Early 20th Century Expressionism

Henri Matisse, Notre-Dame in the Late Afternoon, 1902 and View of Notre Dame, 1914 (photos wikipedia.org)

In the early 20th century, artists began to take the explorations of the Symbolists about the expressive nature of color further, looking at how the colors and shapes used in a painting could affect the mood of the work. This was not a new idea in art, the emotional qualities of color had long been known. What was new was the idea of using bright, vivid colors, ones not necessarily found in nature, along with exaggerated shapes, to create abstracted works that were entirely about mood. Perhaps the artist who best embodied the study of color in painting best was Henri Matisse, who remained a dedicated colorist throughout his long career.

Looking at the 2 images of Notre Dame de Paris by Matisse above, the influence of the Impressionists is clear in the one on the left, with the softened, hazy palette, and Matisse has created a somber mood that invokes the shadowed light of the late afternoon, invoking Monet’s studies of Rouen Cathedral. On the right, Matisse is invoking a similar mood through color, but here the influence of Picasso and the Cubists is more evident, with the shapes of the scene broken down into strict geometrics. These two works also help to track the evolution of Matisse’s style before and after Fauvism. Artists associated with this movement explored the expressive qualities of color, often combining the bright, vivid colors of Fauvism with the dots of color of Divisionism or the Symbolist explorations of mood. Often, as in the 2 works by Matisse below, there are erotic overtones to the image, which, along with the bright, sometimes jarring colors, caused the famous outburst by the critic Louis Vauxcelles‘s that the bronze by Donatello at the center of the first Fauve exhibition was “like Donatello amongst wild beasts.”

Henri Matisse, The Joy of Life, 1905–6 and Luxe, Calme et Volupté, 1904-05 (photos wikipedia.org)

After Fauvism, Matisse’s style continued to be characterized by explorations of the possibilities of color, but his style shifted to a more linear one, with more flat, unmodulated areas of color in the works,  as can be seen in Harmony in Red and The Red Studio below. Both of these play with both the viewer’s perception of depth and with the contrasts of colors placed next to each other. Matisse also includes images of his own (and other artists’) work in the image of his studio, allowing for a progression of form. In works like The Dance I, Matisse is exploring the contrasts of warm and cool colors as a means to give motion to the forms of the dancers in the piece.

Henri Matisse, Harmony in Red, 1908–9 and The Red Studio, 1911 (photos by The Hermitage Museum (www.herimtagemuseum.org) and khanacademy.org)


Henri Matisse, The Dance I, 1909 (photo by totallyhistory.com)

Matisse also painted images of his family in their Paris apartment, such as 1916’s Piano Lesson, an image of his son at the piano, which include representations of his own paintings. This work can be read as a metaphor for Matisse’s relationship with the art of art making, through the inclusion of his sculpture in the lower left corner and his painting of a seated woman above his son’s head. This piece also continues Matisse’s meditations on color and shape as expressive elements of art.the-piano-lesson-1916

Henri Matisse, The Piano Lesson, 1916 (photo by wikiart.org)

Matisse was also heavily influenced by non-Western art, primarily that from French colonies in Africa and Oceania that were housed in the Musée Trocadéro (now the Musée de Quai Branly). It is his sculpture from the early 20th century that shows this influence, as Matisse used the influence of non-Western forms, divorced from their cultural context, to explore the possibilities of breaking shapes down into their most essential forms. Works like the Jeannette series from 1916 demonstrate this interest.Here, beginning with the first, Matisse slowly shifts the naturalism of Jeannette I until the face of the figure is fully abstracted into geometric shapes in Jeannette V.


Henri Matisse, Jeannette I-V, 1916 (photo by collections.lacma.org, 2015 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Matisse used the nude form as a means of exploring the possibilities of color and form throughout his life as well, as this comparison of 2 works, both titled Blue Nude, from early and late in his career show. In the earlier work, from 1908, the blue used as shadows on the form of the model seem to make her recede into the background, especially with the more brightly colored paints painted behind her. The later work, from 1952, comes from his Découpage, or “cutout” works, and so is an image created by pasting pieces of colored paper onto a flat surface. Here, the form is an outline in a solid, flat color against a solid background. The shapes become the more important elements in the later work, but the theme remains a constant.

Henri Matisse, The Blue Nude, 1908 and 1952 (photos henrimatisse.org and wikipedia.org)


Constantin Brancusi was not necessarily allied with any movement, but attempted to create the essential form in his works. He was interested in finding the essential form and structure of each element of his sculpture, and strove express this essential element through the materials. Works like Mademoiselle Pogany, Version I and Bird in Space strive to find that which is essential in the portrait of a young woman or the depiction of a bird flying in the air through both form and materials. He also created a series of public works in a space dedicated to peace and meant to memorialize the dead in his native Târgu Jiu, Romania. The Gate of the Kiss reuses his earlier sculpture in even more abstracted form to highlight the need to come together after the war. The Endless Column is meant to have no end, to reach the sky, which was, for Brancusi, an abstract message of peace in a Europe which was on the brink of another war.

Constantin Brancusi,  Mademoiselle Pogany, Version 1, 1913 and Bird in Space, 1928 (photos http://www.moma.org/collection_images/resized/670/w500h420/CRI_221670.jpg and http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/inside_out/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/1-Bird-in-Space.jpg)

Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss, 1912 and The Gate of the Kiss, 1938 (photos wikiart.org)


Constantin Brancusi, The Endless Column, 1937 (photo wikipedia.org)

German Expressionists of the early 20th century were also interested in expressive color, but they differed from Fauvism because they were less concerned with formal and structured composition, and more concerned with emotional and spiritual properties of color and form. There were 2 main groups of German Expressionists, as well as others who fit the style but did not ally with any group. The first group, The Bridge (Die Brücke), was formed in Dresden by architecture students, and was active from 1905–1913. The group’s intent was to create a link between modernity and the past, an idea derived from Nietzsche, and they were heavily influenced by German Renaissance printmaking, especially woodcuts by artists like Albrecht Dürer. The woodcut from the title page of the Brücke portfolio of 1909 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Head of Schmidt-Rottluff, shows this influence, but with the modern twist of showing the grain of the block of wood to harness its expressive capabilities.die_brucke_mappe_forside

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Head of Schmidt-Rottluff, Title page for Brücke portfolio, 1909 (photo https://sparebankstiftelsen.no/sites/sbs/files/die_brucke_mappe_forside.jpg)

Kirchner also did a series of street scenes that show the increasing tensions in Germany in the years leading to World War I. These scenes also capture Kircher’s ambivalence at the impersonal, sometimes threatening nature of modernization. Both The Street, Dresden from 1907 and Potsdamer Platz from 1914 also prominently feature prostitutes, and the second, painted after both the break-up of Die Brücke and his move to Berlin, is characterized by shape lines and forms, which can also be read as a statement about the threatening nature of the buildup and entry into the war, which was also the first fully mechanized war in history.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, The Street, Dresden, 1907 and Potsdamer Platz, 1914 (photos By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – repro from art book, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7127907 and By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Neue Nationalgalerie, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5614251)

Another artist that was briefly associated with Die Brücke was Emile Nolde, whose early works depicted religious themes infused with a visionary mood. These works often combined thick application of paint with abstracted forms or obvious wood grain in the woodblocks with highly emotional depictions of the subject matter.

Emil Nolde, St. Mary of Egypt Among the Sinners, 1912 and Emil Nolde, Prophet, 1912 (photos by https://smorrison78704.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/st-mary-of-egypt-sinners-1910.jpg and https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/archive/2/23/20081128034227!’The_Prophet’,_woodcut_by_Emil_Nolde,_1912.jpg)

The other major German Expressionist group was The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter), established 1911 in Munich. They were more drawn to nonfigurative abstraction than The Bridge. The name of the group was drawn from one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, showing the effects of the increasing tensions in Europe. Wassily Kandinsky‘s lithographic cover for the book the group put out in 1914 is one of his last figurative works, as he moved to complete abstraction soon after, using color and abstraction to explore spirituality. His book, On the Spiritual in Art, was published in December 1911, and in it, Kandinsky discussed the artist as a prophet, and showed his obsession with Christian mysticism, the Apocalypse and Eastern spirituality. He also completely eliminated recognizable objects from his works, such as Composition VII from 1909-1910.

Wassily Kandinsky, Der Blaue Reiter, original cover for the book, 1912 and Composition VII, 1909-10 (photos wikimedia.org and wikiart.org)

Franz Marc, the other founder of Der Blaue Reiter, used animal figures in combining geometry with rich color. He was also interested in mysticism, and painted animals because he saw them as more aware of the spiritual force of nature. His works are also characterized by the influence of Cubism on his forms, and his use of primary colors to express emotions: blue was used to portray masculinity and spirituality, yellow represented the feminine and joy, and red violence. This can be seen in works like Large Blue Horses and Small Yellow Horses, while works like Fighting Forms and Fate of the Animals can be read as heralds of war. Marc was killed in the trenches of World War I in 1916.

Franz Marc, Large Blue Horses, 1911 and Franz Marc, Small Yellow Horses, 1912 (photos By Franz Marc – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=154604 and By Franz Marc – repro from art book, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7139644)

Franz Marc, Fighting Forms, 1914 and Fate of the Animals, 1913 (photos By Franz Marc – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=154611 and By Franz Marc – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=478021)

Käthe Kollwitz was the wife of a country doctor, and so was constantly in contact with Germany’s poor. She was not a formal member of any group, and her imagery brings viewer in contact with the emotional and material struggles of the working classes. The emotional confrontation in her work is characteristic of Expressionism, and many of her prints were used as protest pieces during and after World War I. She is famous for her series that references the German Peasants’ War of Southern Germany, which began in 1525. Although this series references events from the past, Kollwitz is using them to point out the continuing social injustices against members of the lower classes, especially women. Kollwitz also lost a son in World War I and a grandson in World War II, making her works about personal suffering more immediate and personal.

Käthe Kollwitz, Losbrüch (Outbreak), 1903 and Whetting the Scythe, 1904 (photos http://www.bauernkriege.de/kolwitzbauer22.JPG and wikiart.org)

The Expressionists of the early 20th century were heavily influenced by world events in the same period. Their work expressed the sense of hopelessness and loss that grew up in Europe in the years of World War I.


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