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Abstract Expressionism
by Gary Comenas

abstract expressionism

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The Origins of Expressionism

The "Expressionism" in the term Abstract Expressionism was borrowed from the European movement of the early twentieth century:

Shulamith Behr [lecturer in German 20th century art at the Courtauld Institute, London]:

"Interestingly, the term 'Expressionisten' was initially applied to a selection of French, and not German artists, in the foreword to the catalogue of the twenty-second spring exhibition of the Berlin Secession held in April 1911. Apart from Picasso, most of these artists were associated with the circle of Matisse - Braque, Derain, Friesz, Marquet, van Dongen, among others. Given the largely Impressionist leanings of the Secession, the collective term 'Expressionisten' was a convenient way of signifying the 'newest directions' in French art...

Before 1914, in an attempt to reform German culture in accordance with a vitalist, modernising aesthetic, Expressionism was sponsored in the public domain. At the Sonderbund Exhibition held at the Cologne Kuntshalle in 1912, the director of the exhibition, Richart Reiche, used the umbrella label 'Expressionismus' in the foreword to the catalogue, and applied it to a range of new art drawn from France, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Switzerland, Holland, Norway and Russia. yet, at the same time members of the German group Brücke (Bridge) were commissioned to decorate a chapel installed specifically for the occasion. Moreover, the importance attributed to the works of van Gogh, and a retrospective of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, indicated the attempt to establish a specifically northern, as opposed to French, lineage for the Expressionist movement...

In 1914, the term accrued its specifically German connotations. In that year, the critic and newspaper feuilletonist Paul Fechter, in his book Der Expressionismus (Expressionism), applied the term to the works of Brücke artists, to Der Blaue Reiter, and to individuals such as Oskar Kokoschka. Fechter dismissed the decorative, cosmopolitan associations of the word, investing it with connotations of the anti-intellectual, the emotional and the spiritual - the 'metaphysical necessity of the German people'...

While pre-war definitions of Expressionism were somewhat vague, they gained coherence in various publications during the war. The Austrian critic and playwright Hermann Bahr published the book Expressionismus in 1916, which was widely read, reaching three editions by 1920. He reaffirmed Expressionism's opposition to Impressionism, justifying its shock impact as a necessary antidote to bourgeois order and complacency. Consistent with methodologies in art historical enquiry of the period (he cites Worringer and Alois Riegl), he viewed contemporary art production as reflective of the despair of the age: 'Misery cries out, man cries out for his soul, the entire time is a single scream of distress'...

A second generation of Expressionists emerged which, while widespread in regional centres throughout Germany, was more cohesively defined by its members' anti-war sentiments and engagement in the political fervour of the early Weimar Republic. In his essay 'Expressionismus und Sozialismus' (Expressionism and Socialism), published in the journal Neue Blätter fur Kunst und Dichtung (New Newspapers for Art and Poetry) in May 1919, the political editor and art critic Herbert Kühn proclaimed: 'Expressionism is - as is socialism - the same outcry against materialism, against the unspiritual, against machines, against centralisation, for the spirit, for God, for the humanity in man' At the heart of the Expressionist theory lay the paradox that the personal 'strivings' and subjective expression of the artist could nonetheless rekindle utopian notions of spiritual community and identity..." (SB6-9)

[Excerpt from Shulamith Behr, Expressionism (Movements in Modern Art series) (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1999)]

back to 1929: The term, "Abstract Expressionism," is first used in the United States

abstract expressionism

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