Art History: Expressionism

Expressionistic Movements: Life, Death and Anxiety at the turn of the Century

Gustav Klimt, Death and Life, 1916
Oil on canvas 178 x 198 cm
Private collection, Vienna
Stokstad calls him Art Nouveau
or Sezession-stil (Germany)
Form: Although painted in oil on canvas, the paint is applied in a rather thin often washy manner which exhibits little or no texture.  The composition is asymmetrical and the figure of the robed figure with the skull is placed in an empty field that stands in stark comparison to the group of figures on the right side. The figures are painted in a strange combination of illusionism and flat unrealistic anatomy.  There are passages of modeled value which are also in a formal tension against the flat graphic designs of the patterns on the figures' clothes.
The designs on the clothes vary in color and form from harsh angular crosslike forms, geometric shapes such as triangles and squares to rounded curvilinear forms.
Iconography:  The composition is designed to create a tension between the figure which represents death at left and wields either a club or some sort scepter against the massed interwoven bodies of the sleeping unaware figures on the right.
The types vary from old, and young woman, to mothers and young well muscled male youths.  The patterning of the clothing is also meant as a type of clue as to the roles each figure has.  Death is wearing a cruciform pattern which could be a semi-sarcastic or caustic statement about religion and salvation.  Each of the living figures seems to be sporting an individualistic pattern whose hues may be in accordance with there personalities as is the skin tone of the male and the pale females.
Klimt's work in general and this in specific exhibits a rather "expressionistic" quality.  According to the Brittanica, "Expressionism" is an,
artistic style in which the artist seeks to depict not objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in him. He accomplishes his aim through distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy and through the vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of formal elements. In a broader sense Expressionism is one of the main currents of art in the later 19th and the 20th centuries, and its qualities of highly subjective, personal, spontaneous self-expression are typical of a wide range of modern artists and art movements. Expressionism can also be seen as a permanent tendency in Germanic and Nordic art from at least the European Middle Ages, particularly in times of social change or spiritual crisis, and in this sense it forms the converse of the rationalist and classicizing tendencies of Italy and later of France. More specifically, Expressionism as a distinct style or movement refers to a number of German artists, as well as Austrian, French, and Russian ones, who became active in the years before World War I and remained so throughout much of the interwar period.
The roots of the German Expressionist school lay in the works of Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and James Ensor, each of whom in the period 1885-1900 evolved a highly personal painting style. These artists used the expressive possibilities of colour and line to explore dramatic and emotion-laden themes, to convey the qualities of fear, horror, and the grotesque, or simply to celebrate nature with hallucinatory intensity. They broke away from the literal representation of nature in order to express more subjective outlooks or states of mind.
Context: According the Brittanica,
Gustave Klimt, b. July 14, 1862, Vienna, Austria d. Feb. 6, 1918, Vienna
Austrian painter and founder of the school of painting known as the Vienna Sezession. After studying at the Vienna School of Decorative Arts, Klimt in 1883 opened an independent studio specializing in the execution of mural paintings. His early work was typical of late 19th-century academic painting, as can be seen in his murals for the Vienna Burgtheater (1888) and on the staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
In 1897 Klimt's mature style emerged, and he founded the Vienna Sezession, a group of painters who revolted against academic art in favour of a highly decorative style similar to Art Nouveau. Soon thereafter he painted three allegorical murals for the ceiling of the University of Vienna auditorium that were violently criticized; the erotic symbolism and pessimism of these works created such a scandal that the murals were rejected. His later murals, the "Beethoven Frieze" (1902; Österreichische Gallery, Vienna) and the murals (1909-11) in the dining room of the Stoclet House, Brussels, are characterized by precisely linear drawing and the bold and arbitrary use of flat, decorative patterns of colour and gold leaf. Klimt's most successful works include "The Kiss" (1908; Österreichische Gallery) and a series of portraits he did of fashionable Viennese matrons, such as "Frau Fritza Riedler" (1906; Österreichische Gallery) and "Frau Adele Bloch-Bauer" (1907; Österreichische Gallery). In these works he treats the human figure without shadow and heightens the lush sensuality of skin by surrounding it with areas of flat, highly ornamental, and brilliantly composed areas of decoration.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-8
oil on canvas, 5'10"x6'
Vienna National Museum
Stokstad calls him Art Nouveau
or Sezession-stil (Germany)
Form: This image shares in many of the same qualities as Death and Life.  Although painted in oil on canvas, the paint is applied in a rather thin often washy manner which exhibits little or no texture.  The composition is rather central and static but the filed of flowers in the foreground and the bending pose of the figures grants it a rather asymmetrical quality. Again here the figures are painted in a strange combination of illusionism and flat unrealistic anatomy.  There are passages of modeled value which are also in a formal tension against the flat graphic designs of the patterns on the figures' clothes.
The designs on the clothes for the male figure are angular boxlike forms as opposed to the rounded curvilinear forms of the female figure's clothes.  The same contrasts appear in the skin tones, the female is pale whereas the male is dark.  This seems very similar to the depictions of male and female figures in Egyptian Art as well as in the murals at Knossos.
Iconography:  The poses of the figures can be read immediately as a kiss, however, many of my students have noticed that the female's head seems bent back in an uncomfortable angle and to some she seems to be being accosted rather than kissed.  Other students have read this as a passionate willing liaison.
The pose, skin tone and patterns on the fabrics seem to conform with stereo types concerning male and female roles.  The pose of the male is more aggressive while the female's pose is at the very least the receptor of his advances.  Traditionally in many cultures males are depicted as darker than females.  Henry Sayre, in his text book A World of Art comments that males' bodies are often depicted as angular and square while the female form is often depicted with more curved line.  The patterns of the figure's garments seem conform to Sayre's and societies' views that woman are softer and rounder while the male body is more angular.
Context:  An interesting element in these works, and my own theory, is that Klimt was heavily influenced by the developments made in the fabric/weaving and printmaking industries.  It is possible to make the connection that thanks to industrialization, textile design and the creation of brightly colored and printed fabrics may have been a primary inspiration for Klimt.

Edvard Munch The Dance of Life 1899
Form: Since this painting is both representational and also rather expressionist in it's rendering many of the forms are hard to decipher.  The symmetrical composition is arranged in three bands. In the foreground of the image, rendered in thin washy oil paint are several anatomically inaccurate figures.  A smiling female figure clothed in a pale patterned dress stands near a flower which may be growing out of the lawn on which they stand.  This figure is balanced in the right of the composition by a scowling female figure, dressed in a dark gown with clasped hands.  Both figures bracket a male and female figure who dance between them.  These females eye sockets appear to be dark hollows.  All the foreground figures' forms are delineated by the use of radiating contour lines.  There is a small indication of light and shadow in the rendering of the facial features but the drapery does not demonstrate and tonal rendering.  Similar figures dance on the lawn in the midground.  Although it is rather hard to make out, in the background is an image of the sea with the moon reflected in it.  
Iconography:  The almost childlike drawing and rendering of forms in Munch's work is almost equally reflected by his rather unsophisticated iconography.  As the title implies, this painting renders the artist's anxieties concerning the transient nature of life.  For Munch, (who many of his family was sick and or had died) this image represent the scary nature of life as a waltz that is almost out of control.  For Munch (who probably needed prozac or paxil) we dance through life in scary nocturnal environment perched between life and death.
Context: A colleague once related how that in many of the Northern countries in Europe, that often summer is so short that when the weather is warm enough great parties with dancing and music take place out of doors at all hours of the day and night to enjoy the weather.  It is possible that Munch is using such events as a point of departure for his imagery.

Edvard Munch The Scream 1893
According to the Brittanica,
Edvrad Munch b. Dec. 12, 1863, Löten, Nor.d. Jan. 23, 1944, Ekely, near Oslo  
Norwegian painter and printmaker whose intensely evocative treatment of psychological themes greatly influenced German Expressionism in the early 20th century. His painting "The Scream" (1893; see photograph  "The Scream," tempera and casein on cardboard by Edvard Munch, 1893; in the Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo...) can be seen as a symbol of modern man's spiritual anguish.
Early years.
Munch was born into a middle-class family that was plagued with ill health. His mother died when he was 5, his eldest sister when he was 14, both of tuberculosis--the latter event being recalled in his first masterpiece, "The Sick Child" (1885-86). Munch's father and brother also died when he was still young, while another sister developed mental illness. "Illness, insanity and death," as he said, "were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life."
Munch showed a flair for drawing at an early age but received little formal training. An important factor in his artistic development was the Christiania Bohème, a circle of writers and artists in Christiania, as Oslo was then called. Its members were characterized by a belief in free love and a general opposition to bourgeois narrow-mindedness. One of the older painters in the circle, Christian Krohg, gave Munch both instruction and encouragement. But Munch soon outgrew the prevailing naturalist aesthetic in Christiania, partly as a result of his assimilation of French Impressionism after a trip to Paris in 1889 and his contact with the work of the Postimpressionist painters Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec from about 1890.


Munch, The Vampire 1895
Munch Madonna 1902
Artistic maturity.
Munch's own deeply original style crystallized in about 1892. The flowing, tortuous use of line in his new paintings was similar to that of contemporary Art Nouveau, but Munch used line not as decoration but as a vehicle for profound psychological revelation. The outraged incomprehension of Norwegian critics was echoed by their counterparts in Berlin when Munch exhibited a large number of his paintings there in 1892 at the invitation of the Union of Berlin Artists. The violent emotionalism and unconventional imagery of his paintings created a bitter controversy. The scandal, however, helped make his name known throughout Germany, from where his reputation spread internationally. Munch lived mainly in Berlin in 1892-95 and then in Paris in 1896-97, and he continued to move around extensively until he settled in Norway in 1910. Paintings of love and death.
At the heart of Munch's achievement is his series of paintings on love and death. Its original nucleus was formed by six pictures exhibited in 1893, and the series had grown to 22 works by the time it was first exhibited under the title "Frieze of Life" at the Berlin Secession in 1902. Munch constantly rearranged these paintings, and if one had to be sold, he would make another version of it. Thus in many cases there are several painted versions, in addition to prints based on the same images. Though the Frieze draws deeply on personal experience, its themes are universal: it is not about particular men or women but about man and woman in general, and about the human experience of the great elemental forces of nature. Seen in sequence, an implicit narrative emerges of love's awakening, blossoming, and withering, followed by despair and death.
Love's awakening is shown in "The Voice" (1893), where on a summer night a girl standing among trees is summoned more by an inner voice than by any sounds from a boat on the sea behind her. Compositionally, this is one of several paintings in the Frieze in which the winding horizontal of the coastline is counterpoised with the verticals of trees, figures, or the pillarlike reflection across the sea of sun or moon. Love's blossoming is shown in "The Kiss" (1892), in which the faces of the kissing man and woman melt so completely into each other that neither retains any individual features. An especially powerful image of the surrender, or transcendence, of individuality is "Madonna" (1894-95), which shows a naked woman with her head thrown back in ecstasy, her eyes closed, and a red halo-like shape above her flowing black hair. This may be understood as the moment of conception, but there is more than a hint of death in the woman's beautiful face. In Munch's art, woman is an "other" with whom union is desperately desired, yet feared because it threatens the destruction of the creative ego.
Munch's acute awareness of the suffering caused by love is clear from such titles as "Melancholy" (c. 1892-93), "Jealousy" (1894-95), and "Ashes" (1894). If isolation and loneliness, always present in his work, are especially emphasized in these pictures, they are equally so in "Death in the Sick Room" (1893-95), one of many paintings about death. Here the focus is not on the dying child, who is not even visible, but on the living, each wrapped in their own experience of grief and unable to communicate or offer each other any consolation. The picture's power is heightened by the claustrophobically enclosed space and by the steeply rushing perspective of the floor.
The same type of dramatic perspective is used in "The Scream," or "The Cry" (1893), which is almost certainly Munch's most famous painting (see photograph 
"The Scream," tempera and casein on cardboard by Edvard Munch, 1893; in the Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo...). It depicts a panic-stricken creature, simultaneously corpselike and reminiscent of a sperm or fetus, whose contours are echoed in the swirling lines of the blood-red sky. In this painting anxiety is raised to a cosmic level, ultimately related to that intuition of death and the void which was to be central to Existentialism.
Munch's massive output of graphic art--consisting of etchings, dry point, lithographs, and woodcuts--began in 1894. The principal attraction of printmaking was that it enabled him to communicate his message to a much larger number of people, but it also afforded him exciting opportunities for experimentation. Munch's prints closely resemble his paintings in both style and subject matter. Munch's art had evident affinities with the poetry and drama of his day, and interesting comparisons can be made with the work of the dramatists Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, both of whose portraits he painted. Later years.
Munch suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908-09, and afterward his art became more positive and extroverted but hardly ever regained its previous intensity. Among the few exceptions is his haunting "Self-Portrait: The Night Wanderer" (c. 1930), one of a long series of self-portraits he painted throughout his life. An especially important commission, which marked the belated acceptance of his importance in Norway, was for the Oslo University Murals (1909-16), the centrepiece of which was a vast painting of the sun, flanked by allegorical images. Both landscapes and men at work provided subjects for Munch's later paintings. This increased emphasis on the outside world may well have reflected a greater personal maturity, but artistically Munch was no longer in the vanguard. It was principally through his work of the 1890s, in which he gave form to mysterious and dangerous psychic forces, that he made such a crucial contribution to modern art. Munch bequeathed his estate and all the paintings, prints, and drawings in his possession to the city of Oslo, which erected the Munch Museum in 1963. Many of his finest works are in the National Gallery (Nasjonalgalleriet) in Oslo.


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