Germany in the 1920s was a troubled country: hyperinflation, homelessness, poverty, political extremism, racism, and a pandemic. While I am not making the claim that the situation in North America today is as bad as it was in Germany one-hundred years ago, the troubles there and then seem similar to the troubles here and now. Since art is a reflection of its times, we might expect to see an increased interest in German Expressionism, a style in vogue in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.
I will start this article with a discussion of German Expressionism and how the Nazis denigrated the style and its artists. Along the way, I will contrast expressionism with impressionism. Finally, I will introduce you to Sarah Palmer, a Canadian artist who works in the style of German Expressionism.
My focus will be on painting but I should point out that German cinema of the 1920s was a major exponent of expressionism and strongly influenced German painters. Black and white silent German movies such as director Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, told unsettling tales using effects such as dark shadows, disorienting angles and grotesque characters. You can get a sense of the expressionistic style of these movies set by going to imdb.com, searching for the names of these movies, and checking out the videos and photos sections. Pay particular attention to the expressive eyes and the exaggerated hands of the grotesque characters.
Many Hollywood directors in the 1930s and 1940s were influenced by German Expressionism (e.g., The Maltese Falcon) and that influence is still felt today in movies such as Star Wars. Tim Burton is the most prominent director associated with German Expressionism with movies such as Edward Scissorhands and television series such as Netflix’s Wednesday
The artists who defined German Expressionism employed many cinematic effects in their paintings and drawings: grotesque characters, disorienting angles, dark shadows, expressive eyes and exaggerated hands. Many also painted in jarring colours. I specifically mention jarring colours because they offended Adolph Hitler who supposedly declared that artists who painted skies green and grass blue should be sterilized.
I will get to the Nazis response to German Expressionism after a brief discourse on the difference between Impressionism and Expressionism. (The comment about colour attributed to Hitler gives you a pretty good idea of the Nazis response.)
European paintings from the start of the Renaissance to the nineteenth century were realistic. With the exception of artists such as Hermonius Bosh, the great artists of the period were forced by convention and market demand to paint people who looked like real people in real environments. Even imaginary places such as heaven or hell and even imaginary characters such as angels, devils, sprites, and gods, looked like versions of what you could see in life. In the late 1800s some European artists rebelled against the classical restraints and that rebellion eventually led to Impressionism in France and Expressionism in Germany.
Claude Monet’s 1872 painting titled Impression, Sunrise is credited with launching the impressionist movement and giving it a name. Artists such as Camille Pissarro with his rural scenes and landscapes and Edouard Manet with his portraits and city scenes retained an aspect of realism but focused more on light than on form. Monet’s lilies are the best known impressionistic paintings of nature and Manet’s cafes, boudoirs and streets are among the best known impressionistic paintings of urban settings.
The Scream, an 1893 painting by Edvard Munch, which expresses a very unhappy feeling, is often credited with launching expressionism. In that painting and subsequent expressionistic paintings artists made no attempt to paint what they saw. Their goal was to communicate what they felt or to recreate on canvas the feelings of others.
Impressionists painted beautiful natural landscapes and beautiful people in beautiful urban settings. Their paintings created a new appreciation of light and engendered wonder. Expressionists tended to focus on negative emotions and difficult situations. They painted ugly characters in ugly environments to provoke an emotional response.
Both styles were initially derided by art critics and both, in their original forms and eventually in their abstract forms, came to dominate art of the twentieth century. Expressionists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee were particularly influential in the development of abstract art.
Impressionism and expressionism are not mutually exclusive styles. For example, some art critics and historians cite the 1889 Vincent van Gogh painting, The Starry Night, as an impressionist painting while other cite it as an expressionist painting. When I look at the painting I see stars and moon in a deep twilight sky. I see a peaceful village sleeping in a darkening night. The painting shows a world I know in a different wondrous light. At first, the swirling sky leaves me with a feeling of comfort, a sense of the unity of nature. But the swirling skies also portray turbulence and create some anxiety. My anxiety grows when I look more closely at the large dark cedar tree that obstructs the view as it thrusts itself into the sky. The genius of the painting is in its beautiful representation of light and its evocation of emotions. For me, conflicting emotions.
(Another hint of how the Nazis responded to expressionism: they banned both The Scream and The Starry Night.)
Because of their subject matter and style, the works of German Expressionism were difficult and challenging, even by today’s standards. One museum director and supporter of early Expressionist painter, Paula Modersohn- Becker, said this about her work: “She lacks nearly everything that is needed to win hearts and flatter the casual glance.” Note that this comment was made by a supporter of the artist.
The work of many other German Expressionists did not win hears and flatter the casual glance. Artists such as Otto Dix, George Grusz, Lyonel Feininger, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painted what they felt and in the 1920s their feelings and the feelings of most of the people in Germany were not pretty.
When the Nazis took over Germany in the 1930s they paid particular attention to what they saw as seditious art. The Nazis wanted art to show a heroic version of Germany and its people. They wanted artists to paint and draw in the classical style to show noble farmers working in pastoral scenes, virtuous Aryans with wholesome families, and industrious citizens in ordered city streets. Instead German Expressionists portrayed poverty, depravity and ugliness. The Nazis recognized that art not only reflects the times but shapes them. German Expressionism set the wrong tone for the Nazis idolization of a Germany that never was and never could be.
The Nazis expunged Expressionism from German art by creating an exhibition that showed “bad art” and an annual exhibition that showed “good art”. The bad art show which opened in 1937 was titled Degenerate Art. It displayed 650 works by 112 artists. Some of the paintings were hung with thumbtacks and some were hung upside down. The works were crammed into small spaces with poor lighting and there was no effort to list the proper titles of the works or the names of the artists who created them. The artwork was interspaced with slogans painted on the walls; slogans such as “Nature as seen by sick minds.” At the opening of the show, its organizer declared: “All around us you see the monstrous offspring of insanity, impudence, ineptitude, and sheer degeneracy. What this exhibition offers inspires horror and disgust in all of us.”
The Degenerate Art show was visited by three million people in its first three months. When the original show closed, the “degenerate” art was taken to other German and Austrian cities where it was seen by another two million people over the next four years.
The annual “good art” exhibitions ran from 1937 to 1944 in a newly built House of German Art, situated across the street from the Degenerate Art exhibition. In her analysis of the Great German Art exhibitions, art historian Mauren Laurel Read concluded that the Great German Art “was not unnerving to the public, the themes were not controversial, the style was primarily realistic and there was little if any noticeable foreign influence. The approved artists did not invent anything new, instead they merely appropriated long-standing popular tradition and taste.”
The ”degenerate” artists got the Nazis message and many of the most well-known expressionists left Germany. One unintended consequence of the Degenerate Art exhibition was to make German Expressionism more accessible and popular elsewhere.
A question worth asking is why the Nazis spent so much effort on “degenerate art”.
To justify its actions, a totalitarian state needs to identify “enemies of the people”. It needs to create a feeling for the “good us” and the “evil other”. Most Germans felt uncomfortable with the themes and style of German Expressionism. It was not difficult to use those feelings to create a wedge between the general populace and the elites that promoted modern art. Expressionists were made out to be degenerates who were trying to destroy traditional values. You can see the same approach being used by some politicians in the United States today. They use “woke” as a wedge issue. The dictionary defines “woke” as “being alert to and concerned about social injustice and discrimination.” When used as a wedge, “woke” is portrayed as something that threatens traditional values, and the people identified as “woke” are identified as “insane” and “deplorable” and ultimately, “enemies of the state”.
One of the most potent elements of the woke wedge is the discomfort that many people feel when dealing with gender and sexual identity. Sarah Palmer is a Canadian artist whose art addresses this discomfort in a German Expressionist style. The people in her paintings aren’t pretty. They are uncomfortable characters in uncomfortable situations. They express a mood and tell a story. Sarah challenges the stereotypes that we use to make quick judgements about people and their relationships. She says: “In reality, no one is who we think they are. I paint men wearing high heels and dresses and woman with strong features and strong bodies. Who are these characters? How do they define themselves? What is their story?”
Sarah herself has to deal with stereotypes. “I’m not the person you might expect if you knew me only from my art. My art is challenging. When people meet me for the first time they often tell me that they expected someone bigger, louder, younger and unhappier.”
When asked about her attraction to expressionism, Sarah cites the writer James Baldwin who praised artists who bravely move our world forward by using colour, form and composition to bring the inner lives of people forward.
Sarah’s painting titled Love Uncertainly is a good example of her work. The painting addresses some of today’s anxieties regarding relationships and gender identity. The painting shows two people who may be dancing. I say “may be” because another interpretation is that the person on the left, who appears to be an aggressive man, is pushing the other person, who appears to be a woman, almost out of the painting. The woman is pushing back. Look at her eyes. She is sad, worried, unhappy. Look at the eyes of the man. To me, they seem to be the eyes of a predator. The composition and the colours of the painting are beautiful but the characters and their situation make me uncomfortable. A good painting but one I wouldn’t want to hang in my bedroom.
You can see some excellent modern interpretations of German Expressionism in Sarah’s shows. Check artshowinfo.ca for details.
Because we are approaching the one hundredth anniversary of some of the most iconic expressionist films and paintings, there will be more showings of restored versions of those films and more exhibitions of those paintings. I am particularly excited about the The Anxious Eye: German Expressionism and Its Legacy exhibition at the American National Gallery in Washington.
If you are interested in seeing what Germany was like in the 1920s, I highly recommend the Netflix series, Babylon Berlin. If you want more information on the Nazis and German Expressionism, download one of those rare reads, a readable thesis: Art and Propaganda: The Degenerate Art Exhibition by Maren Laurel Read, University of North Carolina, 2003.
I will close with a quote of the final paragraph of Maren’s thesis: “The attempt by the Nazis in the Degenerate Art Exhibition to stifle artistic freedom and to subvert artistic expression for political purposes is not simply a history lesson of a particular time and place. The experience should also serve as an object lesson of contemporary relevance, demonstrating the power of art to communicate emotions and ideas and to affect the public’s perception of both interior and exterior reality, making art a tempting and effective tool for political propaganda.”