What is German Expressionism?

Authored by: Nicole Fletcher on October 7, 2013

Walter Gramatté German, 1897–1929 Barcelona, Night, 1924 oil on canvas 80 x 92 cm Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Gift of the Eckhardt-Gramatté Foundation 2009-618

This year we kicked off Nuit Blanche with the opening of a new exhibition, Storm and Spirit: The Eckhardt-Gramatté Collection of German Expressionist Art. But what is German Expressionism and why should you see this show?

What is German Expressionism?

German Expressionism was an artistic movement in the first quarter of the twentieth century. These artists produced representational work (non-abstract; they still drew people, landscapes, and animals) but they abandoned traditional realism in favour of manipulating line and proportion to evoke emotion. While there is a continuity of style throughout the movement, Expressionist artists explored a wide variety of themes including death, satire, spirituality, morality, and especially war.

Also common among Expressionist artists was a distaste for the bourgeoisie lifestyle. Many Expressionist artists turned to printmaking as a way to distribute their work. Prints were relatively cheap and allowed for many reproductions so their work could be spread widely, especially to the lower class. 

Why should you see Storm and Spirit?

Many North American galleries have fantastic collections of German Expressionist art however, the WAG is unique in that much of our collection comes from Dr. Ferdinand Eckhardt (the WAG's longest standing director) and Sophie-Carmen Gramatté-Eckhardt who had a deeply personal connection to many of the artists. The works on display in Storm and Spirit were not collected with the intention of creating a comprehensive view of German Expressionism, but rather as a view from people who were closely tied to the movement. For example, the painting below was a gift from Karl Schmidt-Rottluff to Sophie-Carmen and Ferdinand and it depicts a set of Walter Gramatté's (Sophie-Carmen's first-husband and a German Expressionist artist) paintbrushes. Storm and Spirit shows German Expressionism through the eyes of two people who truly loved the art and artists of this movement.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Paintbrushes (In Memoriam Walter Gramatté), 1963

Have you seen Storm and Spirit? If so, what did you think of it, what were your favourite works? Please leave your comments below!

Check out my earlier post for more information on Walter Gramatte's monumental painting, Die Bechte (The Confession).

Nicole Fletcher works in the Education and Communications departments at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and is in the Joint Masters Program at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg.

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