The German Expressionism
movement began in 1905, but it was not until after World War I that
it evolved into the political statement that ultimately became the
source of its destruction. In order to understand German Expressionism,
it is necessary to understand something of the postwar years in
Germany and the effect that period had on the artists and the society
in which they worked.
of the German Expressionism artists had served in the military during
World War I. Two well-known German Expression artists, August
Macke and Franz
Marc, were killed and those who survived returned from the
experience disillusioned, depressed, sometimes maimed and often
shell-shocked. The Germany to which they returned was a country
overwhelmed with major economic, social, and political problems.
Parties from both the extreme left and extreme right were bitter
political enemies that shared one common goal; to overthrow the
current government. The final blow to an already shaky economy was
the signing of the Versailles
Treaty in 1919 which cost Germany not only some of its land
(new states of Poland and Czechoslovakia were created) but massive
amounts in reparation for the costs of the war.
The poverty and feeling
of betrayal and humiliation that followed the signing of the Versailles
Treaty affected all levels of German society. Artists and citizens
alike were ready to discard all of the old-fashioned ideals. Expressionism
became a new spiritual attitude that reflected the corruption of
the upper classes and the despair of the common man.
Prior to the War, Expressionism
painting had concentrated on celebrating the natural world and spirituality.
But after the War, Expressionism painting became dark and politically
centered. Kevin Cannon describes the effect of the war on German
Expressionism artists in his essay, German Expressionism Going
Under: War and Disillusionment, from the
Walking a Tightrope exhibition at Grinnell College.