Van Gogh and his influence on German Expressionism
The first artists to embrace Van Gogh’s radicalism and gesture fraternally were those who made up the Brücke group, founded in 1905 in Dresden by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel and Karl SchmidtRottluf. Their heady relationship with Van Gogh was ignited by a series of exhibitions of his works in Germany in 1905 and 1908. A ferocious frontal assault in terms of colour and technique employed by the maverick Dutchman left them reeling and each member of the group was to a lesser or greater extent infected. The imaginatively powerful and uncompromising works of these artists are rife with references to Van Gogh, some obvious, others less so. The Blaue Reiter, active from 1911 to 1914, witnessed Van Gogh’s revolutionary works in Paris. Returning to their base in Munich, artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Auguste Macke and Franz Marc showed signs of absorbing his rich palette and emotional expressiveness. Van Gogh reached the exhibition halls of Vienna in 1903 and 1906, shocking local artists with his daring innovation. Landscapes and self-portraits by the likes of Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka particularly, exude the intense psychology and emotive disinhibition of Van Gogh.
But how was it that Van Gogh, the man out of time, the tortured solitary of legend became, along with Norwegian ‘exile’ Edvard Munch, an icon for a whole generation of German artists? Partly, perhaps, because Dutch native traditions sat more comfortably alongside the self-probing German soul than that of the more objective impressionistic French painters. Also, as the German poet Ernst Blass stated; Van Gogh’s art, like the writings of Nietzsche, stood for ‘expression and experience as opposed to impression and naturalism. Blazing concentration, youthful sincerity, immediacy, depth, exhibition and hallucination’. Van Gogh’s art clearly echoed the German psyche more than the French, though the artist himself would never have suspected this, being so closely affiliated
to the naturalist ideal of making an impression of observed nature in paint. The Expressionists, bearing the idealistic torch of Novalis and Hölderlin, were highly subjective artists, unswervingly neo-romantic yet saturated with modern angst. Their hero in paint was Matthias Grünewald whose Christ hangs in the Issenheim monastery at Colmar in Alsace. Grünewald’s gruesome calvaries were rediscovered by the Symbolist generation, who avidly absorbed Huysman’s famous essay on the Issenheim painting, but their Expressionist descendants found even more to excite them in the lurid no holes barred graphic depiction of Christ crucified, so at odds with the conventional idealised images of the crucifixion, both before it and since. In this hideously contorted, overly muscular body of a sickly putrescent green, riven with suppurating wounds, bristling with splinters and thorns from the scourging, the Expressionists saw the genius of a radical master signalling all the more powerfully for being marooned on an ice floe of history.
In their bid to distil emotion through paint, the Expressionists felt compelled to concretise feelings and fears in the most explicit manner. They were not afraid to distort what had gone before, to disrupt the accepted and expected channels between observer and canvas. Not only their exuberant paint application, the unconventional use of colours, but also the skewed lines, the elongated heads and giant angular raw hands became the trade mark sign of the requirement to extend reality in order to express anxiety. Their politer counterparts, the French Fauvists were obsessed by the nuances of colour and light. They too were influenced by Van Gogh, but principally in terms of technique, whilst the Expressionists – mainly German, but a few notable French and Belgium artists too – drew on a much deeper psychological source in Van Gogh’s art. But it was not only painters who seized on Van Gogh and saw in him a kindred spirit. Poets of the Expressionist period such as Georg Heym or Gottfried Benn and most notably the playwright Carl Sternheim, were seduced by Van Gogh’s ascetic, darkly romantic existence, the unrestrained honesty in the anguished self-portraits. As they struggled to portray the feral realities underlying the civilised modern metropolis, often through a stylistically morbid language, they saw in Van Gogh their own commitment to truth being fluently exercised upon canvas.
Their painterly contemporaries interpreted the new poetry, in turn taking their cue from Van Gogh. Works by Kirchner such as Nollendorfplatz of 1912, showing the tram-choked streets of Berlin as compressed, Piranesian labyrinths of human anxiety and indignity, clearly echo the unflinchingly apocalyptic Demons of the Cities poems of Heym published the same year.
Berlin gallery owner Paul Cassirer was pivotal in bringing Van Gogh to the attention of the Brücke group. He organised no less than ten shows around Van Gogh in the capital, as well as a travelling exhibition which reached Dresden in 1905. These shows culminated in the important 1912 exhibition in Cologne where Van Gogh took centre stage. Along with the surge in interest in Van Gogh’s art came the fascination with his hazardous existence. The rejection of the city and move to the south, the tempestuous relationship with Gauguin in Arles, the self-destructive episodes, the eventual suicidal attempt, the lonely exit from a lethal self-wounding, all convinced the next generation of artists that this man was the epitome of the uncompromising anti-bourgeois hero. They hailed Van Gogh as the thorn that, at first undetected, had fatally infected the established orders of naturalism and impressionism – and as the lone visionary who had martyred himself for the truth of feeling in art.
This iconic status was underpinned by two key publications. Firstly, the revealing and richly illustrated letters of the artist which found their way by swift translation into the hands of sympathetic artists all over Europe from 1914 onwards. Responses to the letters were overwhelming in their praise. The Art Historian Werner Hauptmann enthused that here was a man ‘forever on the brink of the abyss, courting disaster’ and praised his ‘self-destructive venture’, which sought to ‘establish a new relation between man and object through inner tension’. The second ingredient was the seminal biography by art critic and Van Gogh collector Julius Meier-Graefe, which did more than any other publication to popularise the legend of Van Gogh. MeierGraefe who had hung out at the notorious ‘Black Piglet’ café in Berlin with estranged northern vagrants Munch and Strindberg, was perfectly placed to usher Van Gogh in as high priest to the new European artistic ferment. The two volume edition of Meier-Graefe’s Van Gogh biography, which
appeared in 1921, informed a whole generation of artists and writers and set the framework for the global adulation of Van Gogh.
Initially it was the frenzied brushwork of Van Gogh that appealed to the Brücke artists. Later the intensity of colour took over. But above all it was the wounded humanism, unflinching truth and gravity of purpose in Van Gogh’s vision that fired these artists. They saw him as a blazing comet all too soon expired, a sudden infusion of blood in the dry corpse of tradition, a chisel to the academic crust that had formed around painting, the antidote to all they despised. In Heckel’s Convalescent Woman (1912), for example, one sees the artist’s reaction to the hectic and pulverising life of metropolitan Berlin. The sickly woman is offset by a vase of sunflowers just like those of Van Gogh, which seem to send out a message of warmth and hope, replenishment to the spirit from a token immersion in nature. Heckel’s works take Van Gogh’s technique and push it to extremes, causing contours to shudder and drift with an energy that literally pulses from the thickly applied colours. Max Pechstein, another key Brücke figure, also responds to Van Gogh with his imposing Young Woman with a Red Fan of 1910. Red is the dominant force here, overwhelming the sitter’s hands, her cheeks and lips. Colour slips the traces of its containment within strict lines, moving freely across the canvas to imbue the painting with an expressive life.
Of the Brücke group it was surely Kirchner though who most clearly identified with Van Gogh, both emotionally and in his sometimes disturbing subject matter. This is most emphatically displayed in Self-Portrait as a Soldier from 1915, which one can compare with Van Gogh’s famous Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) and also of course Munch’s Self Portrait with Skeleton Arm (1895). Here, Kirchner portrays himself in his soldier’s uniform after being discharged from the army with nervous exhaustion, but with a neat bloodied stump in place of a right hand - an imagined amputation that echoes the very real ear wound of Van Gogh and judiciously salutes the master. The composition of the picture is also reminiscent of Van Gogh, as are the jaundiced shades of yellow and faded ochre. Like other artist victims passing through the indiscriminating abattoir of modern warfare,
Kirchner somehow survived in body, but was ultimately psychologically fractured. The experience of dehumanisation so explicitly provided by the conflict was to determine the remainder of Kirchner’s work. He again clearly refers to Van Gogh in a series of prints from 1915 featuring the figure of Peter Schlemihl, a character from a traditional story who sells his shadow to the devil. The Van Gogh donor is The Painter on the Road to Tarascon from 1888, now sadly lost. Here the painter is the subject, facing himself as in a mirror on a sun-bleached highway in rural Provence. Bottom right his shadow stands like a sinister doppelgänger, primed to disengage completely from the solitary artist trudging up the road with his cane and rucksack. A feeling of alienation is heightened by the vacant expanse of scorching wheat fields and trees, which, caught in the furnace of midday, cast no relieving shadow. Kirchner’s Schlemihl prints show Peter as he tries in vain to grasp his fleeing shadow, a drama that resonates with the Van Gogh composition, but which leaves a sinister aftertaste and a latent sense of derangement.
The artists of the Blauer Reiter, who developed into a truly international group, sought a theory of ‘spiritual art’ and increasingly moved towards abstraction, most famously exemplified by the work of Kandinsky. The lesser-known Alexj Von Jawlensky however looked to Van Gogh for a unique ‘hallucinatory psychic intensity’ through colour. Portraits like The Olive Grove of 1907, clearly shout Van Gogh, but it is in the unsettling Portait of Marie Castel from 1906 that this artist shows the most explicit influence. The colours which make up the face seem as if on the point of collapse but hold on just enough to communicate the inner life of the sitter. With streaks of oil rouging her cheeks and the heavy stripe effect of the brushwork giving her skin the appearance of fur, she appears with the twin points of her bonnet either side of her head like feline ears, a bizarre fusion of cat and human.
Kandinsky generally eschews the orgiastic, preferring a cooler approach more removed from Van Gogh’s habitual fevered intensity. However, Kandinsky’s early work clearly owes a debt to Van Gogh, though one senses Munch to be a bolder presence. Works like Murnau Street with Women (1908) and Murnau Street with Horsedrawn Carriage (1909)
show a spirited breaking free from convention. Here, as in the Pechstein just discussed and the work of Nolde and Marc, colours breach the the contours of their objects creating a blurring and shifting that is also reminiscent of the dream infused works of Odilon Redon. Auguste Macke too has clearly been immersed in Van Gogh. The deceptively bland title of Vegetable Fields from 1911 belies an uncanny skewed landscape where, in Macke’s hands, two roads become bold pink arteries bisecting fields of colour-infected crops. Haystacks shining with hallucinatory intent seem a mysterious prehistoric or alien manifestation. Another Blauer Reiter artist, Franz Marc, seeking an absolute truth from nature, also found inspiration in Van Gogh. To him the rare discovery of the pulse of a tree or of the muscle tremor of an animal was paramount. A major breakthrough came with Cats on a Red Cloth in 1910. It’s not so much the cats themselves but the choppy corkscrew brushstrokes in the framing garden border above them that reveals Van Gogh’s influence. Marc understood that Van Gogh had tried to express the ‘terrible passions of humanity’ through his colours (for example the reds and greens of the famous Night Café in Arles), and he knew that expression was far more important for a modern artist than mere representation.
Like Berlin, Vienna received the shock of Van Gogh early in the twentieth century. Vienna nurtured an emerging avant-garde, drawing in musicians, artists and writers fired by the work of Munch, Cézanne and Van Gogh. And as across the border in Germany, it was the life of Van Gogh revealed through his biography and letters that seized the imagination of a generation. Oskar Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl are two painters whose self-portraits show best the expressive hallmarks of Van Gogh. Kokoschka considered Van Gogh a buffer against what he saw as ‘the dangers of abstraction’, a link to humanism and a coaxing of truth through intense scrutiny of the subject. His withering portraits such as Hirsch as an Old Man and Peter Altenberg from 1909 are uncompromising in their determination to secure the inner life of the sitter as felt by the artist. Hirsch is an unflattering semi-corpse, already on the way to decay but the flesh burning red as if the skin is roaring back defiantly against ensuing extinction. The hands show the angular skeletal form favoured by Kokoschka’s contemporary
Egon Schiele. The eyes are sunk in successive craters of socket, the upper row of teeth protrude in a hideous skull grin beneath a moustache like a mouldy sheaf of corn. (The war-deformed cripples of Dix and Grosz are not far behind.) This is not a horror show for shock effect, but a feast of expressive possibility, a desire to not let modern man off the hook, to show his post-Nietzschean deformity. Taking his cue from Schöneberg’s musical innovations, Gerstl favoured an extreme dissolution of form to express his inner vision. The first Viennese artist to absorb Van Gogh’s work, he was close to his master in life and death – a vulnerable poète maudit figure who committed suicide in 1908 aged twenty-five and was soon dubbed ‘the Austrian Van Gogh’. But even more than Gerstl, Schiele identified with the myth and dramatic episodes in the life of Van Gogh. Schiele was born in the year of Van Gogh’s death and his own work appeared in an exhibition alongside that of Van Gogh in 1909. Schiele devoured the letters and biography of the artist and felt a deep fraternal bond throughout his life.
Unlike many other painters, Schiele was drawn to Van Gogh’s radically expressive lines and contours rather than the use of colour. His impulsive and ruthlessly honest self-portraits exude a profound sense of alienation and confinement. For example, Bedroom in Neulengbach from 1911 clearly echoes the more famous Van Gogh bedroom in Auvers of 1889. Here though the lines are starker and perspective more warped, funereal black and crimson colours stand out brutally over a grubby cream. There is deep sense of foreboding for the unfortunate tenant of this cramped chamber or cell. It is interesting to observe the contrast with the sunny, buoyant, and hopeful Van Gogh room. But nowhere does Schiele succeed more explicitly in paying tribute to Van Gogh than in his elegiac and majestically mournful depiction of decaying sunflowers in Autumn Sun, 1914, a painting only miraculously re-discovered in recent years. This work, which could just be Schiele’s true masterpiece, is the foil to Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers beaming and writhing with life affirmation from their plump rustic vase. Here Schiele sums up with eloquent poignancy the devastation and folly of the war that has barely begun. Resonating with the poetry of his Austrian poet contemporary Georg Trakl, the waxen autumn sun bleeds shamefully into the dirty bandage of the sky. A carpet of tiny blood red blooms speckle
the field beneath the towering stalks of weary, doleful, given up seed heads, their listless central eye staring out accusingly. The warm russets and browns of autumn are feebly backlit by the pale sun to produce a scene of almost unbearable melancholy beauty.
It is no surprise to find a queue of acolytes for Van Gogh’s famous final painting Wheatfield with Crows from 1890. Ludwig Meidner’s Apocalyptic Landscape from 1913 shows a wildly contorted landscape rent asunder by conflict and plunged into human chaos and madness. In the centre a lone figure in silhouette crouches impotent on the ground as bizarrely elongated dwellings twist and shrink back from ominous distant explosions. These infernos easily recall those from Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death (1562). Chaos is in the ascendant and a sinister alien sun burns crimson with terrible persistence in the aloofness of the blue-black firmament. Otto Dix also re-interprets Van Gogh’s wheat field to echo the conflagration looming over Europe in his Sunrise of 1913. Here, a lonely snowy landscape fringed by pines replaces the wheat field of summer. In the centre a low sun bursts over the landscape like an exploding shell or flare. Black, yellow and blue brushstrokes veer into a nimbus cloud mass roiling about the sun’s vital explosion as if to neutralise it. In the lower foreground a flock of black crows head either away from or towards the rising sun. The symbolism is thick with portents of the carrion to come. The forms of the weighty, sated birds echo the clotted grey white furrows of the field. All labours together, fattened for an uncertain future dawn, Dix seems to be saying. His painting is a courageous, reverential and satisfying extension of Van Gogh’s work.
In 1912 at the major exhibition hall of Cologne where Van Gogh took centre stage, he was introduced to visitors as ‘The father of us all’; a surrogate Germanic artist. Just a few years before, his Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear had been mockingly derided by critics in a Berlin gallery. Generations of artists have interpreted Van Gogh’s work in the light of their own concerns, but few have been as radically and organically influenced as the Expressionist generation, who in the years when human catastrophe assumed epic form so dynamically absorbed his vision.
(The works discussed in this essay can be viewed in the book Van Gogh and Expressionism by Jill Lloyd, 2007)