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Baldwin Expressionism




[Research naturalist movement as socialist-anarchist pastoral utopia beyond class and

Robert Baldwin
Associate Professor of Art History
Connecticut College
New London, CT 06320

(This essay was written in 1995 and was slightly revised in 2002 and 2007. In December,
2010, I added a short discussion of Marc‟s Large Blue Horses and a paragraph on the
fawn in Deer in the Cloister Garden as an animalized Romantic child and kindred spirit.)

Expressionism emerged in Germany and Austria around 1910 as a utopian artistic
movement encompassing literature, theater, and the visual arts. In the painting, sculpture,
and prints, Expressionism injected intense psychological drama into Fauve color and
Cubist form. If the Fauves had tamed free color of earlier Symbolist psychological
drama, the Expressionists brought it back with none of the inward dreaminess and
subtlety of Symbolists like Gauguin and Redon.

Expressionist art focused on violent, "primitive" expression, color contrasts, angular
lines, raging emotion, and burning hopes for a better future. Many of the Expressionists
were Democrats, Socialists, or Communists whose yearning for a modern democratic
Germany were fulfilled after WWI when the defeat of Germany triggered the collapse of
the central imperial government and local revolutions in the various German states
(Prussia, Bavaria, etc.) sweeping away the rule of powerful aristocrats. In 1919, a new
alliance of liberal democrats and socialists proclaimed the first democratic Germany, a
state known as the Weimar Republic. 1 In the same year, 1919 Feininger designed a
woodcut frontispiece for the program of the new Bauhaus architectural school formed in
Weimar. Entitled “The Cathedral of Socialism,” it depicted a cubistically rendered Gothic
cathedral fragmenting into crystalline forms as it reached into the heavens. To give voice
to the yearnings embodied in this woodcut, we might cite the following passage from
Transformation, an Expressionist play written in prison by the Socialist, Ernst Toller,
which premiered in Berlin in 1919.

       Now open themselves, born of the world’s womb
       The high arched doors of Humanity’s cathedral.
       The youth of every people strides flaming
       To the glowing crystal shrine they sensed in the night. 2

The artistic heyday of German Expressionism was 1910-1920. It began four years before
the outbreak of WWI and continued for a few years after the war. The utopian yearnings
of German Expressionism are particularly clear in Max Pechstein‟s woodcut inscribed,
To All Artists (1919) used as the cover for a Expressionist pamphlet with a manifesto by
Pechstein and a variety of other writings. Printed in red, the image shows a fiery young
man reaching up in gesture which both signals a loyal oath to the Expressionist cause and
calls on all artists across Germany to unite in a movement, which, although artistic and
spiritual is also in some ways political. The strident gesturing and oratory comes directly
from modern, revolutionary political imagery going all the way back to David‟s Oath of
the Horatii.

Expressionists were artists, not political theorists, economic planners, or advocates of
public policy. As such they lacked any coherent social vision or concrete plans for
reform. The vagueness of their progressive thinking is clear in a statement of purpose
issued by Brücke artists in 1906.

       As believers in evolution, in a new generation of both creators and art lovers, we
       call together the whole of Youth, intending, as youth upon whose shoulders the
       future rests, to win freedom of life and action against the entrenched forces of
       age. 3

Expressionists poets were equally vague and wildly idealistic in their Socialist language.
Johannes Becher‟s poem, Brotherhood (1916) has numerous outbursts like the following.

       Join in the march! Write Freedom on our banners!!
       Our rhythm smash thee, ancient word, for good!
       A star looms up. Mark above our plan:
       Paradise of Brotherhood. 4

While this displays the rejection of artistic tradition common among early twentieth-
century painters and trumpets the youthful idealism of German Expressionism, it says
nothing concrete. While individual Expressionists had more specific things to say about
their artistic goals, their utopian social aspirations never went beyond vague comments
about a new, more democratic order.

It was, perhaps, inevitable, that any artistic movement stressing "free" personal
expression and utopian fervor would soon burn itself out, especially after the horrifying
disaster of WWI. By the end of hostilities in 1918, Germany was badly weakened
politically and economically with hundreds of thousands of its able-bodied men either
killed or crippled. Although no foreign troops ever entered native soil, Germany was
defeated and had to accept humiliating surrender terms. The terrible inflation which
followed the war, along with the great flue pandemic which killed some 20 million
people around the world destroyed what little was left of Expressionist utopian fervor in
Germany. Those Expressionists who survived the war turned away from the highly
emotional forms of the 1910-20 period and either abandoned Expressionism for
Constructivism, as did Kandinsky (who had fled to his native Russia as soon as war broke

out), or moved into a much more moderated late Expressionist style as did Nolde and

Most of the Expressionists in Germany belonged to one of two artistic groups: the Brücke
and the Blue Rider.

Brücke Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin

The Brücke (Bridge), which started in Dresden and moved to Berlin, included Kirchner,
Pechstein, Heckel, Mueller, and Schmidt-Rottluff and unaffiliated artists like George
Grosz and Otto Dix. After a Fauve period, the Brücke artists moved by 1910 to an
Expressionist style drawing on the Symbolists, Munch, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, who
were well known in Germany. Kirchner‟s poster for a Gauguin show in Dresden in 1910
resembles the woodcut style of both Munch and Gauguin. Even more important for the
Brücke was the discovery of African sculpture which they used to develop an Africanized
“primitive” style of jagged forms, mask-like faces, rough surfaces, and starkly carved
woodcut forms.

Brücke Landscape and Utopian Fervor
Most Brücke art from 1910-1920 depicted pre-modern landscape or the modern city, two
sides of one coin. Brücke landscape featured a utopian, unsoiled nature imagined outside
all contemporary reference and filled with large nudes bathing and romping. In this trend,
they had much in common with Fauves like Matisse and Derain, with Symbolists like
Gauguin and Hodler, and Post-Impressionists like Cezanne (not to mention earlier
Impressionists like Renoir, who died in 1919, and academic painters like Puvis).

In German Expressionism, these landscapes with nudes were directly tied to liberal
political, moral, and sexual values and found another closely related subject of great
interest, the female nude. The Expressionist search for a primeval, authentic, modern
humanity in the nude body set into the woods also drew on the new naturalist (nudist),
health, dance, and camping movements sweeping Germany in the early twentieth century.
The Expressionist landscape with nudes also signaled utopian hopes of a new social order
freed of class divisions, religious morality (which was usually ridiculed or condemned by
Expressionist writers), and, to a lesser extent, German nationalism. (Despite aspirations
to universalizing imagery, the German Expressionists proudly claimed their movement as
distinctly German and looked back on “German” traditions all the back to the Gothic
period seen as a unique period of “German” cultural greatness, spiritual aspiration, and
social solidarity. In this selective, nationalistic reading of cultural history, France and
England disappear from the understanding of Gothic art. One German bestseller,
Langbehn‟s Rembrandt as Teacher, even hailed the Dutch artist Rembrandt as the
greatest German artist of all time and constructed a German cultural tradition stretching
back through the Romantics to Rembrandt and the Gothic.

Brücke Cityscape and a Distopic Modernity

The other side of the coin of Brücke imagery was the modern, distopic city. In paintings
and prints, Brücke artists depicted anxious images of modern prostitution, rape, murder,
gruesome sex killings, exploited workers, strikes, riots, assassinations, robberies,
suicides, corrupt industrialists and bankers, militarists, and the overwhelming horrors of
modern warfare at a time when a wide variety of new weapons of mass destruction
(tanks, machine guns, long range artillery, poison gas, and eventually airplanes) allowed
10 million people to be killed in four years, many of them in trench warfare fighting for a
few hundred yards. In Expressionist art, modern warfare was often as a larger metaphor
for other kinds of destruction and, in some artists, utopian hopes for a better future rising
from the ashes. .

Grosz and the Socialist Image of the Apocalyptic City

Grosz was an extreme misanthrope and Communist who used his art to satirize
businessman and bankers, the military, the clergy, and the German middle class. His
experiences as a soldier in WWI left him with am implacable hatred of the army as an
institution governed by the worst sort of mindless regimentation, bullying, and tyranny.
Although some Expressionists like Marc were patriotic and quickly enlisted, most had
terrible fears of military service since it crushed all of the individual liberty they held
dear. Kirchner had a nervous breakdown after his service in the army and painted a Self-
Portrait as a Soldier with his right hand amputated and wrapped in a bloody bandage to
symbolize the destruction of his artistic abilities.

       ―It’s true, I’m against war, that is, I’m against every system that cages ME. . . .
       Every day my hatred of the Germans gets new, highly inflammable fuel from the
       incredibly ugly, unaesthetic, badly dressed look of the most German of them all.
       … I feel no relationship to this human stew. … Being German always means
       being tasteless, stupid, ugly, fat, nonathletic … Being German means being as
       reactionary of the worst sort; … You really begin to wonder how it can be
       possible that … millions of people exist so mindlessly, so unable to see what’s
       really happening, people who’ve had the wool pulled over their stupid eyes since
       their school-days, whose minds have been stuffed with the attributes of ignorant
       reaction, such as God, Fatherland, militarism.‖ 5

Grosz, The City, 1916-17
Using a palette of infernal red, orange, and black, Grosz depicted cosmopolitan Berlin as
an Apocalyptic nightmare of corruption and violence. Throughout the violently clashing
colors and jagged lines, one senses the dislocating horrors of modern warfare with its
artillery explosions and fire, an experience Grosz internalized and reconfigured to add to
the violence of the modern city. In this living hell, space is fractured in two by the
angular buildings and the two large streets which intersect in the foreground, assaulting
the viewer visually with a mob of undifferentiated persons who rush out along the
violent diagonals of the streets along with careening trucks and trolleys. Faces are

grotesquely caricatured and take on monstrous colors of red, green, and blue. Here the
city embodies everything which is modern and thus repugnant to Grosz, especially its
endless commerce – seen in the French-named department store and the many other
stores and hotels depicted here with their signs. Equally disturbing is the city‟s openness
to corrupting fashions and ideas from abroad. Thus the French and American names and
even the American flag at the upper left, this at a time when American was seen in
Germany as the country which embodied the worst aspects of a dehumanizing modernity.

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait as Mars,
Like Otto Dix also experienced trench warfare, artillery bombardments, and poison gas
first hand as a soldier in the German army. In 1914, he painted a powerful Self-Portrait
as a Soldier, using harsh versions of Fauve color with a focus on red smeared on like
blood. A year later, Grosz had taken up Cubism or rather, Orphism and Futurism, both of
which combined Cubist formal structure with rich color. In his painting, War (Ordnance)
of 1914, Dix built a massively dense composition around one of the new giant artillery
which Germany had unleashed on Belgium fortifications, the whole compositional
structure exploding with little bursts of color like artillery shells exploding.

The same year, Dix painted his Self-Portrait as Mars, thereby allying himself as a
creative artist with the god of an unimaginable destruction. Here we can see the Futurist
and Expressionist idea of creativity as a double-edged sword which in one instant made
something totally new artistically while simultaneously destroying all traditional notions
of artistry, beauty, and artistic purpose.

Close inspection of the artist‟s head and shoulders shows three red horses leaping in
terror, images borrowed from Franz Marc‟s latest, Apocalyptic landscapes with dying or
panicked animals. One might also recall the extended episode of the disemboweled horse
screaming on the battlefield all night in the anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western
Front. Just below the horse at the upper left are a trio of three dead or dying faces all
looking out at the viewer, two of them bleeding profusely from the nose and mouth.

Blue Rider Expressionism in Munich
In Munich, artists such as Kandinsky, Marc, Munter, Macke, Jawlensky and Klee formed
the Blaue Reiter group (Blue Rider). The Blue Rider generally avoided modern urban
problems of gender, class, and politics in favor of Romantic landscape imagery painted
south of Munich in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. Klee offered a more personal
imagery tied less to nature than to a private imaginary world.

While the utopian values of the Brücke group centered more around "free" sexuality, the
modern city, and other topical social issues, some leading members of the Blue Rider
group in Munich, especially Marc and Kandinsky, displayed a decidedly spiritual,
utopian vision which sheds important light on one recurrent strain of modern painting
running from the Romantics to the Abstract Expressionists. This strain sees artistic

ambition as a heroic spiritual quest defined against a larger materialism and corruption
said to pervade the modern world.

Defined in these terms, modern art claims to usher in a new age of spiritual depth, unity,
and social harmony. Between 1908-1915, Marc and Kandinsky slowly moved away from
representational forms on the spiritual grounds that visible matter itself was material,
base, and corrupt. For these two, the search for the spiritual in art required a move into
abstraction, though an abstraction carefully configured to suggest intense spiritual
longings and dramas of one kind or another.

Their greatest fear, in leaving behind the visible world, was that they would end up in a
spiritually empty formalism and an art of decoration, something they attacked in modern
French art after 1908 (especially later Fauvism and Cubism). The tensions, problems,
contradictions, and utopian spiritual hopes of the Blue Rider are clear in the writings of
Franz Marc published in the Blue Rider Almanac in 1912.

          "It is impossible to explain the recent work of these 'savages' [German
       Expressionists] as a formal development and a new interpretation of
       impressionism ... The most beautiful prismatic colors [a reference to French
       Fauvism] and the celebrated cubism are now meaningless goals for these
           Their thinking has a different aim. To create out of their work symbols for their
       own time, symbols that belong on the altars of a future spiritual religion...
          Scorn and stupidity [of the general public and the official art world] will be
       like roses in their path.
          Not all the official 'savages' in or outside Germany dream of this kind of art
       and of these high aims.
          All the worse for them. After easy success, they will perish from their own
       superficiality despite all their programs, cubist or otherwise.
           But we believe - at least we hope we are justified in believing - that apart from
       all these 'savage' groups in the forefront there are many quiet powers in Germany
       struggling with the same, high, distant goals and that ideas are silently maturing
       unknown to the heralds of the battle.
          In the dark, without knowing them, we give them our hand."6

   Here one sees vividly the anxieties of Expressionist artists over what they perceived as
purely formal, modernist painting, and over their own sense of cultural and social
isolation. They dream of larger movements and silent, invisible partners who are
preparing to emerge in public support. At the same time, Expressionists insisted on
maintaining the autonomy and spiritual integrity of their new art even at a cost of artistic
remoteness and alienation. For these artists, it was too late historically to return to the old
vocabularies shared by artist and audience in the past. These languages of theme and
style were seen as outmoded, empty, and false for the modern world.
   In another essay in the 1912 Blue Rider Almanac, Marc amplified these problems.

          We will make this [project of modern art and spiritual rejuvenation] as difficult
       as possible for ourselves, never fearing the ordeal by fire that will result from
       placing our works, which point to the future and are still unproved, beside the
       works of older, proved cultures. We believe that nothing can illustrate our ideas
       better than such comparisons. Genuine art can always be compared with genuine
       art... Time favors such comparisons for we believe we are standing at the turning
       point of two long epochs. The awareness of this turning point is not new; its
       summons was even louder a hundred years ago [in German Romanticism]. At that
       time, people thought they were very close to a new era ... A century intervened,
       during which a long and exceedingly rapid development took place. Mankind
       practically raced through the last stage of a millennium that had begun after the
       fall of the great classical world. At that time the 'primitives' broke ground for a
       long development of a new art [medieval Christian art] and the first martyrs died
       for this Christian ideal.
          Today this long development in art and religion is over, but the vast land is still
       full of ruins, of old ideas and forms that will not give way, although they belong to
       the past. The old ideas and creations live on falsely, and we stand helplessly
       before the Herculean task of banishing them and paving the way for what is new...
           But style, the inalienable possession of an earlier age, collapsed
       catastrophically in the middle of the 19th century. There has been no style since
       then ... what serious art there is had been made by individuals; these have nothing
       to do with style since they are unrelated to the style and needs of the masses. On
       the contrary, these works were made in defiance of their times. They are stubborn,
       fiery signs of a new age and they are appearing everywhere ... What looks unreal
       today will look real tomorrow.
           Where are such signs and works? How do we recognize the genuine ones?
           Like everything genuine, its inner life guarantees its truth. All works of art
       created by truthful minds without regard for the work's conventional exterior
       remain genuine for all times."

Marc continued by contrasting the popular acceptance of German Romantic art which he
grounded in a deep seated, artistic instinct shared by artist and audience - his concept of
"style" - to the modern artist's situation in a world lacking such "instincts".

          "For such a relationship to exist [between artist and public], the necessary
       basic condition, even today, is that the artist's 'homeland' possess a style.
           Since this is not the case [today], a chasm must exist between the genuine
       creation of art and the public.
           It cannot be otherwise because the artist can no longer create out of the now-
       lost artistic instinct of his people.
           But could not this very fact encourage serious thinking ... Perhaps the viewer
       will begin to dream in front of the new painting and encourage his soul to move
       onto a new plane?
           The present isolation of the rare, genuine artist is absolutely unavoidable for
       the moment.

Franz Marc, Deer in a Cloister Garden, 1912

Marc developed a highly personal, spiritual animal-landscape painting drawing on earlier
Romantic mythologies of the animal as a pure being living in perfect unity with a
surrounding, pure nature. Since the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century,
Romantic poets such as Blake (“Tiger, Tiger, burning bright) and painters such as
Gericault and Delacroix had idealized certain animals as versions of the noble savage
theme, living in harmony with a wild nature. As one of the great animal painters in
Western art and the only Expressionist to focus on the animal, Marc continued the
Romantic animal-landscape as a Paradise Lost, a nostalgic, pre-human image of a lost
harmony with nature.

After exploring the animals theme in his earliest works using a naturalist style, Marc‟s art
was completely transformed by the impact of Post-Impressionists such as Gauguin and
the Fauves, especially Braque and Derain. While adopting their bright, flat colors, Marc
developed his own style of 1910-12 with its more radiant colors and compositions formed
by rhythmically animated, curved forms as seen in Large Blue Horses (1911). Here
Marc‟s favorite animal – the noble horse - appears in hues of deep blue which for Marc
symbolized the spiritual. Freed from saddles and riders, removed from time and space in
an uninhabited, pre-modern landscape, the blue horses curl in on themselves as if
sleeping or meditating, displaying the interiority found in many Symbolist and Nabis
works from the previous two decades. The contours of hills flow through the bodies of
the horses like giant waves, bending and reshaping the animals with their oceanic flow
and giving powerful visual form to Marc‟s idea of an animalized harmony with nature,
As he wrote in his first published essay included in a book entitled, The Animal In Art,

    ―I am looking for a good, pure and clear style . . . I seek to strengthen my feeling for
    the organic rhythm of things in general, to identity pantheistically with the trembling
    and the flow of blood in nature, in the trees, in animals, in the air – to make that into
    a picture with new movements and with colors that pour scorn on old easel
    painting”. 7

In the second half of 1912, Marc‟s style changed dramatically a second time when he
integrated Cubist and Futurist geometrical forms with the harmonious compositional
patterning of French Orphist painters like Robert and Sonia Delaunay. This new style
appears in Deer in a Cloister Garden (1912). Marc's version of Cubism avoided Cubist
intellectuality and formalism and a monochromatic palette in favor of emotionally and
spiritually dramatic forms and colors. Cubist and Orphist facets of overlapping,
transparent color allowed Marc to imbed and dissolve the animal into a surrounding
landscape even more fully than in his earlier Fauve paintings.

With its reference back in time to the cloister gardens of medieval Europe, Marc‟s Deer
in the Cloister Garden also offered a modern, animalized version of a lost spiritual
paradise and human community projected back to the Middle Ages by many Romantics,
Symbolists, and Expressionists. As an ex-divinity student with a deeply spiritual bent,

Marc was particular interested in developing paintings which could function as “altars” to
a new spirituality he hoped would descend on a modern, materialistic Europe.

The choice of a deer, or rather a spotted fawn, for this imaginary cloister garden, is also
revealing. Unlike the terrifying lion or violent tiger (which Marc would soon paint) or the
powerful and noble horse, the deer was traditionally seen as a gentle and timid animal
which could even be tamed and kept as pets. Marc and his wife kept two deer as pets
after rescuing them from starvation. After enlisting in the German army, Marc often
asked after the deer in his letters home from the front. When one deer died in 1915, Marc

      ―Poor little Schlick has finished its little deer dream. It really is so: when I think of
      the short little life of such a small animal, I cannot get rid of the thought that it was
      just a little dream, this time a deer dream, some other time a human dream; but to
      the one who dreams, its essence is immanent and indestructible.” 8

On one level, the fawn in Marc‟s imaginary cloister garden animalized the traditional
nineteenth-century theme of the innocent, spiritual child seen in Romantic poetry (Blake)
and painting (Runge, Hicks) and continued in the sentimental peasant paintings of Millet
and Pre-Raphaelite painters, especially Hughes, and in certain Symbolists (Hodler,
Mondrian). As a reaction to the increasingly violent social, political, and economic
divisions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the peaceful animal such as
the horse or deer offered a therapeutic sanctuary from a human world contaminated by
greed, ambition, and hatred. We might also see Marc‟s Deer in the Cloister Garden as an
animalized self-portrait, or at the least, an image where we can see Marc projecting his
own widely noted gentleness onto a creature he identified with as an animalized kindred

Gothic Stained Glass, Modern Crystalline Form

In Deer in a Cloister Garden, the glowing animal fuses into a larger colored radiance
whose transparence, crystalline purity, and immaterial radiance suggests Gothic stained-
glass windows without using traditional Christian imagery. Here Marc went beyond the
medieval stained glass imagery of French Symbolists around 1890-1905 such as Odilon
Redon and Maurice Denis and developed his own version of an Expressionist utopian
imagery of glass, crystals and crystalline structures which took form at roughly the same
time in art criticism, poetry, architecture, and architectural writing.

The idea of crystalline and glass structures as a utopian spiritual construction was also
developed in 1912 by the Jugendstil artist, Wenzel Hablik, who had a vision of crystal
structures while walking in the Alps. The idea took on monumental form when the
architect, Bruno Taut, built a Glass Pavilion at the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in
Cologne. These ideas were amplified in Paul Scheerbart‟s book, Glass Architecture
(1914) dedicated to the glass architectural fantasies of Taut and calling for the end of “the

city as we know it” and a new “glass culture,” “a new glass like unto crystal (Revelations
4:6)”. And they reached a certain fruition in Heckel‟s landscape, Glassy Day of 1913 and
in Feininger‟s woodcut, The Cathedral of Socialism, already mentioned as the
frontispiece of the first Bauhaus program in 1919.

Even before these artists, the German art critic, Wilhelm Worringer had called for a new
abstracted art resembling the luminous crystal in his 1908 book, Abstraction and

       ―Thus all transcendental art sets out with the aim of deorganicizing the organic,
       i.e. of translating the mutable and conditional into values of uncontested
       necessity, But such a necessity man is able to feel only in the great world beyond
       the living, in the world of the inorganic. This led him to rigid lines, to inert
       crystalline form. He translated everything living into the language of these
       imperishable and unconditional values. For these abstract forms, liberated from
       all finiteness, are the only ones, and the highest, in which man can find rest from
       the confusion of the world picture.‖ 9

To be sure, Marc‟s handling of crystalline structures are compatible with the organic
forms of animals, and occasionally, with human beings. With this difference observed,
Worringer‟s formulation comes surprisingly close in spirit to the transcendent world of
animals, colors, and crystalline forms which made up Marc‟s vocabulary in 1912-15.

Franz Marc, Tyrol, 1914

By 1913, Marc's style had become increasingly dramatic, even violent, in line with a
larger European mood of Apocalyptic thinking. At a time of increasing social upheaval,
violent Socialist demonstrations, bombings, riots, and assassinations, many people
worried that some larger revolution or war was imminent. Two large paintings from
1913-1914, Fate of the Animals (1913) and Tyrol (1914), expressed Marc's apocalyptic
yearnings and fears in these years.

In Tyrol, a mountainous landscape exploded with jagged, shards of transparent color
suggestive of violence, death, and fire. Burned trees and two chalets appear at the bottom,
under a dead tree shaped ominously like a scythe. In mid 1914, Marc reworked the
painting, adding a Apocalyptic Virgin, standing on a crescent moon, holding a swaddled
baby, her head clothed with the sun. She rises above the fiery red zone of destruction, her
head appearing in the celestial zone of the mountain peaks. The sun and the moon appear
again in the upper corners, adding to the Apocalyptic imagery. It is important to note that
Marc used traditional Christian imagery here in a subtle and oblique manner, avoiding
any detail or specificity. The viewer discovers the figure only in the course of a
prolonged beholding, adding to its visionary and apocalyptic qualities.

Marc’s Apocalyptic Imagery of 1913-14

   With his background in divinity school and his intensely idealistic imagery of a
harmonious, spiritual animal world, Franz Marc embraced the Apocalyptic yearnings felt
by many Europeans at the onset of the war in 1914. Initially, he saw the war as
redemptive destruction out of which a new, better Europe would be reborn. Enlisting at
the outbreak of hostilities, he maintained this idealistic outlook for about a year.

    The great war will also put an end to many things which the twentieth century
mistakenly preserved, including the pseudo-art which Germans up to now have good-
naturedly tolerated.
   The urge to give structure to the new in music, poetry, and art was so weak in the last
generation that Germans were satisfied by the worst and most shabby repetitions of good
older art forms. The Volk [German people] as a whole, however, had a foreboding of the
war, more so than any individual, and therefore it was bracing itself for it.
   During such a waiting period art was not relevant, as a collective Volk effort it was not
of tune with the times.
   The Volk knew that it first had to fight its way through a war in order to shape for itself
a new life and new ideals. One could hardly expect the Volk to accept new artistic
concepts at the eleventh hour. One does not sow fine seed when a storm is building up.
  And the storm broke suddenly and destroyed many a delicate seed.
  I doubt whether many of the new and strange forms which we modern painters in
Germany created before the war will take root. We will have to begin working from the
very beginning again; first on ourselves in the school of this great war, then upon the
German Volk. Because when Germany is able to relax again, it will also ask about its art,
something that Germany always possessed in her periods of greatness.
  In the Gothic age the German was an artist, in the nineteenth century, a poet and
musician. Since the Gothic we Germans have become, as builders of form, incredibly
weak; we have done other things for the world, and now this last thing: this dreadful war.
Those out here who are living through it and are beginning to realize what we shall
conquer by it, they realize full well that one cannot put new wine in old bottles. Our will
to a new form will restructure this new century.


   How many of Christ's thoughts nowadays are still unknown and unused, suppressed.
Every age has the Christ it deserves and it takes from this inexhaustible spring as much
as its jugs will hold.
   The great Nazarene has intuitively grasped the laws of nature. His speech with all of
its rich imagery has not lost any of its power compared to our scientific formulations. His
deepest insights are still congruent with our newest discoveries; we still hear the
murmuring of this living source close by at our side.
   In terrible times such as ours all the age old questions are being asked again; many
dead, talked to death questions rise out of their graves. All the big experiences of world
history are major moments of judgment for humanity. The most venerable notions and

dogmas are reconsidered. What was important yesterday is now abolished and ignored.
Only the good things remain, the authentic and true things which are rich in meaning;
they will survive, refined and hardened by the purifying fire of this war.
   For centuries we Europeans have been working collectively and earnestly to create
such an authentic (authentic in terms of human knowledge) and true treasure, a heritage
which has survived every war, pure and without blemish—the "exact sciences." For the
first and only time has the "absolute" blessed the human spirit so that a realm was
created which also was "not of this world," but nevertheless pervaded everything that is
part of this world with feeling and order. The sciences recognize no national boundaries
and politics have no place in their realm. All modern people, all good Europeans, are
under its jurisdiction.
  Should the war bring us what we desire, and in proportion to our sacrifices—this
fantastic equation leaves us quite breathless—should this happen we Germans must shun
nothing more passionately than narrowness of feeling and national ambition. This would
spoil everything. To him who has shall be given. Only with such a motto will we be a
spiritual victor and the first among the Europeans. The European type of the future will
be the German type; but before that happens, the German must become a good
European. Right now he is not that everywhere and in every case.
   Germanic qualities will spill over all boundaries after this war. If we stay healthy and
strong and do not wish to lose the fruit of our conquests we will need immense power of
assimilation and a life force of such power that it will be able to pervade everything
without any fear of or consideration for the foreign or the new things which our power in
Europe will bring. Just as France was once the heart of Europe, now Germany will play
that role—but only if she is not thwarted by a narrow-hearted nationalism. People back
home should keep this in mind. We who are at the front breathe an air which is freer and
more spiritual. We fight the enemy; he is a soldier to us; we defeat him but we are not
trying to exterminate French culture. But many an announcement from back home sounds
very much as if that indeed were what should be done. . . . We need be no more fearful
and narrow-hearted in spiritual things than in anything else. And the situation should be
no different in art. In earlier times we were never afraid of foreign influences. Have
Moorish-French influences harmed the German Gothic?. . .
  Thus it will be well within our power to assimilate Latin art, threatened as it is by
overintellectualization and disintegration—not to preserve it but to enrich ourselves out
of an awareness of the fresh power, the joy and the richness of our spirit.
  No foreign treasure dare be foreign to us, not if we wish to remain rich and fertile.

 In WWI, new technologies and weapons of mass destruction - tanks, heavy artillery,
machine guns, aerial bombardment, poison gas and chemical weapons – were all
ruthlessly applied in indiscriminate attacks on cities and civilian targets and in a new
trench warfare where millions of soldiers died fighting over hundreds of yards with no
military value. To take one horrific example, the battle of Verdun lasted ten months and
killed 680,000 men, all within a few square miles of trenches. (By comparison, some
52,000 Americans died in ten years of fighting in Vietnam.) Feeding this insane violence
was a virulent, all-devouring nationalism deeply rooted in nineteenth-century European
political life and identity.

By the time Marc published his essay, “In War‟s Purifying Fire” late in 1915, the reality
of modern warfare had destroyed the artist‟s naïve ideas about war‟s purifying fire. In
writings from the front, he voiced deep pessimism about the war, even abandoning his
faith in the spiritual and aesthetic power of animal forms which had carried him up until
then. In his final works, executed in 1915 and early 1916, Marc gave up all animal forms,
all representation, tentatively embracing the new abstraction of his colleague, Kandinsky,
who had fled Germany in days to avoid arrest after war broke out in August 1914. It is
impossible to say where this new, abstract manner would have taken Marc. On March 4,
1916, while out riding on a reconnaissance mission, he was killed by an artillery shell in
the battle of Verdun.

KANDINSKY Russian, worked in Munich between 1908 and 1914

Working primarily within the larger category of landscape, Kandinsky's early works
(1904-10) developed rapidly from a fairy-tale like folk art to a radiantly glowing, stained-
glass-like Fauve painting (1908-09) to increasingly abstract, violently painted style which
sought the maximum drama of explosive, fiery color, sketchy, mysterious space, and
dramatic, swirling lines (1909-12). The works of 1909-12 often depicted riders dashing
through unspoiled, pre-modern, "Romantic" landscapes. As seen by the many earlier
images of riders published in the Blue Rider Almanac including heroic knights and St.
George slaying the dragon, the leaping horse with rider became a basic metaphor in
Kandinsky's early art for a modern, Expressionist spiritual exploration, journeying, or

Set into "mystical" landscapes whose heroic mountainous settings looked back to the
Alpine sublime of Romantics like Turner and Koch and Symbolist artists like Hodler,
Kandinsky's rider theme attempted to translate one motif of traditional history painting
and sculpture into modern Expressionist terms.

Kandinsky‟s Apocalyptic Abstraction

In 1910-12, Kandinsky‟s art turned increasingly Apocalyptic with religious titles and
imagery such as All Saint's Day, St. George and the Dragon, Deluge, and Last Judgment.
Here was an imagery of cosmic religious struggle between heaven and hell, celestial
spirit and corrupt matter. Already Symbolist artists like Redon, Moreau and others had
made the theme of the equestrian warrior slaying the dragon into a larger archetype of
heroic quest, victory, and spiritual ambition (including that of the Symbolist artist). This
equestrian warrior slaying a dragon encompassed a variety of subjects including Perseus
and Andromeda, St. George and the Dragon, and Rogier and Angelica, all found in
Symbolist art between 1880 and 1910. If this theme clarifies Kandinsky's roots in
Symbolism, it also exemplifies his interest in Apocalyptic themes of good battling evil.
And in so far the killing of a Satanic dragon was a major element in the Apocalypse,

Kandinsky's many depictions of St. George fit even more closely into Apocalyptic
Expressionism of 1910-1916.

At the same time, his art took on a violent, Apocalyptic character in its violent and
increasingly abstract style characterized by violent, swirling, volcanic colors, linear
patterns, and large, grand compositions. In Kandinsky‟s mind, and in the mind of Franz
Marc, abstraction itself was Apocalyptic. (While other artists such as Picasso and
Mondrian had very different ideas about abstraction, all modern artists who embraced
abstraction saw it as a way forward to a more universal, grand, and serious language
grounded in modern experience and conditions.)

In his writings, Kandinsky described the shift from the imaginary naturalism of his early,
more Symbolist works (1906-09) and early Expressionist works (1910-12) to the
abstraction of his works after 1913 as a move from a corrupt, limited, material aesthetic
to an art of utopian spirituality capable of breaking free from five hundred years of
Renaissance naturalism. In the Apocalyptic imagery of 1910-1914, Kandinsky came to
see all matter, all materialism, all naturalism as corrupt and false. As he wrote, these early
Expressionist works were "largely unconscious, spontaneous expressions of inner
character, nonmaterial in nature". After three years spent gradually abstracting figurative
motifs, Kandinsky made the leap into abstract works in 1913 as seen in his Improvisation
30 (Cannon) and in works of the following years such as the required work, Untitled
Improvisation, 1914. Even before this, he switched over to abstract titles, especially titles
with musical connotations such as Improvisation or Composition.

None of this was without problems (any more than it was for the Cubists who moved to
the verge of abstraction in 1913 with their analytical cubism only to pull back with a
more representational manner of collage cubism or synthetic cubism). For Kandinsky, the
movement into abstraction was gradual and troublesome. He worried about giving up
figurative elements, fearing his art might become little more than a decorative patterning
and lose its serious, "spiritual" significance. To explain the ambitious "expressive" goals
of abstract painting as he conceived it, Kandinsky published a short book entitled,
Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). This book helps us comprehend Kandinsky's
surprising assertion that "there are no formal questions in art". For Kandinsky, all art, or
at least, all good art, was about "expression".

Expressionism and the Modern Myth of Artistic Expression
If Kandinsky's occasional comments about an art of "spontaneous expression" were
primarily for external audiences, the reality of his artistic practice exposed the whole
myth of spontaneous or natural expression which had gripped Western thinking on art
since Romanticism. In actual practice, Kandinsky's wildest, volcanic paintings of the mid
teens were actually highly rationalized compositions developed carefully out of numerous
earlier studies. It is one of the supreme ironies of his art that the style which took the
sketch to a certain violent extreme of "pure spontaneity" beyond all rational control was
actually, at least in Kandinsky's hands, an art of the highest deliberation, arising out of a
whole series of preliminary studies. What seems to be an art without "preliminary work",

an art of the pure "sketch", was in fact the culmination of what was in many ways a rather
old-fashioned method of working gradually up to the final work.

Analogies to jazz or dance may help clarify this apparent paradox. Improvised jazz or
dance depends not on any pure, "spontaneous" expression arising naturally outside of
conventions and earlier knowledge. On the contrary, the best improvisation is only
possible if the musician had a solid technical command over her instrument and has fully
internalized a variety of musical cultures. The same is true for painting which is why
modern artists still learn through the fundamentals of life-drawing. As the
Dada/Surrealist, Man Ray noted, "it sometimes takes years of study to know how to
recreate unaffectedness".

For Kandinsky to produce any kind of art that looked "spontaneous" in a way which was
also interesting, complex, and compelling as art, he had to work in a rational, controlled
manner. In the end, he produced not so much "spontaneous expression" but rather the
effect of spontaneous expression. To see the effect rather than the reality of "expression"
is to look more critically at all "expressive" art since Romanticism and to distinguish
between the highly staged effects of "expression" and the false rhetoric of "spontaneous
expression" employed routinely by modern artists and viewers since 1790 to legitimize
larger cultural mythologies of artistic autonomy, freedom, authenticity, untrammeled
heroic individuality, and higher truth.

The End of Expressionism
Like many Expressionists who survived World War I (1914-18), Kandinsky abandoned
Expressionist fervor in favor of Constructivist rigor in the years immediately after the
war. Though its legacy would live on in important ways in Surrealism (1920-45),
Abstract Expressionism (1945-60), and certain painters and artistic movements of the
1980s, Expressionism had burned itself out as a major movement by the end of WW!
(1918). It was all too easily dismissed as exaggerated, emotionally self-indulgent,
histrionic, wildly unrealistic, and politically impotent, a style of youthful passion and
wild idealism. Kandinsky himself joined the Bauhaus movement and took up its love for
impersonal geometric orders as seen in Composition 238: Bright Circle of 1921.

Other Expressionists like Dix and Grosz developed an alternative to “Expressionist”
emotional fervor with a naturalistic imagery grounded in sharp observation of German
social conditions after the war. Still others like Nolde and Kirchner retreated into
imaginary landscapes far from the chaos of modern Germany.

Modern Artist Groups, Expressionism, and the Problem of Audience
Artist associations, organizations, and groups had multiplied across Europe since the
early nineteenth century. In part this reflected the growing number of artists and the
natural tendency of large professional groups to form regional and national organizations.
But we can also explain this trend, in part, as a response to a number of new internal and
external problems which came with modern art. With Romanticism's enshrinement of
individual artistic freedom and expression as primary signs of artistic quality, there was a

new danger of artistic fragmentation on the one hand and loss of audience on the other.
By banding together into groups and professional associations, nineteenth-century artists
increased their sense of solidarity, strength, and cultural legitimacy and improved
opportunities for exhibition, patronage, and sales.

The tendency to form groups went hand in hand with a tendency to form artistic
movements as seen in the Pre-Raphaelites in England, the Barbizon School of realist
landscape painting in Paris, the Impressionists (who first painted and exhibited together),
Van Gogh's dream of a modern art colony in the south of France, the Rosecrucian Salons
exhibiting Symbolist art in Paris in the 1890s, the Futurists in Italy with their manifestos,
the Dada groups in Switzerland and Surrealist groups in France, the Constructivists in
Russia, various women's artist groups, and so on.

As painting abandoned representational techniques in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth century (1885-1925) in favor of more radically subjective, "free", visionary
styles (Symbolism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism,
Surrealism, etc.), the social, cultural, and economic isolation of the modern artist
increased considerably. Thus the need to band together into groups and movements
became ever more important to promote solidarity, coherence, direction, purpose, and
cultural impact. A group effort was harder to dismiss than that of an individual. Group
efforts also facilitated public exposure through the funding of short, privately-staged
exhibitions, often in non-traditional spaces such as rented factories and warehouses, and
the publication of group yearbooks such as the Blue Rider Almanac, portfolios of prints,
and posters advertising temporary exhibitions. In this way, artistic groups made it easier
for individual modern artists to reach small audiences and transcend the self-imposed
isolation of the modernist painter.

Since Expressionism took the Romantic-Symbolist tradition of strong individual
expression and feeling to a new, deliberately primitive, violent, culturally aggressive
extreme (made worse by the sexual "freedom" flaunted in the art of the Brücke), it was
almost inevitable that this movement had to form groups to survive. On the other hand,
the very thrust of Expressionist art toward individual expression and the considerable
differences between individual artistic personalities made the very idea of an
Expressionist movement or group effort tenuous from the start.

At best, these groups were rather loosely defined, vulnerable to internal conflicts, and
short-lived. Some were already break-away groups from other short-lived avant-garde
groups like the Blue Rider which lasted two or three years after breaking away from the
New Artist's Association of Munich (early 1909-late 1911) which was itself a modernist
realist/impressionist group which had broken away from a more traditional artist's
association. These modernist groups cohered for a few years and mounted a few
exhibitions, print portfolios, or yearbooks. (The annual Blue Rider almanac appeared
only once in 1912 thanks to the subsidized publication of a wealthy supporter who could
afford to lose money on the venture).

Some of these groups existed more fully on paper and in the artistic imagination than in
reality. It has even been suggested that the Blue Rider was more the title of an almanac, a
brief artistic rallying point of sorts, and a marketing tool used by art dealers selling
modern German art in 1914 and later. Kandinsky himself wrote in 1935,

           "There never really was a Blue Rider society, not even a group, as is often
           incorrectly stated. Marc and I took what we thought was good; and we selected
           freely without considering certain opinions or wishes. ... So we decided to run our
           Blaue Reiter 'dictatorially'. The 'dictators' of course were Franz Marc and

The nature and history of the Blue Rider as an artist's group sheds light on larger cultural
problems. Here one can see how the greater trend toward individual expression and
"freedom" within modern art after 1900 made it increasingly difficult for modern artists
to form lasting movements of any sort. And the failure of these group efforts to last more
than a few years only increased the social isolation of modern art and increased the desire
of individual artists to temper "free" expression and autonomy with coherent artistic
vocabularies which were stable and internally legible.

The one exception to the short-lived nature of early modernist groups and movements
was the Bauhaus (1919-1933) which began with an Expressionist arts and crafts
movement tied to socialist ideals and eventually spawned the International Style in design
and architecture. Here modernist practice was institutionalized as an art school against
considerable public opposition. Though exceptional, the long life of the Bauhaus
compared to other modernist groups was not entirely accidental. Their success owed a lot
to the fact that Bauhaus artists rejected Expressionistic fervor and individual expression
in favor of an impersonal aesthetic beyond national borders and ideologies and tied to
notions of a universal architectural language, modern technology and a stripped down
aesthetic of form as function.

  The new political freedom unleashed a tidal wave of cultural critique from all sides and political
activism. The attempts by the centrist Social Democrats to hold the radical parties of the left and right in
check proved unsuccessful when a disastrous inflation between 1919 and 1923 wiped out most of the
middle class economically. The political center collapsed and Germany plunged into extremist violence. A
new president stabilized the economy in the mid-1920s but the world-wide depression of 1929 created such
unemployment, poverty, hunger, and political violence that Adolf Hitler came to power on a campaign
promising to restore security and economic health. Fourteen years after it started, the Weimar Republic was
    Cited in John Willett, Expressionism, 1970, p. 156.
    Quoted in John Willett, Expressionism, 1970, p. 63, without any citation of the source.
    John Willett, Expressionism, 1970, p. 113, from Becker‟s Verbrüderung.
  Letter of 1916, quoted in Matthias Eberle, World War I and the Weimar Artists, New Haven: Yale Un
Press, 1985, p. 56.

  Marc, “Germany‟s „Savages‟, in The Blue Rider Almanac, 1912, ed. by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz
Marc, modern English edition ed. by Klaus Lankheit, trans. by Henning Falkenstein, New York: Viking
Press, 1974, 61-64.
  Quoted in Helmut Friedel and Annegret Hoberg, The Blue Rider in the Lenbachhaus, Munich: Prestel,
2000, cat. No. 47
 Letter to his wife, December 6, 1915 quoted from Franz Marc, Letters from the War, ed. Klaus Lankheit
and Uwe Steffen, trans. Liselotte Dieckmann, New York: Peter Lang, 1992, p. 90.
    Donald Gordon, Expressionism. Art and Idea, p. 51.

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