Of all the "isms" in the early twentieth century, Expressionism is one of the most elusive and difficult to define. Whereas, on the one hand, Expressionism has been said to reveal its "universal character," abandoning all theories that imply a narrow, exclusive nationalistic attitude, on the other, it has been considered a "specific and familiar constant in German art for hundreds of years" (Vogt, p. 16). Scholarship has attempted to address the problematic range of the term and the contradictory emphases in its historiography. Although Expressionism did not constitute a cohesive movement or homogenous style, attention has been directed to the origins of the word and its meanings in critical discourse as well as to the contingent issues of art, society, and politics framing Expressionist avant-garde culture. Spurred on by an increasing overlap of the humanities with social, cultural, and gender studies, recent investigations reject notions of a transcendent Zeitgeist in focusing on Expressionism's interface with the public sphere.
Expressionism in Germany flourished initially in the visual arts, encompassing the formation of Künstlergruppe Brücke (Artists' Group Bridge) in Dresden in 1905 and the Blaue Reiter in Munich in 1911. The notion of the Doppelbegabung, or double talent, characterized many artists' experimentation in the different art forms, whether lyric poetry, prose, or drama. The notable precedent for this was the music-dramas of Richard Wagner and the attendant concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which excited artists' and writers' interests in the union of the arts into a theatrical whole. Performed at the Wiener Kunstschau in 1909, Oskar Kokoschka's (1886–1980) Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, hope of women) is considered one of the first Expressionist plays to involve a high degree of abstraction in the text, mise en scène, sound effects, and costume. Comparatively speaking, Reinhard Sorge's (1892–1916) play Der Bettler (The beggar), written in 1910, is more discursive, though no less abstracted in relaying the metaphysical stages (Stationen) achieved by the chief protagonist, "the Poet" himself (Furness, in Behr and Fanning, p. 163). Hence, by 1914, the concept of Expressionism permeated German metropolitan culture at many levels, gaining momentum during World War I and in the wake of the November Revolution in 1918. However, any attempt to define Expressionism chronologically is as problematic as doing so in terms of style, since its influence was still felt in film after the holding of the first Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) exhibition in Mannheim in 1925.
It is telling that the kernel concept of the "expressive"—the primacy of the creative process at the expense of verisimilitude—became significant in Germany at the height of the Second Empire, corresponding to the reign of the Hohenzollern king of Prussia, Wilhelm II. The period between 1890 and 1914 was characterized by colonial expansion abroad, an unprecedented degree of urbanization and technical transformation at home, and promotion of a hide-bound national public art. Generally speaking, Expressionism grew out of late-nineteenth-century dissatisfaction with academic training and the mass spectacle of state-funded salons, the Munich (1892) and Berlin secessions (1898) withdrawing from such official or professional affiliation. In their exhibitions, the secessions fostered a sense of pluralism and internationalism, maintaining links with the art market and Paris-based Impressionism and Postimpressionism.
Within this shifting ambience between tradition and the modern, the term Expressionisten (Expressionists) was initially applied to a selection of French Fauvist and not German artists in the foreword to the catalog of a Berlin Secession exhibition, held in April 1911. Given the largely Impressionist leanings of the Secession, the collective term was a convenient way of signifying the "newest directions" in French art. Here the art of self-expression, or Ausdruckskunst as it was articulated in German, involved a degree of expressive intensification and distortion that differed from the mimetic impulse of naturalism and the Impressionist mode of capturing the fleeting nuances of the external world. This aesthetic revolt found theoretical justification in the writing of the art historian Wilhelm Worringer (1881–1965), whose published doctoral thesis Abstraktion und Einfühlung (1908, Abstraction and empathy) proposed that stylization, typical of Egyptian, Gothic, or Primitive art, was not the result of lack of skill (Können) but was propelled by an insecure psychic relationship with the external world. An impelling "will to form," or Kunstwollen, underscored art historical methodology at the time (Jennings, in Donahue, p. 89).
Evidently, the label Expressionism was not invented by the artists themselves but abounded in the promotional literature and reviews of current exhibitions. The proliferation of specialist journals and technological invention in publishing at the turn of the twentieth century was integral to the avantgarde's dissemination of their ideas in Expressionist literary and artistic journals, such as Der Sturm (Riot) and Die Aktion. Although the milieu encompassed a diverse political and disciplinary spectrum, commentators were united by the historical concept of Neuzeit, or modernity, "embodying a particular experiential pattern, in which it was the future that was the bearer of growing expectations" (Koselleck, p. 243). In their manifesto, members of the Brücke declared their independence from older established forces and called on all youth to look toward the future in searching for authentic expression. Similarly, in Wassily Kandinsky's (1866–1944) theoretical treatise Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1912, On the spiritual in art), he invoked the principle of "inner necessity" in postulating the evolution of art toward a utopian, transcendent form of creative expression.
Yet Expressionism was marked by a profound ambivalence toward modernity, and subject matter frequently operated between the antimonies of metropolitan alienation and the rural idyll. Both literary and artistic groups who frequented the Café des Westens in Berlin drew on the Nietzschean concept of "pathos" to convey their embrace of the dynamism of contemporary life. In emulation of the Neopathetisches Cabaret that attracted well-known poets, the painter Ludwig Meidner (1884–1966) adopted the title Die Pathetiker for his major group exhibition that was held in November 1912 at the Sturm Gallery. The city landscape was invested with elements of primal and cosmic destruction, comparable to the Bild, the word picture, which marks the Expressionist poetry of Georg Heym's (1887–1912) Umbra vitae (1912) or Jacob van Hoddis's (1887–1942) Weltende (1911, End of the world). Clearly, their utopian assumptions were compromised by a modernizing world, which was perceived as fallen and chaotic.
Kulturkritik (cultural criticism) aimed to heal this tired civilization through the reference to untainted, preindustrialized and autochthonous communal traditions. Viewed through the lens of modern French painting, the Brücke artists—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein—located authenticity in old German woodcuts, African and Oceanic tribal art, which informed their carved sculpture, graphic techniques, studio interiors, and figural landscapes. In the Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912), the editors, Kandinsky and Franz Marc (1880–1916), interspersed essays on art, music, poetry, and theater with photographs of Russian and Bavarian folk art, African and Oceanic masks, and child art, seeking to legitimize the technical radicalism of modern painting through resonances with so-called primitive examples. As has been argued, primitivism was a permutation of agrarian romanticism. By the end of the nineteenth century the image of the European peasantry and nature had exhausted itself. "Nostalgia had now to cast its net wider and beyond rural Europe" (Lübbren, pp. 57–58).
On the eve of war, in his book Der Expressionismus, the art critic and newspaper feuilletonist Paul Fechter (1880–1958) invested Expressionism with the connotations of the anti-intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritual—the "metaphysical necessity of the German people" (Fechter, p. 29). Here he drew heavily on Worringer's professorial thesis Formprobleme der Gotik (1911, Form in gothic), which constructed a genealogy for German artistic identity based on the anticlassical features of the Gothic past. By this time, the engendering of Impressionism as feminine, as celebrating sensory, passive experience, was well established in critical debates, and Fechter strove to inculcate a more masculine Ausdrucksgefühl (expressive feeling) in contemporary German art. However, the Teutonic nationalization of Expressionism was inconsistent.
Internationalism was advanced through the agencies of dealership and dispersal. The musician, writer, and dealer Herwarth Walden (1878–1941), whose Sturm Gallery was established in Berlin in 1912, displayed the works of Expressionists as well as those of Futurists and Cubists. Before and after the outbreak of war, he sent traveling exhibitions to Scandinavia, Holland, Finland, and Tokyo. As a founding member of Zurich dada, the German Poet Hugo Ball (1886–1927) provided a link between Expressionism and Dada. Ball's preoccupation with mysticism and anarchism led him to Switzerland during the war, and in a key lecture he delivered on Kandinsky (1917), he proclaimed the value of abstraction in painting, poetry, and drama to cultural regeneration.
Even in 1916, in his book Expressionismus, the art critic, novelist, and playwright Hermann Bahr (1863–1934) remained warmly disposed toward Picasso and French art since Manet. Bahr was writing at a time when Germany had suffered staggering reversals on the battlefield and disillusionment had set in with mechanized warfare of a kind that no one had imagined. Fiercely antitechnological and antibourgeois, he characterized the era as a "battle of the soul with the machine," articulating the desire for a prelapsarian state of innocence (p. 110). In 1917 literary Expressionism came of age with Kasimir Edschmid's (1890–1966) manifesto Über den Expressionismus in der Literatur und die neue Dichtung, strengthening the emphasis on Schauen, or "visionary experiences," rather than on Sehen ("observation of visual details") (Weisstein, p. 207). Given its emphasis on spiritual values, the literary critic Wolfgang Paulsen would have labeled this genuine Expressionism so as to distinguish it from Activist Expressionism, deriving from the lineage of Karl Marx. However, not all socialism ran counter to the notion of "spiritual revolution" and, according to Rhys Williams, Georg Kaiser's (1878–1945) play Von morgens bis mitternachts (1916, From morn to midnight) can be read as a "dramatization of [Gustav] Landauer's indictment of capitalism" and the search for the verbindender Geist (unifying spirit) that he advocated (Behr and Fanning, pp. 201–207).
With the Revolution of November 1918 and the collapse of the Second Reich, such intellectuals saw the opportunity for the initiation of a new society, and the link between Expressionism and revolutionary theory became more emphatic. A second generation of Expressionists emerged that, although widespread in regional centers throughout Germany, was more cohesively defined by its members' antiwar sentiments. As the son of a working-class family, the artist Conrad Felixmüller (1897–1977) spearheaded the formation of the Dresden Secession Group in 1919 and was committed to an agenda of proletarian culture.
In Berlin, the organization Novembergruppe was founded. It called on all Expressionists, Futurists, and Cubists to unite under the banner of cultural reform and reconstruction. Although initially attracting dadaists to its ranks, the equation between Expressionism and radicalism became more difficult to sustain within the stabilization of order brought about by the Weimar government. Due to democratization and to pressure exerted by various artists' councils, Expressionism made inroads into the public sphere and was avidly collected by major museums throughout Germany. Moreover, well-known Expressionists such as Kandinsky and Paul Klee (1879–1940) were approached to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar, founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969). This school was based on socialist and utopian principles that placed artists at the center of a new kind of design that served modern society. Though Kandinsky sustained his belief in the expressive and mystical values of art, he abandoned the expressive abstraction of the Munich years and explored geometric formal elements in a more systematic manner.
However, the death knell of Expressionism, according to many commentators, lay in its commercialization and consequent loss of authenticity. It was considered debased in losing its soul to mass culture. In the early twenty-first century, scholars tend to regard the ability of Expressionism to adapt to the demands of technological advancement as a measure of its success. The silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene (1881–1938), was released in Berlin in 1920 and achieved resounding international acclaim. Fritz Lang's (1890–1976) Metropolis (1927) and Josef von Sternberg's (1894–1969) The Blue Angel (1930) appeared after Expressionism's demise and Georg Wilhelm Pabst's (1885–1967) Pandora's Box in 1928.
During the 1930s, the polarization in German politics and society led views on the left and the right to target Expressionism. From a position of exile in Moscow, the Marxist theoretician Georg Lukács (1885–1971) launched an attack in his essay "'Größe und verfall' des Expressionismus" (1934; Expressionism: its significance and decline, Washton-Long, pp. 313-317). Favoring a form of typified realism that was deduced from nineteenth-century literary sources, Lukács considered Expressionism the product of capitalist imperialism. According to this model, its subjectivity and irrationalism would inevitably lead to fascism. Debates ensued in the émigré literary journal Das Wort, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885–1977) vigorously defending the role of autonomous experimentation in the visual arts in his essay "Diskyssion über Expressionismus" (1938; Discussing Expressionism, Washton-Long, pp. 323–327). In post-1945 historiography, critics tended to lose sight of Bloch's salvaging of the utopian and communal aspirations of Expressionism.
Interestingly, even after the Nazis assumed power in 1933, there was rivalry between the antimodernist Alfred Rosenberg (1893–1946) and the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945), who considered Expressionism and the works of Emil Nolde (1867–1956) to be uniquely German. Indeed, Goebbels's novel Michael adopted the declamatory style and format of the Expressionist stationendrama in tracing the journey of the eponymous hero from soldier to Nazi superman (1929). In 1934, Rosenberg's appointment as spiritual overseer of the National Socialist Party sealed the fate of the avant-garde. Official confiscation of works from public collections accompanied the dismissal of Expressionists, left-wing intellectuals, and Jews from prominent positions in the arts.
In 1937, moreover, the infamous exhibition "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate art) was inaugurated in Munich, signaling the Third Reich's devastating efforts to expunge Expressionism's claim to cultural status. Expressionism underwent transformation in exile as refugee artists, writers, and filmmakers reexamined their cultural identity in light of the demands of their adoptive countries. Others were not as fortunate. Kirchner resided in Switzerland since 1917, and his frail psychological state was exacerbated by the pillaging of 639 of his works from museums and by the inclusion of thirty-two in the "Entartete Kunst" exhibition. He committed suicide in 1938. The poet Van Hoddis, who was of Jewish origin and suffered mental disorders for many years, was transported to the Sobibor concentration camp in 1942, the exact date of his murder being unrecorded.