Despite certain broad affinities among its artists, Expressionism was not a coherent style in the manner of Impressionism or Cubism. Wassily Kandinsky, the movement’s dominant theorist, described two basic formal approaches: “the great realism” and “the great abstraction,” both of which, he said, ultimately serve the same end: to express “the inner resonance of the thing.” The two strands were also called “the extensive,” which retained ties to recognizable subject matter, and “the intensive,” which renounced such imagery. Whether oriented toward realism or abstraction, Expressionists were driven by a need to re-envision the world.
The exhibition examines varied influences - Primitivism, Symbolism, Nietzsche, and Theosophy, to name a few – on works that arose from formal as well as casual artistic alliances within and across national boundaries. The earliest group, Die Brücke (The Bridge) was established in 1905. In 1909, it was followed by Kandinsky’s New Artists’ Association, which pulled into its orbit Lyonel Feininger, Alfred Kubin, Paul Klee, August Macke, and Franz Marc — all of whom showed with Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) between 1911 and 1913.
Working in locations such as Dresden, Munich, or Vienna, the Expressionists transformed color, line, and composition into vehicles for exploring the mystical, emotional, or psychological underpinnings of their subjects. Color lost its connection to observable reality; line no longer adhered to realistic verisimilitude. Drawing the moving figure was a practice common among Brücke artists in Dresden, as well as Schiele and Kokoschka in Vienna. All sought to capture spontaneous visual responses, what Ernst Ludwig Kirchner called “the ecstasy of first sight.” Visually and metaphorically, line also constituted a crucial boundary between figure and ground, subject and surrounding cosmos. The resultant two-dimensional flattening of the picture plane was especially well suited to landscapes, whose components were readily reduced to abstract shapes.
For Kandinsky, however, the path to the “great abstraction” lay in the realm of pure imagination. He was looking for a visual equivalent to music, an art that would be free of any representational associations. His search led him to develop a more intellectual, symbolic language of line and form. August Macke and Franz Marc were the only other Blaue Reiter artists to break through, albeit tentatively, to abstraction.
Among the highlights from Drawing the Line: Realism and Abstraction in Expressionist Art is a 1922 portfolio of prints by Wassily Kandinsky, entitled Small Worlds, dedicated to Ilse and Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School, where Kandinsky taught.
Franz Marc, probably Kandinsky’s closest collaborator within the Blaue Reiter group, is represented by Fantastic Animal, a color woodcut from 1912. Like other Blaue Reiter artists, he hoped to recapture a primordial innocence that would enable him to reveal his subjects’ “inner truths.” Marc’s search for an unspoiled, “natural” state of consciousness prompted him to identify with animals and to try to depict the world through their eyes.
Erich Heckel, a founding member of the North German Die Brücke group, was a master of woodcut, the printmaking technique most associated with that group. Influenced both by Gothic woodcuts and contemporary Jugendstil design, Heckel’s style focused on a flattening of form and the accentuation of expressive contours. His Couple, 1910, epitomizes Die Brücke’s desire to “to bring art and life into harmony with one another.”
Though he remained unknown at the time of his suicide in 1908, at the age of 25, Richard Gerstl was one of the most advanced artists of his time. Independently working his way through the formal and tonal lessons of Neo-Impressionism, Gerstl arrived at the first iteration of what would later be called “Abstract Expressionism.” The exhibition features an oil on canvas: Nude in Garden, 1908. Gerstl was recently the subject of a highly acclaimed exhibition at New York’s Neue Galerie.