The era of German Expressionism was finally extinguished by the Nazi dictatorship in 1933. But its most incandescent phase of 1910-1920 left a legacy that has caused reverberations ever since. It was a period of intellectual adventure, passionate idealism, and deep yearnings for spiritual renewal. Increasingly, as some artists recognized the political danger of Expressionism’s characteristic inwardness, they became more committed to exploring its potential for political engagement or wider social reform. But utopian aspirations and the high stakes involved in ascribing a redemptive function to art meant that Expressionism also bore an immense potential for despair, disillusionment and atrophy.
Along with works of profound poignancy, it also produced a flood of pseudo-ecstatic outpourings and a good deal of sentimental navel-gazing. Some of the most stunning products of German Expressionism came from formal public collaborations as well as intimate working friendships. There were elements of both in the groups most important for pre-war Expressionism, the Brücke (Bridge) and Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), for instance.
Fierce arguments were conducted and common ground was staked out in journals such as Der Sturm (The Storm) and Die Aktion (Action), as well as in the context of numerous group exhibitions. Others came from introspective loners working in relative isolation. Crucially, this was also an age shattered by the crisis of a devastating technological war and in Germany, its most debilitating aftermath. The conflict and trauma of the period is inseparable from the forms Expressionism took, and ultimately, from its demise.
Art in late nineteenth-century Wilhelmine Germany was dominated by professional institutions, such as the Academy, and by artistic conventions, such as the emphasis on historical and literary subjects as those most worthy for public exhibition. The mixture of intricate realism, patriotism and cosy sentimentality in Anton von Werner’s Im Etappenquartier vor Paris (In a Billet outside Paris) exemplifies well “official” taste in the 1890s. As soon as it had been completed, it was bought for the Nationalgalerie.
The painting shows a comradely group of soldiers relaxing to the strains of a Lied by Schumann, Das Meer erglänzte weit hinaus, played and sung by two lancers. The setting is a requisitioned chateau just outside Versailles during the Franco-PrussianWar of 1870-71. Their bluff manliness – all muddy boots and ruddy cheeks – and wholesome love of German Kultur is very deliberately contrasted with the effete rococo fussiness of French Zivilisation in their surroundings.
Von Werner was director of the Berlin Academy and the most powerful figure in the institutional German art world at the time. He was also the favourite of Kaiser Wilhelm II, himself notoriously opinionated, conservative and outspoken in his views on art. All the more shocking, then, was the work sprung on an unsuspecting public at the newly opened headquarters of the conservative Verein Berliner Künstler (Union of Berlin Artists) in 1892. It was by a Norwegian artist then still unknown in Germany, but who would inspire many Expressionists in the decades to follow – Edvard Munch.
He had been invited to exhibit and arrived with fifty-five works, including one or more versions of The Kiss. This image resurfaced 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. When Erich Heckel met Munch in 1907, Munch offered the young German artist his Strindbergian view of women: “Das Weib ist wie Feuer, wärmend und verzehrend”. (“Woman is like fire, warming and consuming”.)
If we try to imagine the effect images like Munch’s had on the conservative “establishment”, we can also understand something of the sexual insecurities of the age. Critics scorned Munch’s pallid colours, likening them to a housepainter’s undercoat. But more than considerations of technique, it was the subjects of Munch’s work that offended conservative sensibilities.
To the cultured men of the Verein, with their taste for heroic battle scenes and history painting, The Kiss, along with Munch’s other deeply introspective syntheses of the taboos of sex, death and intense emotion, were anathema. Add to this the howls of protest from the press and it is no surprise that the exhibition was closed after just one week. Paradoxically, the scandal did more for Munch’s career than any other event. The incident had far-reaching ramifications. It caused a rift between liberal and conservative members of the Verein that ultimately led to the foundation of the more progressive Berlin Secession. A decade later, Munch was to become a rich source of inspiration for Expressionist artists as they explored ways of giving form to subjective perception and emotional states, rather than mimesis and anecdote.
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