Expressionism is a term that is used often in describing art of the 20th century. There is sometimes confusion over the use of the term because it had different connotations depending upon the artist and group that used it. It could reference a desire to express oneself artistically by creating form and color that came from the artist’s mind or it could be about expressing ideas and emotions.
Two artists who used the term extensively were Henri Matisse and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Matisse argued for the expression of color outside of nature while Kirchner sought to express the inner anxiety and alienation in an increasingly industrialized and mechanical world. By looking at these two artists, we can understand the two very different interpretations of Expressionism in early 20th century art.
Matisse’s Red Room depicts a servant setting the table in a red interior with a view to the landscape outside from the window on the upper left. She is depicted as a flat cut-out with strong lines and un-modulated color. Matisse has not only flattened the figure but the entire picture. The table cloth and wall paper have the same color and pattern which collapses the space between them and seems to make one unified background on which all the other objects are placed. The accoutrements on the table vary in their point of view; we see the trays of fruit turned upward so we view them from almost a birds-eye perspective while the flasks of wine are in profile. The only delineation of space comes from the window sill in the background and the chair in the left foreground: both exhibiting loosely accurate perspective lines. The color is dramatic with bright red, gold and green which could hardly be found in nature. It is the use of color that Matisse and the Fauves (Wild Beasts), the group he was associated with, were best known for.
In Kirchner’s Street, Dresden there is also a bold use of color. The eye is drawn to the bright red coat of the figure walking away on the left side of the canvas complemented by the greens, aquamarines and blues on the right. Kirchner uses a loose brushstroke and the figures lack clear hard edges. The faces of the women who look out at the viewer have unnatural color and harsh brushstrokes of competing colors across their faces. Although there is some modeling of the people, they appear flat and without volume. The street rises up dramatically from the bottom of the picture plane, as if it has been turned up creating a sense of distance from them and those behind them. There is no interaction between the figures and their blank stares are disquieting. The painting seeps of emotional content, from the desperation of the figures to the dissonant colors and distortion of perspective. Kirchner was the founder of the group Die Brücke (The Bridge) and wrote about painting and the expression of inner passions.
Both of these paintings were painted in 1908, but they reflect different ideas about what art is supposed to be and how it should be executed. Matisse was interested in control, framing and balancing his compositions like the Red Room, consciously applying color and seeking a painting which in the end is interesting to the eye and not to elicit visceral emotions. Kirchner on the other hand disrupts what might appeal to us visually as he seeks to convey the underlying tension between those pictured and within the viewer themself. The formal elements of line, shape and color are being utilized for very different ends even when they use a similar device like bold color or flattening space.
The subjects are also completely different. Although Matisse included a figure, she is not the subject. He has depicted the interior of the room as a large still-life, a subject artists traditionally used to train their hand and eye and the perfect subject if the natural world is simply to provide forms with which to arrange and color. Kirchner’s subjects are the angst and desperation of modern urban life. The street scene, traditionally a genre subject is here not about everyday life, but a vehicle to express inner emotions.
When using the term expressionism in art, one always wants to know in which context it is used. Is it primarily about expressing form or expressing emotion? Neo-expressionism, a term coined for a group of artists in the 1980’s incorporated both sides of its meaning and Susan Rothenberg’s Tattoo is a perfect example to demonstrate this. Her work was firmly rooted in an abstract tradition until she began depicting images of horses. In this image we see the simplified hazy blue shape of a horse galloping toward the viewer. On either side are dark lines which seem to be arbitrary shapes until closer examination reveals that they are actually up close outlines of an upside down horse’s legs and foot. The horse has a long history of being a symbol of power and of the power of nature, placing it historically within the emotional Expressionism of artists like Kirchner. The stylistic abstraction of the horse fit it within experiential immediacy of the application of paint and color of which Matisse was in favor of. From these examples we see that calling an artwork Expressionistic is only the first step. One needs to know in which ways the artist is expressing in order to fully appreciate their work.