German Expressionism

Staring before 1848, German immigrants emigrated to Missouri in general and Saint Louis in particular. Missouri’s broad rivers and their accompanying valleys reminded these then new Americans of their native Rhine and other river valleys. The revolutionary year of 1848 only accelerated this emigration. The failed revolutions of that year unleashed an avalanche of German and central European intellectuals, idealists and revolutionaries, who fled the retribution that was soon meted out by the hereditary regimes that had and continued to rule most of Europe. Many of these immigrants grew and prospered here in Saint Louis.

Saint Louis in general was a beneficiary of the work and effort of these German immigrants. The Saint Louis Art Museum was a rather particular beneficiary of Saint Louis’ German-American heritage. One after another prominent Saint Louisan family bequeathed their artwork collections to the museum. Eventually, the museum found itself with one of the première collections of modern German art. This aspect of the museum’s collection is so important, that even now, at the height of the construction of the new wing, German Expressionism still commands a large gallery of the still functioning art museum. The accompanying pictures and the following text are devoted to German Expressionist art. The following text is from a placard in the gallery.

At the beginning of the 20th century, avant-garde German artists pursued a new visual language known as Expressionism, which was characterized by intense color, exaggerated imagery, and agitated brushstrokes. The two pivotal Expressionist movements were Die Brücke (The Bridge) centered in Dresden and Berlin from 1905 to 1913, and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), active in Munich from 1911 to 1914.

Die Brücke, led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Erich Heckel, favored the use of vivid colors, strong linear effects, and bold outlines. They were inspired variously by German Renaissance art, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and African and Oceanic art. Brücke artists depicted familiar people, places, and experiences with emotional forces and an almost raw effect. Their subjective response addressed both the frenetic pace of modern urban life, and the tranquility of idyllic retreats.

Der Blaue Reiter believed that art expresses spiritual truth. Its practitioners employed different styles to achieve these aims as evidenced by Wassily Kandinsky’s radically simplified, nearly abstract paintings, and Franz Marc’s interlocking planes of color. These artists engaged the world in order to transcend it.

The Saint Louis Art Museum has engraved upon the lintel above its entrance, its motto, Dedicated to Art and Free to All. It was engraved there for the opening of the 1904 World’s Fair. Many a pretty young woman has worn that motto across their chest since then. Admission is always free to any museum gift shop. This motto extends to the museum’s permission for photography of its permanent collection. It is this permission that has allowed me to photograph and present these works of art. In our ever more proprietary world, where copyright rules supreme, this freedom to express, is a welcomed echo of the freedom sought, by those early German immigrants, so many years ago.

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