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Expressionism in Early 20th Century Art

By stejo3 Mar 14, 2014 3630 Words
Aspects of all the avant-garde movements contributed to the emergence of expressionism. Expressionism refers to art that is the result of the artist’s unique inner or personal vision that often has an emotional dimension. This contrasts with art focused on the visual description of the empirical world. This was a rejection of Renaissance sensibilities that had governed the western art world for the previous 500 years.

The term expressionism was popularized in the avant-garde journal Der Strum. The editor Herwarth Walden proclaimed: “We call art of this century Expressionism in order to distinguish it from what is not art. We are thoroughly aware that artists of previous centuries also sought expression. Only they did not know how to formulate it.”

There are several movements of the 20th century that are classified as expressionist. Some of this expressionist art evokes visceral emotional responses from the viewer, whereas other such artworks rely on the artist introspective revelations. Often the expressionists offended viewers and even critics, but the sought empathy – connection between the internal states of artists and viewers – not sympathy.

With war as a backdrop, many artists contributed to an artistic and literary movement that became known as Dada. This movement emerged, in large part, in reaction to an insane spectacle of collective homicide. They were “utterly revolted by the butchery of the World War. Dada was international in scope beginning in New York and Switzerland and spreading to other areas. Dada was more of a mindset or attitude than a singular identifiable style. The Dadaists believed reason and logic had been responsible for the unmitigated disaster of world war, and they concluded that the only route to salvation was through political anarchy, the irrational, and the intuitive. Thus, an element of absurdity is a cornerstone of Dada. Dada is a term unrelated to the movement, choosing the word randomly from the dictionary. The word is French for “hobby horse.” It satisfied the Dadaist’s desire for something irrational and nonsensical

The pessimism and disgust of these artists surfaced in their disdain for convention and tradition, characterized by a concerted and sustained attempt to undermine cherished notions and assumptions about art.

Although the artist’s cynicism and pessimism inspired Dada, what developed was phenomenally influential and powerful. By attacking convention and logic, the Dada artist’s unlocked new avenues for creative invention, allowing artists to push boundaries farther than previous movements. Dada was in its subversiveness, extraordinarily avant-garde and very liberating. In addition to disdain, a current of humor and the whimsical, along with irreverence flows through much of the art. This can be seen in Duchamp’s Mona Lisa, and Francis Picabia’s, Portrait of Cezanne. The views of the Dadaists mirrored those of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and others. In its emphasis on the spontaneous and the intuitive, Dada had interest in the exploration of the subconscious that Freud promoted. Images rising out of the subconscious mind had a truth of their own, they believed, independent of conventional vision. Jean Arp (1887-1966) pioneered the use of chance in composing his images. Tiring of the Cubist look in his collages, Arp took sheets of paper, tore them roughly into squares, haphazardly dropped them to a sheet of paper on the floor, and glued them into the resulting arrangement. The rectangular shapes unified the design, which Arp no doubt enhanced by adjusting the random arrangement to a quasi-grid. Even with some altering, chance had introduced an imbalance that seemed to Arp to restore to his work a certain mysterious vitality he wanted. Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Chance is a work done using this method. The operations of chance were for Dadaists a crucial part of this kind of improvisation. Chance could restore to a work of art its primeval magic power and find a way back to the immediacy it had lost through contact with Classicism. Arp’s reliance on chance when creating his compositions reinforced the anarchy and subversiveness inherent in Dada.

The most influential of the Dadaists was Frenchman Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the central artist in the New York Dada and active in Paris at the end of Dada. In 1913 he exhibited his first “ready-made” sculptures, which were mass produced common, found objects the artist selected and sometimes “rectified” by modifying their substance or combining them with another object. Such works, he insisted, were created free from any consideration of either good or bad taste, qualities shaped by a society he and other Dada artists found bankrupt. Perhaps his most outrageous work was Fountain, a porcelain urinal presented on its back and signed “R. Mutt” and dated. The artist’s signature was in fact a witty pseudonym derived from the Mott plumbing company’s name and that of the Mutt and Jeff comic strip. Duchamp did not select the object for exhibition for its aesthetic qualities. The “artness” of this work lies in the artist’s choice of his object, which has the effect of conferring the status of art on it and forces the viewer to see the object in a new light. Duchamp wrote, after Fountain was rejected from an unjuried show, “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.

Duchamp (and the generations of artists after him profoundly influenced by his art and especially his attitude) considered life and art matters of chance and choice freed from the conventions of society and tradition. Within his approach to art and life, each act was individual and unique. Every person’s choice of found objects would be different. This philosophy of utter freedom for artists was fundamental to the history of art in the 20th century. Duchamp spent much of World War I in New York, inspiring a group of American artists and collectors with his radical rethinking of the role of artists and of the nature of art.

Dada spread throughout much of Western Europe, arriving as early as 1917 in Berlin, where it soon took on an activist political edge, particularly in response to the economic, social, and political chaos in the city after World War I. The Berlin artists developed a new intensity for a technique called photomontage (pasting parts of many images together into one image). This technique had been in popular and private culture and was used on postcards long before the 20th century. A few years earlier, the Cubists had named the process collage. Unlike Cubist collage, the parts of Dada collage were made almost entirely of “found” details, such as pieces of magazine photographs, usually combined into deliberately antilogical compositions. Collage lent itself well to the Dada desire to use chance when creating art and anti-art.

One of the Berlin Dadaists who perfected the photomontage technique was Hannah Hoch (1889-1978). Her works not only advanced the absurd illogic of Dada by presenting the viewer with chaotic, contradictory, and satiric compositions, but they also provided scathing and insightful commentary on two of the most dramatic developments during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) in Germany – the redefinition of women’s social roles and the explosive growth of mass print media. In, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, Hoch arranged an eclectic mixture of cutout photos in seemingly haphazard fashion. On closer inspection, we see that Hoch carefully placed photographs of some of her fellow Dadaists among images of Marx, Lenin and other revolutionary figures in the lower right. She also placed cutout lettering saying “Die grosse Welt dada” (the great Dada world). She also juxtaposed the heads of German military leaders on the bodies of exotic dancers, providing a wicked critique of German leaders. A photograph of Hoch’s head appears in the lower right hand corner, juxtaposed with a map of Europe showing the progress of women’s enfranchisement.

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) worked non-objectively, finding visual poetry in the cast off junk of modern society and scavenged in trash bins for materials, which he pasted and nailed together into designs such as our example Merz 19. Merz is a word that Schwitters nonsensically derived from the word kommerzbank (commerce bank), and used as a generic title for a whole series of works. The recycled elements acquire new meanings through their new uses and locations. Elevating objects that are essentially trash to the status of high art fits well with Dada philosophy.

The European Effect on American Art: Transatlantic Artistic Dialogue

John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, and Mary Cassatt were American arts that spent much of their productive careers in Europe, while many European artists ended their careers in the United States in anticipation and because of World War I. Visionary patrons supported the efforts of American and other artists to pursue modernist ideas. Some of the patrons were matrons or women as opposed to men. Thus there support might be labeled matronage.

The art scene in America before significant European Modernist influence was quite varied yet profoundly realist. Many American artists were committed to presenting a realistic, unvarnished look at life, much like the mid-19th century French Realists.

One such group has been called The Eight. They were a group of American artists who gravitated to the circle of influential and evangelical artist and teacher Robert Henri (1865-1929). Henri encouraged these artists to make “pictures from life.” These images depicted the rapidly changing urban landscape of New York City. Because these paintings captured the bleak and seedy aspects of city life, The Eight eventually became known as The Ashcan School and were referred to as “the apostles of ugliness.”

John Sloan (1871-1951) wandered the streets of New York observing human drama. His main focus was on the working class, which he viewed as the embodiment of the realities of life. So immersed was Sloan into his views of the working class, that he joined the Socialist party and ran for office on their ticket. His works often depicted the down trodden, prostitutes, and drunkards. Sloan’s depiction of these subjects was not as one who saw these things as immoral and evil, something to be removed, like the reformers of the day, rather, he saw them as victims of an unfair social and economic system. Sixth Avenue and 30th Street (1907), depicts the street corner of this name in New York. We see the elevated train and shops of that area. A drunken woman in a white dress stumbles toward the viewer as a pair of well dressed ladies or street walkers look on in amusement. This scene is not uplifting nor does it show the well to do. Instead it records the everyday happenings of the working class. Sunday-Women Drying Their Hair (1913), depicts three women on the roof of their tenement taking some time to dry their hair after washing it. George Bellows (1882-1925) Bellows first achieved notice in 1908, when he and other pupils of Robert Henri organized an exhibition of mostly urban studies. While many critics considered these to be crudely painted, others found them audacious and a step beyond the work of his teacher. Bellows taught at the Art Students League of New York in 1909, although he was more interested in pursuing a career as a painter. His fame grew as he contributed to other nationally recognized juried shows. Bellows' series of paintings portraying amateur boxing matches were arguably his signature contribution to art history. These paintings are characterized by dark atmospheres, through which the bright, roughly lain brushstrokes of the human figures vividly strike with a strong sense of motion and direction. George Luks (1867-1933) also painted scenes of urban life. He lived what he painted. He was a boxer and had a temper which often landed him in fights. It is perhaps fitting that he died in 1933 as a result of injuries sustained in a bar fight. Huston Street painted in 1917, is an example of Luks work that demonstrates his loose, roughly painted style. Allen Street painted in 1905, is also demonstrative of Luks’ style.

Everett Shinn (1876-1953) created paintings which found their subject matter in the slums as well as in middle-class café society and in theatrical activities. His theater scenes were usually done in oil, his slum and lower-class pictures in pastel. Unlike John Sloan, who felt a genuine reformer’s commitment to lower-class urban themes, Shinn viewed the entire city as a bright, glittering spectacle to savor and to enjoy until the end of his life. His art reflects the influences of Daumier, Edgar Degas, and Jean-Louis Forain. The Armory Show and Its Legacy

One of the major vehicles for disseminating information about European Artistic developments in the United States was the Armory Show, which occurred in early 1913. This large scale endeavor got its name from its location, the armory of the New York National Guard’s 69th Regiment. It was organized largely by two artists Walt Kuhn and Arthur B. Davies. The Armory Show contained more than 1,600 artworks by European and American artists. Among the European artists represented were Matisse, Derain, Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Kirchner, as well as Expressionist sculpture Wilhelm Lehmbruck and organic sculpture Constantin Brancusi. This show exposed American artists and public to the latest in European artistic developments. The Show was immediately controversial. The New York Times described the show as “pathological,” and other critics demanded the exhibition be closed as a menace to public morality. The work that was most maligned was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. The painting suggests a single figure in motion down a staircase in a time continuum. The work has much in common with the Cubists and Futurists. One critic described the work as “an explosion at a shingle factory,” and newspaper cartoonists had a field day lampooning the painting. De Stijl

Utopian ideals were also expressed in Holland. De Stijl was a group of young artists that formed in 1917. It believed that the end of World War I was the birth of a new age. The group was co-founded by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Leo Van Doesburg (1883-1931). They felt this time was a balance between individual and universal values, when the machine would assure ease of living. They declared, in their first manifesto, “There is an old and a new consciousness of the age. The old one is directed toward the individual. The new one is directed toward the universal.” We must realize that life and art are no longer separate domains. That is why the “idea” of “art” as an illusion separate from real life must disappear. The word “Art” no longer means anything to us. In its place we demand the construction of our environment in accordance with creative laws based on fixed principle. These laws, following those of economics, mathematics, technique, and sanitation, etc., are all leading to a new, plastic unity.” Mondrian felt that his style revealed the underlying eternal structure of existence. This style was based on a single principle. DeStijl artists reduced their artistic vocabulary to simple geometric elements. After his initial introduction to abstraction, Mondrian was attracted to contemporary theological drawings. Mondrian sought to purge his art of every overt reference to individual objects in the external world. This combination produced a conception of non-objective design he called “pure plastic art” which he believed expressed universal reality. “Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality… To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual… We find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art. Art should be above reality, otherwise it would have no value for man. To express his vision, Mondrian eventually limited his formal vocabulary to the three primary colors, the three primary values, and the two primary directions (horizontal and vertical). He concluded that the primary colors and values are the purist colors and therefore the perfect tools to construct harmonious composition. Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow, is one of many paintings Mondrian created locking color planes into a grid intersecting vertical and horizontal lines. He altered the grid patterns and the size and placement of the color planes to create an internal cohesion and harmony. Mondrian worked to maintain a dynamic tension in his paintings from the size and position of lines, shapes, and colors. The Bauhaus

The De Stijl group influenced other artists through its simplified geometric style, and its notion that art and life are one. In Germany, the architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) developed a vision of “total architecture”. This concept influenced generations of pupils through the school he directed called the Bauhaus. In 1919, Gropius was appointed director of the Weimar School of Arts and Crafts. Under Gropius, the school was renamed Das Staatliche Bauhaus (roughly translated as “State School of Building”) and was referred to as the Bauhaus. Gropius’ goal was to train artists, architects, and designers to anticipate 20th century needs. The extensive curriculum was based on certain principles. The first staunchly advocated the importance of strong basic design and craftsmanship as fundamental to good art and architecture. His belief that there was no essential difference between artist and craftsman, led him to place both a technical instructor and an artist in each department. Second, Gropius promoted the unity of art, architecture, and design. To eliminate traditional boundaries that separated art from architecture, and art from craft, the Bauhaus offered a wide range of craft type classes in addition to the more standard courses. Third, Gropius emphasized the need to produce graduates who could design progressive environments through the knowledge and need of machine age technologies and materials. This required the artist / craftsman to fully understand industrial and mass production. Gropius declared, “Let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will emphasize architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will rise one day toward heaven from the hands of millions of workers like a crystal symbol of a new faith.” The reference to a unity of workers reveals the undercurrent of socialism present in Germany at the time. One Bauhaus teacher who had a lasting legacy on artists was Josef Albers (1888-1976). He was a German born artist whose greatest contribution to the school was his revision of the basic design course required of all students. He required a systematic and thorough investigation of arts formal qualities; what has been termed the elements and principles of design. Albers investigated arts formal qualities in his own work. In his series, Homage to the Square, painted after he left the Bauhaus, between 1950 and 1976, encapsulates the design concepts he developed while at the Bauhaus. The series consists of hundreds of paintings, most of which were simply color variations on the same composition of concentric squares. The series reflects Albers belief that art originates in “the discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect. Because of their consistency in composition, the works succeed in revealing the relativity and instability of color perception. Albers varied the hue (color), saturation (brightness and dullness), and value (lightness or darkness) of each square in the paintings in the series. As a result, the squares from painting to painting appear to vary in size (although they remained the same), and the sensations emanating from the paintings range from clashing dissonance to delicate serenity. Alber’s demonstration of the reactions of colors to one another “proved that we see colors almost never unrelated to each other.” Alber’s ideas about design and color were widely disseminated. In 1925, the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, Germany. Gropius designed the building for the Bauhaus as a sort of architectural manifesto. The building consisted of a workshop and class areas, a dining room, theatre, gym, a wing with studio apartments, and an enclosed two story bridge housing administrative offices. Of the major wings, the most dramatic was the Shop Block. The Nazi’s tore down this building, but the main buildings were later reconstructed. Three stories tall, the Shop Block housed a printing shop and dye works facility, in addition to other work areas. The builder’s constructed the skeleton of reinforced concrete but set these supports way back, sheathing the entire structure in glass, creating a streamlined and light effect. This designs’ simplicity followed Gropius’s dictum that architecture should avoid “all romantic embellishment and whimsy.” Further, he realized the “economy in the use of space” articulated in his list of principles in his interior layout of the Shop Block, which consists of large areas of free flowing undivided space. Gropius believed such an open classroom approach encouraged interaction and the sharing of ideas. Gropius gave students and teachers the task of designing furniture and light fixtures for the building in keeping with the comprehensive philosophy of the Bauhaus. One memorable furniture design to emerge from the Bauhaus was the tubular steel chair crafted by the Hungarian Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). Breuer was inspired to use tubular steel while riding his bike and studying his handle bars. In keeping with Bauhaus aesthetics, his chairs have a simplified, geometric look, and the leather of cloth supports add to the chairs comfort and functionality. These chairs were also easily mass produced and thus stand as epitomes of the Bauhaus program. This reductive, spare geometric aesthetic served many purposes – artistic, practical, and social. This aesthetic was championed by the Bauhaus and De Stijl. This simplified artistic vocabulary was accepted because of its association with the avant-garde and progressive though, and it evoked the machine. It could be easily applied to all art forms, from stage design, to architecture, and advertising, and therefore was perfect for mass production.

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