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Expressionism describes works of art that are emotional or expressive in style and in content. This movement can be traced back to the late 1890s Europe and it is associated with the work of artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch and Henri Matisse and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
The name expressionism was diffused with the gallery Der Sturm in Berlin in 1910. These artists held the bourgeois society in contempt, usually marginalized from the society and didn’t sell that many paintings. They used strong, discordant colors, harsh lines and geometric shapes to convey psychological states and emotions.
Expressionist artists were abusing their imagination to challenge traditional approaches of representation. In the early 1900s, a number of artists in Germany developed a similar interest to tackle this new potential in the work of art and probably aiming for a new but natural emotional response from the viewer.
Working outside of the established art institutions, German Expressionists looked to non-European art and employed motifs from Africa, Oceania and Asia in their work. Other sources for their art included Medieval, Renaissance and Folk Art traditions in Germany. These diverse interests provided important influences as artists experimented with new styles and subjects.
This amalgamation brought a brand new view of painting as artists convey their own interpretation of things regardless of social conventions or artistic rules. German expressionists shared a spirit of rebellion. They were tormented by the fast pace by which cities were modernized and grew critical of an increasingly crowded, urban and industrialized society.
Still there were others who emphasized on creativity and spirituality. Many artists used an expressionist style for works of political protest and commentary, particularly following the First World War. The ideas and forms of Expressionism have lived on in later decades within the movements abstract expressionism and Neo-expressionism.
We can distinguish two groups of artists in this movement, one in Dresden between 1905 and 1913 under the name of Die Brück and the second one in Munich beginning in 1911 under the name Der blaue Reite. Those artists drifted away from purely plastic representations, they expressed an individual nervosis, a revolted consciousness of a general social malaise emerging at that time.
The Nazis would later brutally disrupt this expression, qualifying it as a “degenerate art.” Die Brücke, the group to which Kirchner belongs, wanted to destruct the old conventions. Kirchner explained that there is no need for rules, inspiration has to drop liberally and give an immediate expression.
Die Brücke, formed in 1905, preoccupies itself with less formal aspects distinguishing them from Fauvism, Matisse or Braque. The content is much more important than the form. At the time, Street Dresden was painted; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was 28 years old and living in Dresden, a large city in southeast Germany.
His studio, a former butcher’s shop, was the meeting point for his artist’s group of which he was a founding member. In a letter to fellow painter Erich Heckel, he wrote of the Dresden crowds: “Completely strange faces pop up as interesting points through the crowd. I am carried along with the current, lacking will. To move becomes an unacceptable effort.”
During the nineteenth century, Dresden’s population quadrupled from 95,000 in 1849 to nearly 400,000 in 1900 as a result of the industrial boom. By the time this picture was painted, Dresden had over 500,000 inhabitants. For the scene depicted in Street, “Dresden is the fashionable Königstrasse (King Street), where wealthy inhabitants went to shop and to socialize.”
All these facts emphasize the idea that the choice of Kirchner is full of subtexts symbolism. The microcosm that he paints makes the viewer think about the macrocosm in which he is forced to live and act the same way as the dominant class, the Bourgeoisie. At the surface, Kirchner‘s Street Dresden presents the anxiety of city life in order to bridge the past with the present through art.
Germans were specifically drawing outside at the same time they’re expressing anxiety of the modern city. They were feeling the effects of industrialization and they also had a deep focus on perspective. Baring this in mind when making the painting, Kirchner targeted a specific political comment on the modern style of society and what he saw as dreading World War I.
In this bold, inhospitable scene, the German Expressionist attempted to render the jarring experience of modern urban bustle. Women are in front with an equilibrate proportion of forms yet not harmonious and disturbed with the arbitrariness of colors. Their looks are spoiled intentionally to highlightthe unconstructed identity.
Painted in shrill and clashing colors, everything and everyone seem to radiate tension. Pedestrians are packed onto the sidewalks on the right, and locked into a narrow space. The street is crowded, even claustrophobic; each individual seems very much alone. This highlights the total alienation that individuals felt at that time of modernization.
Their faces are expressionless, almost mask-like, as if seeking anonymity. And a little girl, dwarfed by a menacing hat, drifts in the middle of the picture. Kirchner himself commented, “The more I mixed with people the more I felt my loneliness.” The painting is the obvious reaction to an imposed system.
The consumer society is taking over and it’s interesting to notice the timeless vision the painter had at that time. We are in the 21st century and things are regularly analysed and questioned but these visionary people took their concerns to their art. The postmodern era does not neglect any work of art but in some way it often forgets what lied behind them in the first place.