100 Years of Modern Art in Germany

This month as we’ve been focusing on Germany within our online book club, we thought you might enjoy learning a bit about German modern culture.

Ad Parnassum by Paul Klee, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What do you know of German modern art? While the phrase may conjure images of Berlin Wall graffitti, or Mike Myers in a black turtleneck, the actual story of modern art in Germany is intriguing and complex.

Heralding back to such artistic giants as Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein, German artists have continued the tradition of thought-provoking subjects and novel techniques into the 20th and 21st centuries. The work of modern German artists has had a profound effect on the world, and their influence can be seen everywhere from apartment buildings to clothing prints. Berlin has a particularly thriving art scene, and other cities such as Dresden and Munich have hosted movements placing Germany a solidly on the world’s art stage. Here are a few German artistic movements from the past 100 years that can give you an idea of the modern German identity, aesthetic, and where else in the world it turns up:

German Expressionism

At the beginning of the 20th century, German artists in large cities such as Berlin, Dresden and Munich were feeling stifled by the values of the strict bourgeois mores and the inflexibility of state-sponsored art education. They were tired of the stuffy, outdated styles and were craving something new. They took it upon themselves to invent new artistic styles as a type of rebellion against these old traditions. Thus, German Expressionism was born! They painted vivid, shockingly clashing colors with distorted forms that leaned more on the emotions relating to their subjects rather than representing the traditional manners of painting. The result was a raw and unsettling image that was upsetting to the existing institutions of art at the time.

Die Brücke

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A few different forms of German expressionism emerged. In Dresden in 1905, Ernst Kirchner headed an expressionist artistic movement that called itself Die Brücke (the bridge). Together with other artists who saw themselves as using art as a ‘bridge’ to new worlds ruled by subconscious emotion, Kirchner used bright colors and flattened, distorted forms reminiscent of woodcut prints. It’s no surprise that this artistic development was happening concurrently with the research of psychologist Sigmund Freud who stressed the importance of the subconscious in psychoanalysis. The colors and shapes of Die Brücke continue to be replicated the world over in cloth design, graphic design and painting.

Der Blaue Reiter

Large Blue Horses by Franz Marc, Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons

Around the same time as the ‘Die Brücke‘ movement in 1905, Wassily KandinskyFranz Marc, and Gabriele Münter, continued the idea with their Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group in Munich in 1909. Der Blaue Reiter was aimed at using multiple modes of expression to convey inner desires. Kandinsky, Marc and Münter together produced many works of art, and an almanac containing over 140 paintings and 14 major essays which became a major influence on the art of the 20th century. Kandinsky was particularly interested in the spiritual effects of art on the viewer, and experimented with many ideas including theosophy and the occult. Kandinsky’s influence can still be seen in painting, fabric, jewelry, and interior design.

Both Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter groups dissolved quickly, but their ideals and works remained to help shape what is now the general movement of German Expressionism.

Satirical Grotesque

Following the First World War, Germany was reeling from the losses and poverty caused by the war. In Weimar, German artists used their canvases to express their despair and resentment toward the powers that had brought on the devastation. Some good examples of this are the works of Otto Dix and George Grosz, who painted Satirical-Grotesque depictions of the wealthy elite and war themed subjects. Max Ernst, who returned traumatized from World War I after serving four years as a soldier, painted in the Dada and Surrealistic styles to express his disillusionment with society and its values. Lyonel Feininger and the Swiss-born Paul Klee (who also suffered emotionally from the traumas of the war) experimented with cubism to bring out their ideas in the war’s aftermath.

Left: Portrait of Otto Dix by Hugo Erfurth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


Bauhaus.  Photo by Ross Sokolovski on Unsplash 

In 1919 Walter Gropius established the Bauhaus school of art in Weimar, where leading artists experimented with new ideas. Both Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky came to teach at the school, sharing their values about art and its relation to society. They formed a movement called the Gesamtkunstwerk (‘comprehensive artwork’) in which they hoped to bring all the arts together. In general, the thinkers of the Bauhaus wanted to more completely combine form and function in design, letting functional forms lead in their simplistic beauty. Art from the Bauhaus took on geometric, simplified shapes that omitted the extraneous decor or ‘fluff.’ The Bauhaus movement had a monumental influence on the design, art, and architecture that followed. Even today, much of the urban architecture and industrial design of commercial products have been strongly influenced by the Bauhaus and International Style. You’ll see it everywhere, particularly in Germany and eastern Europe, in large apartment blocks and commercial buildings.

Nazi Art: Classical Beauty and a Condemnation of ‘Modern Art’

Aryan family by Ludwig Hohlwein, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Under Hitler’s rule, German art was largely controlled by the state. Contemporary art in general was frowned upon by the Nazis, who preferred classical art and folk art. They commissioned hand-picked Nazi artists to promote the Nazi agenda by creating propagandist works. In 1937 the Nazis held an exhibition called Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art), mainly composed of Expressionist pieces. Simultaneously they exhibited the Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German art exhibition) at the palatial Haus der deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), displaying the work of approved artists such as Arno Breker and Adolf Wissel. Though the intent was for the public to decry the ‘Degenerate Art’ and all modern art, while praising the ‘Great German Art,’ more than three and a half times as many people visited the Entartete!

Conceptual & Performance Art

After World War II, German art divided into two broad styles. The communist DDR (East Germany) produced mainly art that can be described as Socialist realism as part of the new propaganda of the communist Eastern Bloc. At the same time, Western Germany embraced a variety of international movements such as Neo-expressionism (reviving the original expressionist ideas) and Conceptualism.

Left: Joseph Beuys Poster. Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

In Conceptual Art the ideas or concepts represented took presidence over the technical execution of the work. Various installations, performances or typographical works fell into this category. The performance artist, sculptor, and theorist Joseph Beuys was a type of conceptual artist, and may be called the most influential German artist of the late 20th century.  His idea of Gesamtkunstwerk meant that art could include the whole of society. His most famous expression was: “Everyone is an artist,” and his performance art reflected this value.

Abstract and Neo-Expressionism

By the 1970s and 80s, many groups of artists formed internationally, painting and sculpting in abstract and neo-expressionist styles. German artists followed this trend, giving rise to groups such as the Gruppe SPUR, and the Junge Wilde.

The Gruppe SPUR, working mainly in the 1970s out of Munich, included: Lothar Fischer, Heimrad PremHans-Peter Zimmer, and Helmut Sturm. Their activities were highly revolutionary and not appreciated by most mainstream groups. Their artistic styles were mostly expressionistic, but the radicalism of their activities led them to falling out with established art and social groups, and to conflicts with police.

The Junge Wilde (literally ‘wild youth’) movement came into being in 1978, as an opposition to established avant gardeminimal art and conceptual art. Linked with the Transavanguardia movement in Italy, neo-expressionism in the US, and Figuration Libre in France, the Junge Wilde painted with bright, intense colors and with quick, broad brushstrokes. Their work was mainly inspired by Professor Karl Horst Hödicke at the Academy of Art in Berlin.

Contemporary Art Fairs

Yan Lei at Documenta 13 ceiling.JPG David Gómez Fontanills, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

As artists and buyers have become more mobile in the 21st century, influences and venues have become much more international in scope, creating a global art scene. German artists still sometimes draw from their roots, but often mix styles with new ideas and international flavor.

In the 21st century, art fairs have been the most popular venues for art in Germany. One major exhibition of contemporary art, held every five years in Kassel, is called Documenta.  Another contemporary art fair — the oldest in the world — is called Art Cologne, and is held every year. The yearly Transmediale, held in Berlin, is another festival for art and digital culture. These art fairs are often commercial enterprises aimed and connecting artists with buyers, but some are state funded with the purpose of promoting culture among the general public.

With the rise of digitalism, art and images are everywhere. Photos are taken and shared across the globe, online media helps us blend styles, trends arise, and artists — as well as the public — experiment and create something new every day. In Germany this is as true as it is anywhere, carrying on the tradition of experimentation. Germans and people from all nations are making true what Joseph Beuys first proposed, that “everyone is an artist”!


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