An Alle Kunstler! (To All Artists!)
The German Expressionists - Essay by artist, Mark Vallen

I've always been fascinated by the artists of the German Expressionist movement and how they used their art to change society despite overwhelming odds. The power of these artworks continues to resonate... especially in light of today's catastrophic world events.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painted the work at left titled, Self-Portrait as a Soldier. The artist had himself been in the trenches of WW1 and suffered a mental breakdown. Paintings like this got the artist in trouble with the Nazis, who banned his work for being "degenerate."

The German Expressionist Movement was born in the trenches of World War 1 in 1914. Many of the German soldiers who suffered through that war were artists, and their experiences lead them to despise the powerful elites who had sent them onto the battlefield. When the war was lost in 1918 and Emperor Wilhelm abdicated, the people rose to support the November Revolution - the socialist call for the creation of a new Democratic Germany. Many artists answered that call and worked to support and promote the new provisional government.

The Expressionists formed activist groups like the Arbeitsrat fur Kunst (Worker's Council for Art), and the Novembergruppe (November Group, named after the revolution itself), with the intent of welding art to the worker's movement. In 1918 the November Group, in their first manifesto, called upon all Cubists, Futurists, and Expressionists to join in the regeneration of Germany. They encouraged writers, composers, architects, and painters to participate in the building of a new society.

Right-wing political opposition to the November revolution began almost immediately, and within that opposition lay the core of what was to later became the Nazi regime. The old militarists and their wealthy backers were not about to relinquish their power, and so they organized to defeat the November revolution. In 1919 socialist leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg were arrested and murdered by rightists. A year later the long planned coup of the radical right took place, with the rightists seizing government buildings in Berlin. The coup failed when 12 million German workers declared a general strike and drove the right from power. That same year the right-wing National Socialist German Workers Party came into existence, and one of the Nazi party members, a fanatical anti-Semite and racist anti-communist by the name of Adolf Hitler became the party's best organizer and orator.
During the rise of fascism, German Expressionists battled the right and tirelessly attacked the forces of conservatism, militarism, and high finance. Expressionists derided the status quo and made it a constant target for their artworks. However, not all Expressionist artists were overtly political - some turned towards religious themes in turning away from the brutal realities of the time. Others took up portraiture or landscape painting - but all came to despise the rightist thugs who strangled art and democracy in Germany. It should come as no surprise that with the eventual coming to power of the Nazis, many artists lost their teaching positions and were forbidden to create or exhibit. Others went into exile or were imprisoned... some were simply killed.
In 1937 the Nazi regime mounted an exhibition meant to ridicule modern art. Titled Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), the exhibit featured the works of Expressionists and other artists the regime deemed to be "anti-German." The works put on display were denounced by the Nazis as the dabblings of the insane, and the paintings were labeled the works of "Jews" and "Communists." Mockingly hung in poor light and at odd angles, the artworks were draped with Nazi banners and labels that mocked the works as having been created by the mentally and morally deficient. The exhibition heralded the end of art in Germany... at least until the Nazi Regime was finally done away with.
The German artists who lived during the years covered in this presentation labored under the most difficult of circumstances, war, extreme poverty, repression, and finally, the terror of the Nazi regime. Yet somehow they managed to leave behind a visual testament to their humanity and ability to resist. It is beyond the scope of this web site to present a complete overview of the Expressionists, rather, I hope these pages will serve as an introduction to some of Germany's greatest artists.
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