Liberation of Forms and Colors


Franz Marc „Ställe“ 1913. (1)

ca. 1905 – 1925

Expressionism – United for the Revolution

The 20th century begins with several sensations. Sigmund Freud discovers the subconscious, the Lumière brothers invent filmmaking and the Wright brothers conquer the skies. Life in the modern world has become more difficult to fathom, full of pictures and – most of all – faster. In Germany, artists react with a revolution. They want to free colors and forms from their representational prisons. It is not how things appear that is important, but how they are felt. And because a revolution can only be successful when undertaken together, the artists team up to form collectives. In Dresden, Die Brücke is formed, and in Munich it’s Der Blaue Reiter. Their joint solution is called “Expressionism”. And their goal is “Abstraction”.

The influence of Der Blaue Reiter on painting in the 20th century can hardly be overestimated. However, the group within itself is much less stable and harmonious than it appears from the outside. Tensions about their artistic direction and the looming war lead to estrangement between the members. They will disband in the summer of 1914. Too soon for the aspiring artist Heinrich Campendonk, only 25 years old at the time, who hardly benefited from Der Blaue Reiter nimbus at all.

At first, Expressionism is a German phenomenon. While Cubism in France was breaking apart seeing in perspective and Futurism in Italy celebrating progress, the German avant-garde were working on the liberation of forms and colors. Expressionism is thus by definition a countermovement of Early Impressionism. It is no longer important how we see things, but how the artists express themselves in them. A change of perspective: instead of from the outside in, things are now thought through from the inside out. The artist collective Der Blaue Reiter is at the heart of this revolutions. Forms and colors are no longer bound by representationalism, but now only serve to convey artistic expression.

In June 2017, Wolfgang Beltracchi paints the group portrait of Der Blaue Reiter in front of The Münter House in Murnau. He had already prepared studies for the work in his studio.

Five Facts About Expressionism

Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke are considered to be the two most influential artist collectives of German Expressionism. Their influence on painting in the 20th century was enormous, although both groups were only short-lived. Die Brücke existed for eight years, Der Blaue Reiter only three.

There was a 180-degree turn from Impressionism to Expressionism. Impressionism is regarded as a movement that wanted to reproduce the world as it appeared to the artist from within. Expressionism (from Latin expressio “expression”) reverses this direction. From now on, what is inside the artist is to be expressed in the things depicted. Colors and forms are thus no longer bound to objects, but are oriented towards artistic expression.

Three of Der Blaue Reiter members – Kandinsky, Werefkin and Jawlensky – came from Russia. However, the First World War abruptly broke up this German-Russian cooperation. Kandinsky, Werefkin and Jawlensky have to flee Germany. Marc and Macke fall on the battlefields in France.

Der Blaue Reiter artists are not only productive with the brush, but also with the pen. Kandinsky and Marc especially compose numerous written works, which are meant to be an art theoretical accompaniment to the Expressionist Revolution. This reflection on their own works and artistic paths calls into question the sovereignty of critic’s opinions. At the beginning of the 20th century, that is also avant-garde.

The Expressionist Revolution extends beyond painting. The liberation of forms and colors corresponds in music with the liberation of harmonies from tonality, and in poetry with the liberation of sound from meaning. Painting, music, poetry: this trio of arts is also reflected in the artists’ lives. Franz Marc is close friends with the expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schüler. And a self-portrait by Arnold Schönberg, composer and occasional painter, is shown in Der Blaue Reiter’s first exhibition.

Many artists in Germany believe the war that is breaking out over Europe to be a force of nature and a purifying force. Franz Marc is convinced that the war is a “healing, albeit cruel, passage”. The general mood is permeated with a desire for departure and change. But Marc and his comrades-in-arms confuse the aesthetic revolution with the real horror of war. True understanding only comes on the battlefield: “The war is of a nameless cruelty. You’re gone before you know it,” writes Macke from the front. Macke, Marc and many other artists of the time pay for the error in judgement with their lives.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner „Eisenbahnüberführung Löbtauer Straße in Dresden“, 1910. (2)

Marianne von Werefkin „Kalkofen“, 1912. (3)

Wassily Kandinsky, „Little Painting with Yellow (Improvisation)”, 1914 (4)


Image copyrights:

1: Franz Marc „Ställe“ 1913. © bpk / The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY
2: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner „Eisenbahnüberführung Löbtauer Straße in Dresden“, 1910. © bpk | Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden | Hans-Peter Klut
3: Marianne von Werefkin „Kalkofen“, 1912. © bpk | Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen
4: Wassily Kandinsky, „Little Painting with Yellow (Improvisation)”, 1914. © bpk / Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY
a: Lucas Cranach the Elder „Ungleiches Paar (Der alte Buhler)“. © bpk / Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen
b: Franz Marc „Ställe“ 1913. © bpk / The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY
c: Gustav Klimt „Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” 1907.  © John Baran / Alamy Stock Foto.
d: Detail from „The oldest known icon of Christ, 6-7th C“ © Stock Foto
e: Detail from Hendrick Avercamp: Winter Landscape with Skaters, ca. 1608 © Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo
f: Detail from William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
g: Detail from Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer im Nebelmeer, 1818. © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
h: Detail from Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Jan Vermeer, 1557 © Archivart / Alamy Stock Photo