Many of the painting styles that developed in the first two decades of the twentieth century can be seen as
continuations of Postimpressionist approaches to painting. In some cases—for example, Cézanne’s
influence on cubism—the connection is clear and direct. In other cases—for example, the expressionistic
tendencies of van Gogh and then of the later German expressionists—the connection between the
Postimpressionists and the early twentieth-century artists seems to be more a matter of artists pursuing
the same goals. Still, the interest in pure color, formal structure, emotional expression, and inner fantasy
that we saw with the Postimpressionists gives us a rough framework for discussing early twentieth-century
The use of vivid color and bold line to express strong or violent emotions was
seen already in German art of the sixteenth century. Van Gogh did not need
to see Grünewald’s painting to know that the clash of complementary colors
would convey the inner turmoil he felt. In the same way, the Norwegian artist,
Edvard Munch, could paint what seems to be a direct record of his own
feelings of terror in The Scream(1893). The zooming perspective and echoing
lines make us share those feelings when we see his work. Munch, however,
first tried working in an Impressionist style, and only when he became aware
of Gauguin’s striking, intense use of color was he able to create his own means
of expression. Munch spent much of his time in Germany where
expressionism flourished in the early twentieth century.
We reserve the term German Expressionism for the works of two groups of artists who came together in
the early twentieth century. The first group, Die Brücke (the Bridge), was based in Dresden and was led by
a group of young artists—including, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Erich Heckel—who
called for artists to directly and truthfully paint whatever they felt. Although they demanded no particular
style, the artists in Die Brücke were strongly influenced by both Munch and fifteenth- and sixteenth-century
German woodcuts, which had a sharply cut, crude style. Kirchner’s Street, Berlin, shows many
characteristics of the style. The painting depicts an ordinary street scene, but the angular shapes, garish
colors, sharply drawn faces, and suffocating spatial compression make it seem like an image of almost
demonic decadence. Other artists associated with Die Brücke, like Emil Nolde, took up some of the religious
themes from German art of the Renaissance. Nolde, however, represented these themes with crudely
drawn figures painted in rough patches of strong or garish colors.
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