I was raised in Germany to parents possessing no appreciation in the arts, much less in supporting my study and pursuit of it. One of the aspects of my background that I truly value when comparing to my present life in the USA is how a complete, distinctive culture and flavor can be just a one-hour flight or couple hours drive away. I may not have had the opportunity to go to any of the fine art schools in Europe, yet I certainly wasted neither time nor effort educating myself in the corridors of Europe’s museums.
Of course, it was natural to drift with the current by exploring German art initially; anything from Dürer to Richter. To simultaneously see the cities that gave birth and inspiration to artists and artist cliques only added to the steep history of each painting. Like any other artist, there were works and painters that inspired me, others that I still wrangle with – there is no one favorite canvas or artist.
Yet if you get struck by rich, contrasting color, well-constructed composition and brushstrokes that thrust and parry as if alive as I do, then I would offer an introduction to the artists of Die Brücke.
Die Brücke (or The Bridge, the name taken from a Nietzsche passage) was an expressionist group of Dresden artists formed in 1905 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel, to be joined later by such artists as Max Pechmann and Emil Nolde. Chief among their contributions to the art world would be the use of a technique that employed intentionally unsophisticated emphases and crude distortions towards a controlled composition, in addition to pioneering many new techniques in woodcuts, a long German tradition.
The works covered both landscape compositions thickened with impasto applications and haunting studies of the figure, taking the baton set forward by the Fauves in their use of color and form, Van Gogh in his ideas on artists communities, and a keen interest in native art of Oceania and Africa.
By all accounts, Kirchner fit the stereotypical portrait of the pretentious artist, at one point even insisting upon being called by the name “Gustav” to enhance his Bohemianess. Yet it is through his work that we identify with Die Brücke more so than the other members – Kirchner's boundless energy is evident in studies of cabarets, streetwalkers of the time and his mortal fear of impending war.
The artists of Die Brücke expressed their views and criticisms of the seedier side of modern life, in line with the revolutionary socialism of the time that permeated Europe. They skillfully used color as a means of expressing emotion and impulsively pushed at its limits. Shapes and forms were stripped down to their most skeletal essentials in order to reveal the artists’ subjective feelings and inner experiences. Without trying to sound as pretentious as Kirchner (who remains one of my heroes despite his social flaws), this is essentially the roots of the movement and how well they works still resonate today as a major influential period for contemporary abstract expressionists.