“Whoever renders directly and authentically that which impels him to create is one of us.” Thus reads the manifesto of the “Brücke” artists as drafted by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 1905. If we query the notion of “directness”, we shall quickly realize that there can be no such thing, as no idea is conveyed directly, but by some medium or other, whether cultural, verbal or conceptual. Even our own bodies are perceived differently depending on how we have been conditioned to think of them. Pain, sickness, desire and health were perceived differently in the earthly vale of tears of the Christian Middle Ages than in the youth mania of today’s achievement-oriented society or in the digital narcissism of the social media.
Nevertheless, the longing for directness – in the sense of immediacy, simplicity, naturalness, authenticity – has played a part in the criticism of civilization down the ages, from the bucolic poetry of Antiquity to the pastoral poetry of our modern era. Life in the towns and cities and at the courts of princes and kings has always been found wanting by comparison with the idyllic, simple life of the Golden Age: people lived a carefree life as goatherds and shepherds and nature gave them all they needed without their having to toil, while the relationship between the sexes was free from the dictates of society. This idea of “back to nature” – propagated by Rousseau and Romanticism – became the motto of the Life Reform Movement in its struggle against the negative consequences of industrialization and urbanization. In this sense, “directness” manifests itself to a great extent in the subject matter of the “Brücke” artists: the naked bathers in nature, the fascination for the primitive, simple ways of life of aboriginal peoples or, nearer home, Germany’s own peasant and fisher folk.
A theoretical basis for the notion of directness was furnished by Theodor Lipps‘ Theory of Empathy. Well into the 18th century, the world had been ordered hierarchically, with God at the top and everybody else in his subordinate place. By the 19th century, however, the world order had begun to change, with the focus now on the self. At first it was an absolutely abstract self that the world brought forth, then a concrete self that not only issued from the world but also reacted to it. The aesthetic aspects of Lipps’ Theory of Empathy refer precisely to this reaction of the individual to his environment: the form, direction and dynamic of linear movements are captured by the mind’s eye and transported to the individual’s inner being and responded to emotionally: rising lines, for example, trigger relief, elevation, joy, descending lines heaviness and grief, horizontal lines tranquillity. Thus it is that we can draw on a whole grammar of forms with all their different psychological effects. The actual effect will also depend of the mood of the viewer, who in the end sees only himself in the depicted objects – in other words: he empathizes with them.
Consequently, a practised and/or sensitive artist can clearly grasp the emotional effect that an object has on him and thus express, through his depiction of the object, his inner state and convey this inner state to the viewer, who in turn is moved with the same emotional intensity as that previously experienced by the artist as he depicted the object. A practical translation of Lipps’ theories is clearly manifest in the sculptures of movement by Herrmann Obrist, at whose school in Munich Kirchner attended drawing classes in 1903/04, around which time Theodor Lipps was teaching at Munich University. Lipps’ influence on the “Brücke” artists was such that they now sought to capture the subject rapidly in what they called “quarter-hour nudes” or even more rapidly when drawing people in motion, the many bathers and dancers being typical examples. One might liken these drawings to situational psychograms, similar to snapshots in photography. Now whereas abstraction freed itself from the object for the sake of pure dynamism of composition, the “Brücke” artists, and not least Kirchner, were concerned with a heightening and purification of expression, with the essence of the moment. It is in the sense of this heightening of intensity that the “Brücke” artists’ reversal of the Theory of Empathy may be understood: the artist as a particularly sensitive and practised observer of nature and/or his environment creates this environment himself and is borne even higher by his own, already purified and heightened forms. In this way the “Brücke” artists filled their studios with furniture and household utensils which they made themselves, including their own paintings and sculptures, which in turn became incidental background elements of the motifs of new works. This artistic embellishment of every aspect of their everyday lives manifests an affinity to other artists, designers and architects of their time, such as Henry van de Velde and Heinrich Vogeler, and is to be understood against the background of Reform Architecture, with its centres in Dresden, Munich and Vienna, the Garden City Movement, the German Association of Craftsmen and, later, the Bauhaus, all of which in turn hark back to the Arts & Crafts Movement and the Pre-Raphaelites. It is also against this background that the “Brücke” manifesto speaks not just on behalf of artists but also for “creators and appreciators”.
In the works of the “Brücke” artists, however, it is not just through linear movements that this directness is conveyed but also through the materials themselves. The rough woodcut makes visible the wood grain and the traces of the cutting tools, which in turn makes us aware of the woodcut’s materiality. In his etchings, Nolde draws a maximum of effects from the metal plate through scratching, etching and abrading. The roughness of the speedily drawn image corresponds to the resistiveness of the material. The artist’s stylization of this resistiveness led, on the one hand, to the creation of simplified graphic forms and patterns that remind one of the primitive art of Africa and Oceania and, on the other, to coarsely executed motifs that seem to have been transported back to a previous state in the process of their making, prior to their finished form. The brutality of these human forms was at that time a provocation. Today their contorted bodies and grotesque grimaces – motifs that feature much in Nolde’s works – are seen rather as images that hark back to primaeval times.
The performative gesture of the drawing and the sculptural materiality of the woodcut crop up again, much later, in Art Informel, the German abstraction of the 1950s. Works of Art Informel are not representational but rather the direct result of materiality and gesture. Materiality featured in the early works of Bernard Schultze in the form of layers upon layers of colour, which then developed into raised reliefs and, finally, into coloured, freestanding sculptures. We also find this materiality in Fred Thieler’s dynamic flows of colour on folded canvases. Gesture is the dominant feature of the two- handed paintings of Hann Trier. His painting technique was inspired both by the automatic writing of the Surrealists and by another “direct technique” from a completely different medium, that of improvised jazz. The American version of Art Informel – Action Painting – in turn inspired the invention of Free Jazz. A kind of slow, very gradual Action Painting is also to be found in the late oeuvre of Bernard Schultze, who in this way succeeded in creating forms on the boundary between abstraction and figuration, forms that in the eye of the viewer forever seem to change and can never be ultimately defined. Following Art Informel, with its reflection of the physical and material aspects of painting, it was these aspects themselves that became the medium: the body as the direct medium of the Performance and the material as the direct medium of the creation of reality itself, as in Land Art, the Snare Paintings of Daniel Spoerri or in the Social Sculpture of Joseph Beuys.
While the exponents of Art Informel sought through their abstraction to resist the ideological monopolization of the kind experienced only a decade before in the Third Reich or that of Social Realism in East Germany, the exponents of New Figuration aimed to draw attention directly to the ugly face of social reality in post-war Germany, a reality that had been suppressed by the abstraction of Art Informel. In the Pandemonium, the manifesto of Georg Baselitz and Eugen Schönbeck, we see how figures painfully squeeze their way out of the abstract compositions of Art Informel, or, in Markus Lüpertz’s Donald Duck Series, brutally ugly creatures seem to loom out of abstraction.
Finally, the Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s turned its back on the intellectualism of Concept Art and the extravagance of the media and installation art of the 1970s in favour of direct depictions on canvas of their wild lifestyle, which was marked by parties, drugs and excess. The immediacy of this painting as a medium had its equivalent in the music cassette, which was flooding the market at that time and made possible the unlimited recording and distribution of music for everyone. The result was an unprofessional, non-academic, amateurish aesthetic that came to prevail in the music scene, especially in the genre of punk rock. The works of the New Figuration painter Karl Horst Hödicke, who was both a student of the Art Informel painter Fred Thieler and a teacher of the Berlin Neo- Expressionists show in particular how the spontaneity and immediacy of the latter also derives from Art Informel. In Hödicke’s “Little Snake Charmer” (Die kleine Schlangenbändigerin) (on this invitation) one can clearly see how the rapid, upward strokes of the artist’s brush in the typical gestural style of Art Informel end in the figural heads of the snake charmer and the snakes.
- Bernard Schultze Myrrst,1963.
- Erich Heckel A Disciple,1915
- Salomé Peter the Model, 1982
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Badende,1905
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Lying Nude, 1911
- Karl Horst Hödicke Little snake charmer, 1983