At the turn of the century, a thick air of malaise had settled over Germany’s creative haunts. Artists across cosmopolitan cities like Munich, Dresden, and Berlin were frustrated: They felt muzzled by the strict bourgeois mores and traditional, state-sponsored art education that dominated the country’s culture and aesthetics. By 1905, a small group of painters decided to rebel. Instead of stiff, straightforward compositions, they loaded their canvases with vivid, clashing shards of color and pared-down, grossly distorted forms. The works that resulted were raw, deeply emotive, and shocking.
These artists became known as the
: progenitors of an experimental, multifaceted movement bound together by the belief that art should express emotion—and challenge the era’s social conservatism in the process. A group of artists in Dresden led by
, known as
, kicked things off in 1905. Their compatriots in Munich, spearheaded by
, banded together under the name
several years later. Both factions made work fueled by emotion and inspired by the subconscious. As their paintings became less representational, they also drew from the flattened perspective and simplified compositions of printmaking and woodcuts. The vibrant, distorted forms that populate their canvases would go on to pave the way for mid-century abstraction.
“Art today is moving in directions of which our forebears had no inkling. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse are heard galloping through the air,” Marc wrote of this heady moment in his 1912 Der Blaue Reiter manifesto. “Artistic excitement can be felt all over Europe—new artists are signalling to one another from all sides.”
In the 1920s,
rounded out the interwar movement. Berlin-based artists like
focused on political themes often related to the horrors of World War I and its psychological toll on German citizens. Gaunt, despondent, lecherous people fill these works, which were often rendered in stark black-and-white prints whose simplified forms and shadowy palettes emphasized their dark, melancholy subject matter.
Explore this experimental, influential movement through seven important works.