Pandemic, urban crowding, international tension, political unrest, warfare, depersonalization of life…sound familiar?
That was the scene a century ago, as Spanish Flu and World War I consigned mankind to a dark chapter in its early modern history. A global death toll of 50 million, the advent of mechanization – felt both in the weapons of war and the factories that fired the industrial boom – and other factors such as dramatic urban expansion, left countless people questioning their identity and place in society.
But it was against this backdrop that something extraordinary emerged. Brave musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers responded to the dehumanization they saw with a new intellectual approach to art – one that sought to portray emotions arising from experiencing daily realities rather than a representational portrayal of the realities themselves. It would come to be known as Expressionism.
Like many movements, the precise etymology of Expressionism is difficult to pin down. The era was, after all, a time of many other modernist ‘isms’, from Futurism to Cubism, Surrealism to Dadaism, which all shared a common rejection of realism in art. But what we can say, without fear of contradiction, is that Western Europe was the epicentre of Expressionism, and Germany in particular.
In 1905, a group of four German artists, led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, formed Die Brücke (the Bridge) in the city of Dresden. They were followed in 1911, by a like-minded group known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich – a name inspired by Wassily Kandinsky's Der Blaue Reiter painting of 1903. No longer interested in producing aesthetically pleasing impressions of artistic subject matter, these groups portrayed subjective interpretations of contemporaneous issues, representing vivid emotional reactions through dynamic structural composition and powerful juxtapositions of shapes and colours. Egon Schiele’s work is amongst the most intense of this period, with portraits – including self-portraits, as well as one of composer Arnold Schönberg – that depict significant inner turmoil. August Macke, a leading member Der Blaue Reiter, created a luminist approach inspired by the atmosphere of Tunisia, where he travelled in 1914. Kirchner, meanwhile, created powerful works that displayed heightened views of representation, building tension through exaggeration of form, perspective, content, and shape.
If the seeds of Expressionism lay in art, it could be argued that its first flowerings appeared in music. The increasing harmonic complexity of late Brahms, Wagner, and early Alexander Scriabin had resulted in tonal ambiguity, and ultimately a breakdown of traditional tonal hierarchy and expectations. With the creation of his ‘mystic chord’ in 1908 (a complex, highly-expressive six-note chord), Scriabin ushered in the vibrant, highly-charged, often self-referential worlds of musical Expressionism, extending musical perception with new harmonic relationships. Shortly thereafter, in response to Scriabin, Schönberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern of the 2nd Viennese School, extended musical architecture – and therefore audiences’ musical experiences – by creating daring compositions of heightened Expressionist intensity that stretched contextual and structural musical relationships in deeply expressive ways.
And what of cinema (at least, in its early form of the early Twentieth Century)? The ban on foreign films enacted by Germany in 1916 led to a rapid increase of domestic film-making. However, limited budgets and creative planning resulted in set designs with walls and floors painted to give the illusion of light and shadow, intentionally resulting in non-realistic, often jarring, backgrounds. Rather than adventure or romantic films, the experiences of WW1 were portrayed – betrayal, madness, dystopia – with directors such as FW Murnau, Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang creating subjective emotional realities through distortions in expression. Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is perhaps the most enduring of this time – its legacy felt in many modern science-fiction works – but the movement itself undoubtedly inspired the film noire that would follow, as well as directors as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock, Werner Herzog, and Tim Burton.
One hundred years on, and the parallels are clear. We have, thankfully, no ‘Great War’ to recover and recoil from, but we face an existential threat in climate change and an ongoing struggle against COVID. We are exhausted and, in many quarters, angry – and I wonder whether from this we will again see the emergence of new and powerful expressions of art. Time will tell whether this era will produce an artistic movement to rival Expressionism, either in its challenge to the norm or its influence and longevity. But in the here and now, I would argue, this is the perfect moment to look again at the Expressionism and appreciate the myriad ways that it continues to speak to us as vibrantly as it ever did.