressionist painting may be said to have originated with the British painter JMW Turner (1775-1851) - see, for example, his extraordinary work Interior at Petworth (1837, Tate) - the history of expressionism as a movement, begins in Paris. The year 1905, in particular, saw the emergence of a new generation of 20th century artists. In the Autumn Salon a group mounted an exhibition which would rock academies across Europe. The group had formed around Henri Matisse (1869-1954), its other members being Albert Marquet (1875-1947), Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), Henri Manguin (1874-1949), Kees van Dongen (1877-1968), Charles Camoin (1879-1965), Othon Friesz (1879-1949), Georges Rouault (1871-1958), Andre Derain (1880-1954) and Jean Puy (1876-1961). The works they exhibited horrified the public by virtue of the stark simplicity of style and the way they were built up from bright contrasts of colour. The bust of a child of the most conventional sort stood amongst their paintings, prompting one of the art critics, the highly influential Louis Vauxcelles, to remark: "Donatello among wild beasts" ("Donatello chez les Fauves"). Thus was the name Fauvism born. Curiously, both Kandinsky and Jawlensky showed their paintings in the same exhibition and aspired toward the same goals as the French artists, without being labelled Fauvist painters by the critics.
Meanwhile, in Dresden, Germany, a circle of architecture students had formed themselves into a group of artists known as Die Brucke (The Bridge) which looked to the same models for inspiration as the Fauves: namely, Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat. Die Brucke embodied the early aesthetics of German Expressionism, a movement which would reshape abstract as well as representational art.
A dissatisfaction with the traditional conception of reality as represented by Impressionism was what characterized this new rebellious generation. These modernists were aware that the depiction of outer appearances comprises only one aspect of reality, and cannot penetrate to the essence of things. They had realized that both the most painstaking analysis of what they observed, and the depiction of mental processes were inadequate to express the complete being.
Matisse formulated it thus: "What I seek above all to achieve, is expression. Expression does not lie for me in the passion which suddenly animates a face or which manifests itself in a violent movement. It lies rather in the whole organization of any painting. The space which the objects occupy, the emptiness around them, and the proportions, all play a part." And he went on to add: "The foremost purpose of colour must be to aid expression as much as possible." Matisse's aim was to imbue external reality, experienced through the senses, with the reality of the artist's inner experience. This was the struggle for artistic synthesis to which Kandinsky also referred.
The premises on which the evolution of the expressionist movement was based, emerge more clearly when we think of Seurat, Gauguin and Van Gogh.
Georges Seurat (1859-1891) had a powerful and logical mind which was not satisfied by the spontaneity of Claude Monet (1840-1926) and his analysis of light based on instinct alone. So he sought to create a new kind of Impressionism - Neo-Impressionism - through a method of freeing colour from substance, using the pure colours of the spectrum to achieve a 'light-painting in colour'. His systematic investigation of scientific colour theory in painting and light analyses, and the study of simultaneous colour contrasts led him to a surprising solution: colours were no longer mixed on the palette; instead this was achieved in the eye of the spectator. The pure colours of the spectrum were therefore painted as small dots next to each other on the canvas - a technique called Pointillism. They merge on the retina of the observer who is sufficiently far away from the painting. The importance for the following generation of the Neo-Impressionism was its use of pure colour as a means of expression.
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) had also opened up a new creative route. His starting point, Impressionism, remained too close to nature for him. He wrote that the Impressionists "neglect the secret meaning of thought. Art is abstraction; draw it from nature as you dream of it." Gauguin was attempting to restore a meaning to painting, in his pictures of figures, that could be interpreted as a universal image of human existence. Both at the Pont-Aven School in Brittany, where he formed a group of primitives, and later in the South Seas, Gauguin was seeking the primal experience in order to achieve truthful expression. For this reason, he was deeply interested in primitive art and folklore and studied the Japanese Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints which were then in fashion.
As a result of such stimulus he evolved a style of decorative art which for the most part abandoned two-dimensional illusionist techniques in order to portray experience. At Pont-Aven, he and Emile Bernard (1868-1941) developed two techniques, Synthetism (c.1888-94) and Cloisonnism (c.1888-94), in which colour is applied flatly (that is, with few shaded areas or any type of 3-D modelling) carefully adhering to the area of the image depicted, and is held together by means of heavily-drawn contours, in the style of stained glass. A flatness and rhythmically decorative drawing style were the active elements, as well as Gauguin's conviction (not unlike Kandinsky and Kupka) that the colour tone harmonies in painting had their counterpart in the harmonies of music. Hence this regard for the psychological significance of colour which made it possible to hint at a meaning without the need for a 'literary' description. (Gauguin's reputation benefited significantly from his important retrospective, held in 1906 at the Salon d'Automne in Paris.)
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) had been introduced to both Seurat and Gauguin in 1886 by his brother Theo. He owed them much fundamental knowledge about the expressive power of pure colour and line. Nevertheless his point of departure was not one of artistic calculation but of existential need. For Van Gogh, painting proved the only possibile way of expressing his ecstatic love for man and for things. He exposed himself directly to communion with objects, in order to penetrate the dazzle of the external world and the hell of another reality, one discovered in the most intense agitation. This message is conveyed through the heightened tone of his blazing colours and dynamic brush-work like tongues of flame, whose spontaneous strokes are a direct reflection of the artist's mental condition. Van Gogh's compulsion to surrender himself unprotected to the world in order to experience its truth, consumed his strength in a short space of years. The way he chose to create art - as an answer to existential anguish, and to sacrifice his life when the tension grew unbearable - became a tragically exemplary fate for those artists who sought to unify life and art in the decade that followed. See his extraordinary gestural style of expressionist painting at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and at the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo.
The conclusions which the Fauvist painters advanced in 1905 had evolved slowly. The group around Matisse by no means represented a school and advanced no binding program. On the contrary, it was demanded of each painter that he should express his individuality. Their common goal was to create a new form of avant-garde art which would act as a contrast to the naturalism of the Impressionists. However, while Matisse dreamed of creating an art of purity and tranquillity, without ambiguities, one that would provide spiritual reassurance and soothe the soul, Vlaminck saw Fauvism as a way of living, acting and painting. The former position implies the logical perfection of formal methods, the latter a spontaneous creativity based on instinct. They demonstrate the full range of the various artistic possibilities embraced by the term Fauvism. This is even more true of expressionism: it is the sum total of individual personalities bound together by the particular intellectual mood of a generation.
The Fauves group had developed out of relations between friends. Matisse and Marquet had met in 1892 during night classes in the School of Arts and Crafts in Paris. Matisse transferred to the School of Fine Arts in 1895, where Marquet later joined him. Here they met fellow students Rouault, Manguin and Camoin in the studio of Gustave Moreau (1826-98). After Moreau's death, Matisse had to leave the School of Fine Arts in 1899 and went to the Academie Carrfere where Derain and Puy were already working. Derain, who lived like his friend Vlaminck at Chatou near Paris, introduced the latter to Matisse at the famous Van Gogh exhibition of 1903. While Matisse and his friends were working together in Manguin's studio, Derain and Vlaminck painted at Chatou in the same studio. At the same time, the painters from Le Havre - Othon Friesz, Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) - were keeping close contact.
In 1901 the circle round Matisse had started to exhibit in the Salon des Independants and from 1903 in the newly-founded Salon d'Automne. Van Dongen, Friesz and Dufy showed their paintings at both. They discovered characteristics in common, and in 1905 appeared as a group. Georges Braque was the last to join them in 1906, but barely two years later, in collaboration with Picasso, he had already turned towards Cubism and abstraction.
The sources of inspiration for Fauvist painting were restricted to landscapes, human beings and objects in their everyday surroundings. The stimulus really was almost a matter of indifference, since the aim was no longer to imitate nature, to deceive the eye, but to provide an interpretation through subjective emotion and perception. Artists could no longer identify with the well-ordered world of beautiful appearances, nor accept it as true; imagination was to take the place of observation.
The means for this transition were already at their disposal: the pure colour pigments of the Neo-Impressionists, the unbroken surfaces of Gauguin and the heightened expressiveness of Van Gogh. However, Seurat's method was given new meaning. It became a way of lending rhythm and dynamism to the surface of the painting, marked by the spontaneity of the brushstrokes. The contours of objects were reduced in detail, to an ornamental array of lines, which through their stark simplification condense and segment what is expressed. As a consequence of the introduction of anti-naturalism and of a very great intensity, achieved with the aid of positively aggressive contrasts, colours became the true medium of the new artistic reality. These methods were put into practice with uncontrolled high spirits, sometimes with explosive force - a delirium, an orgy of colour became from then on a recurring characteristic of Fauvism.
However, the exaltation which had thus been won from youthful energy only lasted a few years, since, as Braque said, "you cannot remain in perpetual paroxysm". By 1908 the need for clarity of construction came to the fore under the influence of Cezanne. Some of the Fauves followed his path; others reverted to a type of late Impressionism. An individual path was followed by Rouault, who counts as the one real French expressionist. He was connected with the Fauves and exhibited with them, but his painting is filled with human problems. It is a reply to existential anguish and an indictment of society. With Christian compassion he revealed the terrible side of reality which can only be conquered by faith. As a result, Rouault, with his impasto technique and the suppressed passion of his visions, became the most important religious painter of the twentieth century.
The work of Picasso (1881-1973), the leader of the Ecole de Paris, also grew out of compassion and human sympathy, for in his earliest paintings he dramatized misery with powerful colours. Subsequently, he abandoned colour contrast and concentrated this violence of emotion on one colour alone - blue: see, for instance, - La Vie (1903, Cleveland Museum of Art) and The Burial of Casagemas (1901, Musee d'Art Moderne, Paris). He achieved the most passionate heightening of expression in the picture Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907 through his radical distortion of the object's shape: this painting is simultaneously the greatest achievement of Expressionism and the key work of Cubism. See also: Weeping Woman (1937, Tate, London).
In the Orphism of the French painter Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), another important member of the Paris School, distortion used as a means of dynamic expression together with the agitated rhythm of his colour, combined to produce an expressionist vision, which, due to its splintered effect and plunging lines, came to be the most popular example of expressionist painting, extending its influence, on German art in particular, right into the 1920s.
The glittering contribution of Modigliani (1884-1920) was necessarily brief. Arriving in Paris in 1906, he soon came into contact with the art writer Max Jacob (1876-1944), the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) and Picasso. From the start he made the portrait genre his own, and later the female nude, fusing the primitivism of African sculpture with expressive distortion and elongation. Even today, his expressionist portraits and nudes are instantly recognizable for their lyrical quality and subdued colours, and constitute some of the greatest 20th century paintings of the Expressionist school.
In the same way as Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier (1881-1946) used the Cubist dissection of form in order to analyse the object rather than as a means of heightening expression and he was particularly influential in the Netherlands. This gives some indication of the spectrum of expressionist French painting, which was enriched by important painters, particularly from Eastern Europe, including - the Paris-based Czech abstract artist Frank Kupka (1871-1957); Marc Chagall (1887-1985), the great Jewish symbolist and surrealist painter; and Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), the intense Minsk-born Jewish expressionist with his emotive brushwork; all of whom were noted members of the Ecole de Paris.
The development in Germany paralleled that in France. Here, 1905 was a critical year, with the founding of Die Brucke in Dresden. However, activities were not concentrated on one spot, as in Paris, but were divided between individuals in different places. They evolved independently of each other and were yet linked with the situation in Europe. This meant adapting native trends such as Jugendstil as well as lyrical naturalism and getting to know some of the precepts which had been evolved in France. In addition, the gloomy canvases of the Norwegian master Edvard Munch and the symbolism of the Belgian painter James Ensor provided specifically German ingredients.
James Ensor (1860-1949) portrayed the hideous features of masks and fantastic ghost worlds using quite realistic, even Impressionist, methods. An introvert, alienated from men and the world, he was unable to grasp reality. In its place, a world of fear emerged in his hallucinatory fantasies: skeletal, hidden behind masks and disguises, and always threatened by decay and death. Ensor did not paint with the purpose of intensifying his powers of expression, but was driven by inner phantoms which directly reflect the mental condition of the artist. This fateful alienation linked Ensor with Van Gogh, but also with Munch.
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) had received decisive stimuli in the circle of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris. He rendered these impressions sensually and intensified his painting into an expressionist art typical of Northern Europe, nourished on hypocrisy and melancholia. He painted landscapes suffused with mysterious forces; men moulded by dark impulses; fear, hatred, jealousy, loneliness and death; paintings which were increasingly pessimistic visions of the artist's own fate.
This revelation of self, the inner scream, which intensifies both clarity and torment, the neurotic and oppressed spirit of Munch's art, was a signpost at the beginning of the century. At the same time, Munch gave an important impetus to the revival of woodcuts, which later attained a new significance in German Expressionism at the hands of Emil Nolde and Schmidt-Rottluff.
At the beginning there were three North German artists who worked in different places, drawing their decisive experiences from the native countryside: Paula Modersohn-Becker, Christian Rohlfs and Emil Nolde.
Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) had come to the colony of artists in Worpswede as a twenty-two year old in 1898. This village near Bremen was one of the places where artists had withdrawn in order to re-discover the harmony between man and nature in seclusion. Paula Modersohn-Becker quickly outgrew the lyrical landscape painting which was practised here. She reduced the appearance of objects to their formal essence, a procedure considered mistaken in Worpswede. Several stays in Paris from 1900 onwards confirmed her in her striving after 'a great simplicity of form'. For her, it corresponded with her love for the simple life, for the simple people, whom she painted. She only had six years, from 1901-1907 in which to develop an austere and unsentimental form for the expression of her feelings, which often revolved round love and motherhood. In doing so, she had freed herself from the contingency of nature and created allegorical paintings out of her strength of feeling.
The power of this new direction is clearly exemplified by Christian Rohlfs (1849-1938). For thirty years he had painted landscapes in the most intimate tradition of realism. Now, at almost sixty years of age, he tackled the artistic problems of the age in a burst of development. He finally separated colour from substance, spread it thinly on the surface - often in water-colour: he gave it rhythm by means of a broken brush line which conveys spiritual agitation and lyrical feeling in expressive arabesques.
The most important of the North German painters was Emil Nolde (1867-1956), in whom the tie with the land is mirrored most strongly. Nolde, like Rohlfs, was the son of a farmer. He grew up in a lonely landscape which was continually threatened by storm and a violent sea. Nature's forms came to life in his imagination often as grotesque ghosts and demons. This experience of nature and a simplicity based on the word of the Bible, determined Nolde's art. Every observation, even the cry of animals, took the form of colour in his creative imagination, clamouring to be transformed into colour, which was accomplished at a pitch of excitement. In this, Nolde, like Vlaminck, trusted instinct alone. When he began a painting he contented himself with a vague idea of the colours, from which the picture could evolve freely in the process of painting. He succeeded in transforming nature by the addition of his own mental and spiritual perceptions into an expressionist vision. These ecstatic storms of colour in which Nolde managed to intensify his personal expression, exercised a strong influence on Die Brucke and its members.
In 1905, as we have seen, four architecture students, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Fritz Bleyl (1880-1966), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976) and Erich Heckel (1883-1970), had formed a society of artists in Dresden, known as Die Brucke, who wished to attract all revolutionary and innovatory elements in order to win the freedom to create, for the new generation.
In 1906, in addition to Nolde, the Swiss Cuno Amiet (1868-1961) and the Finn Axel Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) joined the group, but restricted themselves to occasional participation in their exhibitions. Max Pechstein (1881-1955) also joined in 1906; he had training at the Dresden Academy behind him and had already won the Prix de Rome. In addition, from 1908, the expressive Dutch painter Kees van Dongen (1877-1968) was a sympathiser, while Otto Mueller (1874-1930) was admitted to the circle in 1910. Mueller, who had studied at the Dresden and Munich academies, and was a skilled lithographer, had already almost completely worked out his personal style, which had little in common with the brilliant colours and flat style of Die Brucke. Nevertheless, the sensuous harmony between art and life that he had achieved, answered the intentions of the friends so perfectly that a partnership was the obvious conclusion. Finally, the Prague painter and graphic artist, Bohumil Kubista (1884-1918) joined the group in 1911, although close contact did not ensue.
They worked together with the assiduity of the possessed in a butcher's shop in a working-class area of Dresden. The subject matter of the paintings was taken from their everyday surroundings: landscapes, street scenes, portraits, scenes in their studio and life models.
The pictures were to be able to be filled directly with life and with experience. They originated in "the entirely naive and unadulterated need, to bring art and life into harmony" (Kirchner). Artistic stimulation came largely from exhibitions that travelled to Dresden: 1905 - Van Gogh; 1906 - Munch, Nolde, Seurat, Gauguin and Van Gogh; 1908 - Van Gogh again, in one hundred paintings, plus sixty of the Fauves, including Kees Van Dongen who, on the strength of this, was invited to join exhibitions of Die Brucke. What was at first intuitively transformed into art, was refined into a powerfully expressive art composed of a simplified tracery of lines, composition over large surfaces and pure colour. From the outset, woodcuts, as a means of clarifying form, were of great importance in this.
Another source of inspiration was fostered by the fact that normally the friends separated in the summer months in order to perfect what they had learned individually under mutual supervision afterwards. They worked either in the surroundings of Dresden, in Goppeln or by the Moritzberg lakes, at Dangast on the North Sea, on the Baltic Island, Fehmarn, or the Baltic shore at Nidden and so on. Landscape, the nude, and the nude in a landscape as a form of nature, were important themes for Die Brucke. The circus and the music halls were also popular subjects.
Naturalness and exaggeration offered possibilities of overcoming traditional bourgeois modes of behaviour. They were roads towards the 'new man' which the expressionists invoked with optimistic fervour. In order to be able to depict the universality and the objectivity they were referring to, colour was made independent, freed from its function of describing the object and used purely as the medium for expression; its effect was heightened by a style of drawing which reduced the object to a cipher.
In 1911 the painters of Die Brucke settled in Berlin where, in the last years before the First World War, the efforts of this modern art were concentrated. Kirchner reacted the most strongly to the change in environment and portrayed the hectic, evil and artificial elements in the modern city in tense and impressive paintings.
In the course of their six years work together, the personalities of the artists had become so distinctive that their association no longer corresponded to any inner necessity. Pechstein was the first to leave, and in 1913 Die Brucke broke up, with each member continuing to work independently. Nevertheless, what remained binding for each one was the ideal of absolute integrity, consistency and responsibility, in art as well as in human relations.
The avant-garde-artists in Munich had organized themselves relatively late into a group. In 1909 such a body came together under the name of The New Artists Association of Munich (Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen NKV). Its founder members were Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), his companion Marianne von Werefkin (1870-1938), Alexander Kanoldt (1881-1939), Adolf Erbsloh (1881-1947), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and his companion Gabriele Munter (1877-1962). They were able to base themselves on the results achieved in other places when they stated in their program, "We start from the idea that the artist is continually collecting experiences in his inner world, separate from the impressions which he receives from nature, the external world. The search for artistic forms that would express the mutual interpretation of all these experiences - for forms which must be freed from anything secondary, in order to throw the existential sharply into relief - in short, the struggle for an artistic synthesis, seems to us to be a banner which currently is again uniting an increasing number of artists."
The aim of the New Association of Artists was to be international. Their driving force came from the Russians who had been intimately involved with artistic developments in Paris. In 1906 Kandinsky had exhibited in the Salon d'Automne, and during his year's stay in Paris he had become a member of its jury. Jawlensky had mounted ten pictures with the Fauves in the 1905 Salon, and had met Matisse in whose studio he worked in 1907. So in return, it seems logical that the Henri Le Fauconnier should also have become a member of the Munich group.
The group's strong international complexion became evident at the group's exhibition in 1910; its catalogue contained contributions from Le Fauconnier, the Burlyuk brothers, Kandinsky and Odilon Redon (1840-1916), while the show also included paintings by Braque, Picasso, Rouault, Derain, Vlaminck and Van Dongen amongst others. This exhibition caused Franz Marc (1880-1916) and August Macke (1887-1914) to establish contact with the group.
However, by 1911 there were already rifts in the New Artists Association and in December 1911 a splinter group known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Horseman) was formed by Kandinsky, Marc and Munter. An exhibition was hastily organized the same month. This show, entitled "First Exhibition by the Editorial Board of Der Blaue Reiter", presented 43 works by 14 artists, including Delaunay, Heinrich Campendonk (1889-1957), Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), the Burlyuk brothers and Macke, as well as the organizers. In 1912 a slightly larger version of the show opened in Berlin as the inaugural exhibition of the Sturm Gallery, owned by Herwarth Walden (1879-1941), with additional paintings by Paul Klee (1879-1940), Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) and Jawlensky.
The second and final exhibition of the Der Blaue Reiter group was mounted in March in 1912. It contained graphic works by the Munich artists, and by a disparate collection of modernists including Nolde, Jean Arp (1886-1966), Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) and others. It was clearly evident from this that there was no united group behind these activities - indeed, there was no longer any attempt to form one.
The need for these smaller alliances had already been overtaken by a European movement, now manifest everywhere. The new impulse that carried expressionism forward stemmed above all from Kandinsky, but also from those around him - Jawlensky, Marc, and Klee - who all sought the total liberation of the picture from the object. Kandinsky's problem, for which he found solutions from 1912 onwards, was to find a way of creating a harmony in colour to parallel that in music. The content of a painting was from now on the orchestration of colour and the rhythm of forms, a conclusion also reached in France by Delaunay.
Tragically, the First World War put an end to this development. Kandinsky returned to Russia, Jawlensky emigrated to Switzerland, Macke and Marc died in the trenches.
A smaller centre formed in the Rhineland which was important more for the diffusion and recognition of the new art than as a crucial contribution to it - although Macke, Campendonck, Nauen, Rohlfs and Morgner worked here, to name but a few. In 1902, Karl Ernst Osthaus had set up a museum in Hagen out of private means; this very quickly brought together an important collection of expressionist paintings and the work of precursors, thereby providing an example with lasting effects. In 1909 the Sezession of West German Artists and Art Lovers was founded, whose programme was to mount a joint exhibition of French and German art. This culminated in 1912 in the famous exhibition of the Sezessionists in Cologne, a show which presented Post-Impressionist European art under the title "Expressionism" in a comprehensive way for the first time.
The new art was also successful in the most important German art scene in Berlin. The Berlin Sezession, founded in 1898, admitted the expressionist sculptor Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), the graphic artist Max Beckmann (1884-1950), the Cubist Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), Kandinsky, Munch, Nolde and Rohlfs, as well as Nabis like Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Maurice Denis (1870-1943) and the Fauvist leader Henri Matisse (1869-1954) as members, and provided opportunities for exhibition to the Fauves, the Die Brucke group, and the members of the New Association of Artists. After Nolde's exclusion in 1910, a New Sezession formed where young artists gathered.
In the same year, Herwarth Walden had founded the weekly magazine Der Sturm (The Storm), a polemical organ of combat for the new expressionist literature and painting, which soon reached an astonishing circulation of 30,000 copies. In 1912 the Sturm Gallery was founded and opened with the first exhibition of Der Blaue Reiter and works by Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). The Italian futurists contributed to the second exhibition. There followed exhibitions of French graphic art, 'French expressionism', works by the leading Belgian Fauvist painter Rik Wouters (1882-1916), as well as Ensor, Delaunay, Kandinsky, Macke, Marc, and the Prague artists Emil Filla (1882-1953) and Otto Gutfreund (1889-1927).
Walden never lost sight of the European sphere and the climax of activity in mounting exhibitions was the first German autumn salon of 1913, where he brought together works by 85 artists from twelve countries. Walden was an excellent organizer, who despite modest means, allowed numerous exhibitions to go on tour, not only in Germany but also in Scandinavia, London and Tokyo.
Italy's contribution to the revolt of the artistic youth of Europe became known in 1912 through the Italian Futurism movement, whose works were exhibited in Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Madrid. The artists Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Carlo Carra (1881-1966), Luigi Russolo (1885-1947), Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) and Gino Severini (1883-1966) were the most important painters in this movement. They had signed the Futurist Manifesto in 1910, which had been proclaimed in a Turin theatre in front of 3,000 people. Under the leadership of the poet Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944), an extremely radical art scene grew up which publicized its ideas at mass rallies.
Italian writers and painters felt humiliated that their country had fallen into artistic provincialism in the previous hundred years. Their national awareness, amounting to chauvinism, demanded, in the political sphere, a new empire, a hegemony to which they also laid claim in the field of art. The artistic imperative thus became a national issue which could only be resolved by means of a radical break with all tradition, through a cultural revolution. "Italy has been a second-hand market long enough": these were Marinetti's words in his first Futurist Manifesto which was published in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro in 1909. "We want to liberate it from the innumerable museums which cover it like innumerable cemeteries."
Futurism, the art of the future, which was against tradition that stifled all creativity, was fascinated by the rhythm of modern city life, by the intoxication of speed and the machine.
"A racing car at speed is more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace," announced Marinetti, who saw the crucial criterion for artistic expression in the dynamism of modern civilization. Instead of the depiction of a static object, it mattered henceforth that - through movement - the world around us, the before and the after, should be able to be incorporated into the picture as essential constituents of the object's existence. The appearance of the object was extended by foreknowledge, by emotion and by memories into a complex reality, whose elements were depicted simultaneously. With the help of movement and simultaneity they succeeded in allowing the most disparate levels of reality to interpenetrate and to discover a new creative possibility in art which permitted them to portray the power of the streets and of life; the ambition and fear which one can see in the city; the feeling of apprehension engendered by its noise.
The Futurists had begun with Neo-Impressionism and borrowed also from Cubism; they in their turn, however, furnished a concept in the dynamism achieved through their analysis of movement - which continued to have an influence in France and Germany even after 'classic' futurism had come to an end with the outbreak of war.
Without the work of the Russian artists the art of Der Blaue Reiter would be inconceivable, and that of the Parisian scene the poorer. The evolution of Russian expressionism began in 1906 in Moscow with the founding of the joint association, The Skyblue Rose (Die Himmelblaue Rose), whose leading members were Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964), Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), David Burlyuk (1882-1967) and his brother Vladimir. These artists had made their appearance the same year in the exhibition of Russian art in the Paris Salon d'automne. They developed their art in constant contact with Western Europe.
Modern French art in particular had been continuously present in Moscow since the fauve exhibition of 1907, not least through the large collections of Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) and Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936). In 1910, the Knave of Diamonds Artists Group was set up in Moscow to promote avant-garde art, while the Burlyuks were already forming a futurist group. Nevertheless, the Russians did not consider themselves dependent but as kindred spirits, as they clearly stated in the almanach, Der Blaue Reiter. As inspiration for their expressionist art, they cited folk art, old church frescoes and icon paintings of the saints. The influential Larionov, especially, appropriated the naive, lapidary gestures of popular art and formed 'primitivism' from it, forming the Donkey's Tail Artist Group in the process.
Contacts with Cubism and Futurism led Larionov and Goncharova to Rayonism. In this, objects and figures were split into 'ray' diagrams, into colour bundles out of which purely abstract shapes were eventually formed. Despite their affiliation with the 'traditionalist' rather than 'international' wing of the Russian art scene, Larionov and Goncharova left Russia in 1914, and settled in Paris.
At the same moment, the painting of the Czech artist, Frank Kupka (1871-1957) evolved rapidly, from Neo-Impressionism to pictures built up from colour alone without reference to any object. As it was, Czech art - whose centre was Prague - sought to link itself with France, since France symbolized for these artists their opposition to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. In 1907 and 1908, the group Acht, to which belonged the most important painters of the Czech avant-garde, such as Emil Filla, Bohumil Kubista and Antonin Prochazka, mounted exhibitions of works which had already absorbed the ideas of the Fauves and the expressionists. The Prague artists fostered close contacts. They were part of the European scene; from 1911 onwards, they took part in all important exhibitions in Germany and organized others in which all the French avant-garde and Die Brucke painters participated.
Soon various groupings formed in Prague as a result of rifts; they started from very similar principles, but attacked each other violently over problems of theoretical interpretation and the creative evolution of Cubism. However, the Cubist method was in every case overlaid with expressionist emotiveness and fused with the native Baroque tradition; with it a strong predilection for allegorical and visionary scenes created a quite specific Cubo-Expressionist style.
The Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia who had pointed the way for European expressionism with Van Gogh, Ensor and Munch, were hardly touched inside their boundaries by these artistic developments at the beginning of the century. In fact they did not produce any expressionist works until the 1920s and 1930s, when the style was finally taken up by Belgian expressionist painters like Frits Van Den Berghe (1883-1939), Constant Permeke (1886-1952), Albert Servaes (1883-1966), and Gustave de Smet (1877-1943).
Artistic goals changed completely as a result of the devastating consequences of the war. For the generation of artists born around 1880 who were now entering middle life, a youthful and revolutionary attitude was no longer credible. The visions they had derived from their youthful enthusiasms palled before the horror of reality: the frenziedly intoxicated ego of the artist could not control his overwhelming and dreadful sensations, let alone conceive of form through intensified expression. The change in reality demanded greater tranquillity of form, required an object as a support for expression.
The younger generation in Germany, especially Otto Dix (1891-1969), George Grosz (1893-1959) and Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966), for whom expressionism meant revolution and an opening, pursued it as a postwar concept for a short while longer, notably in the Die Neue Sachlichkeit style of "New Objectivity". Nevertheless, the expressionist fervour which was used as a means to political action after the end of the war, had become worn out.
"Expressionism has nothing to do any longer with the aspirations of active people," announced the Dada Manifesto, somewhat prematurely, in 1918. In fact, the expressionist impulse continued to evolve: either through verisimilitude (Dix, Grosz, Beckmann), landscape painting (Kokoschka), Neoclassicism (Picasso), Surrealism (Joan Miro, Yves Tanguy, Arshile Gorky), and Cubism (Picasso's portraits of Dora Maar).
Later, with the onset of World War II, the expressionist torch passed to the New World, where the American New York School invented a whole new style of abstract expressionism, which returned to Europe as Art Informel.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY