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The Expressionists

[Courbet, Whistler, And Manet]  [Leonardo, Raphael, And Michelangelo]  [Renaissance In Venice]  [The French Tradition]  [El Greco And Rubens]  [The Impressionists]  [Fauves And Cubists]  [The Post-Impressionists]  [Renaissance In Florence]  [The Expressionists]  [Art Before Giotto]  [Giotto And Fra Angelico]  [The Eclectics] 



The world war affected painting in several ways in addition to depriving it of a number of its practitioners. If artists reflect their times, the task of post-war painters was clearly cut out for them. With the end of hostilities there came a period of joyous hysteria, a natural reaction to horrors and impending horrors. This period was, generally speaking, one of amorality, called more expressively, "The Age of Jazz"-of noise created out of happy abandon.

In America the spirit of abandon served for the breaking down of moral restrictions and Puritanism. Prohibition itself may have been devised by sedate stay-at-homes to prevent a wilder release of emotions than did actually occur. But in France, which is free of moral restraint, the joyous spirit meant only that war was at an end. Paris went back to the sensible pursuit of gayety that has endeared her to the idlers of the world. She danced and theorized.

Other European nations may have thought her a frivolous jade to have forgotten so soon. But their art students resumed the holy pilgrimage to her cafes and art schools just the same. The tables in front of the Cafe Dome and the Cafe Rotonde, for years the havens of foreign artists, flowed over the sidewalk.

Yet for once in the long unbroken stretch of French supremacy in painting, these other countries were making art history while Paris marked time, or rather, learned the fox-trot. It was not that French painters were letting their colors dry up in the tubes; it was that the French sanity, the French reverence for tradition, made them satisfied to repeat their pre-war successes. They painted more than ever and as well as ever, but they seemed completely untouched by the war, emotionally.

The painters of other nations, less rational, more profoundly sensitive, returned to their brushes with all their notions of civilization topsy-turvy. Something terrible had happened to the world and it had left its mark upon them. The meanings of things were now changed. Art no longer meant the trivial pictures in the museums. Beauty was inconsequential, of no importance to a poverty-stricken world.

Painters sat before their easels meditating on the meaning of life in this chaotic universe. They became involved in philosophy, in the magic of numbers, in Hindoo occultism, and any other mental device which could shed some light on the wherefores of existence. These preoccupations they attempted to express with paint. Their aims were diverse, unorganized. Some picked up the threads of Redon's symbolism, others tried to be more naive than the amusing Rousseau, still others had their meanings in painted riddles. Their quest for a new art, something more vital than the unperturbed objectivity of the French, led them to many novel and curious experiments. Scholars feared for the sanity of these introspective painters. For instance, Professor Oliver Tonks, of Yale University, wrote in the Arts Magazine some time in 1924 as follows:

"The modernist artist is ... thoroughly introspective. In a way he is somewhat psycho-analytical, and like most psychoanalytically inclined individuals, he runs the risk of becoming psychopathic. This is borne out by the appearance in modernist literature and painting of works which take an obvious pleasure in dealing with sex problems in a peculiarly raw fashion. This interest in sexual matters is one of the most common manifestations in psychopathic subjects.  Not that ... the tendency means that all modernist artists are sex perverts, but there is an unpleasant possibility that too much introspection is not healthy."

Before hastening to share Professor Tonks's alarm we must recall jEsop's fable of the ass in the lion's skin. How much lion we are does not depend upon how much skin we clothe ourselves in. If it is a reaction or vogue to be naive, childish, preoccupied with sex, algebra, or mystic lore, we are no more psychopathic in following these trends than Miss Pankhurst's ladies were when they wore bloomers. Painters and ladies wished to attract attention to themselves just as much as they wished to express their protests against an unsatisfactory order.

Again we must remember that there is no sharp line of demarcation between the sane and the insane. We all have mental lapses as well as physical. The difference is that we have been educated to admit our physical disabilities while disregarding or denying our mental ones. There are millions of drugstores which pander to our little attacks of cold and indigestion, but it is only when we are completely wrecked mentally that we receive attention. So that the difference between the sane and the insane may be determined only by the frequency and intensity of the mental lapse.

Even this presents difficulties. Was Van Gogh sane or insane? His writings are wise, calm, sensitive, observant. His actions are those of a madman. His paintings best reveal his states of mind. At times he is the observer such as Courbet was, dispassionate and objective. At other times he is wild, strenuous, excited. But in no respect is this excited painting comparable to the painting of asylum inmates. His work is distinguished by its, color, color relations, movement, organization. The work of inmates is marked by a conscious attempt to attain precise brushwork or technique, while remaining completely impervious to the qualities of painting which give pleasure to the sane painter.

The insane inmate's picture is often similar in subject matter to those reproduced in this chapter. Religion and occultism are second in choice only to sex eroticism. But the insane painter in nearly every instance marks his picture with interpretative inscriptions. And as Dr. Prinzhorn shows in his Bilderei der Gefangenen, the underlying urge back of the feeble-minded painter is that of expressing some moral or technical concept or some palliative to conscience. The most significant difference, however, is that already stated: The sane painter organizes his picture; he will consider qualities above subject. The insane painter, like the child, wishes only to tell his story in an elaborate system of hieroglyphics.

Where there are no qualities apparent in the work of the sane painter we are inclined to the opinion that he is consciously imitating the insane painter, like the ass in the lion's skin, in an effort to appear occult. We like to play at being bad men, or cave-men, so there is no reason why we shouldn't like to pretend that we are insane occasionally, especially if we have terribly sound minds. The really insane person does not wish to be unintelligible as his imitator does. Because his product is decipherable to himself he assumes that it is clear to all. An amusing illustration of this appeared recently in a German humorous paper.

A visitor to an asylum saw a patient using a dry brush on a piece of canvas.

"What does that represent?"

"The Flight of the Children of Israel from Egypt." "Where are the children of Israel?"

"They have passed over the Red Sea." "Where is the Red Sea?"

"Rolled back."

"Where are the Egyptians?" "

They are expected every minute."

Keeping the above differences in mind let us look at the work of the German and Russian Expressionists. Three influences will be apparent in them. First, the cultivation of the primitive and the naive which was begun by Gaugin and carried to amusing absurdity in the work of Rousseau; second, the Cubist and Purist love of lines, colors, and forms for their own sake, which we have seen exemplified in the work of Braque and Picasso; third, and perhaps most important, the symbolism of Redon.

From art as tenderly poetic and as fanciful as the nude of Modigliani which we left in the last chapter, it is an easy and natural step to the visions of Chagall. However outwardly different is The Anniversary, the same tender sentimentalism pervades it; and as in the nude it exists without any hint of heavy banality, without any bid for the sympathy of the spectator. The conception is refined, poetic. We see a husband kissing his wife. Such is his love for her that, at the moment of their kissing, he is not conscious of being rooted to the ground. His soul soars to Heaven. To let you know it, the painter depicts the whole man soaring to Heaven. This is expressionism, the subjective painting of a man's feelings. Its principles are those of Redon, its language more articulate.

The picture is accomplished with a fine understanding of the resources of the painter. The earthly details of the room, the purse, the kitchen utensils, serve to accentuate the unearthly joy of the man in greeting his wife. (We should not be completely shocked at the oddity of the conception since we are familiar with Perugino's angels who float in the corners of all his canvases. And in El Greco's Burial o f Count Orgaz half of the picture is earthly realism and half pure fancy.) The charm of contrast appears again in the use of line. The line of the woman's back is a fluid, rapid, decorative one, certainly as beautiful as Hogarth's famous Line of Beauty. The man's legs are drawn arbitrarily, not according to anatomy, but for the sake of the line. The rapid, flowing lines in the figures make us feel the emotion of the two, in contrast to the rigid lines of the table, the windows, the floor.

None of the feebly suggested forms is convincing. But the presence of solid, sculpturesque form would destroy the fancy. This new art of the mind could never be achieved by adhering to the old requirements dictated by the laws of physics. To paint a rock so that we feel its weight requires a different approach than the problem of painting a nervous sensation. Whether the painting of a nervous sensation in terms of fancy is art or not is a question open to discussion. Certainly the picture we are studying holds our interest and gives us a new view of an old emotion:

We must be partial to this Russian painter Chagall, and reproduce another of his pictures, since it is as good an example of mental processes as we can find. It is called I and the Village. In the lower center of the canvas is a circle which links the man with the cow. The man looks at the cow smilingly and offers her a delicacy. The cow looks back at him as if to say, "Oh I appreciate your attentions, but you can't fool me. You want my milk." Painted on the cow's cheek (or whatever you would call a cow's cheek) is a picture of what the animal is thinking. In the background is a tired harvester being urged on to the delights of home by an angel standing on her head. If we may be permitted a pun, the angel is at her wit's end to entertain him. The face in the church fills a whole storey. It is meant to show us that every action of the villagers is perceived.

If this picture were merely a puzzle such as children delight to turn upside down to find the face of the admiral, it could be no funnier. But for some reason it is also a very serious picture. We subscribe to its truthfulness. We look at the picture a long time, studying its queer forms and rhythms. The question is: Does the literary quality of the thing, the fact that it starts us off on a spree of speculation about the dumbness of farm life-does this literary quality overweigh our interest in the forms and rhythms?

The German painter Heinrich Campendonck was another leader in this new school of painting. He exerted his influence not only upon his colleagues but upon painters throughout Europe, and in one notable case, upon an American, Carl Knaths. Campendonck's principles differed little from Chagall's, but the temperaments and equipment of the two were totally unlike. Chagall seems always careful of his pattern, always occupied with decorative forms and lines. Campendonck achieves a kind of harmony in his canvases by his distribution of his color in the manner of Matisse. He is a master in balancing his color and keeping it moving, "circulating" it. His drawing and his forms are the most naive possible, making Rousseau appear, by comparison, artful and sophisticated. Let us look at his picture called Penzberg.

The village is thrown into a state of excitement by the approach of the railroad engine. The cow is so frightened by the noise and the smoke that she behaves as if her head were cut off. The artist shows us the head severed from the body. Other cows are fleeing, terrified, from the stable. Only their heads full of fear exist; the rest of their bodies don't matter. Two women are engaged in conversation. "It's twelve minutes late," the first is probably saying. "Do you think the engineer will stop at our city for a drink?" asks the other. The engine labors up the hill, puffing smoke and cinders, which are represented by black stars.

Certainly the artist conveys to us the importance of the occasion. And in spite of all its naive illustrative detail, the picture is not illustration. However literary the theme, we are kept in the picture and not interested primarily in the storey. The design or composition of the picture is accomplished not only by the excellent distribution of color, but also by means of the diagonal rhythms. Everywhere the lines follow each other. The painting possesses too much art to be classified as a mere cartoon.

A compatriot of Campendonck and a fellow in arms is Paul Klee. With Kandinsky he carried the new psychological art to its most absurd conclusion. He strives so strenuously to be more naive than a new-born babe, that we exhaust his offerings very quickly. If we dwell at all upon them, it is not to examine the things in the canvas but the idea behind it. What does it mean? Why does he do it? Evidently there is more hidden meaning in this picture A Feat of Magic (Fig. 46) than in a lodge emblem. But it is only for those who are Honorary Fellows and Past Masters of the Rosicrucians to fathom the secret of the scattered letters, the moon, and the botanical display. Since the picture is devoid of any of the qualities present in the others, and since it gives us no new aspect of life, we can only conclude that it is a system of hieroglyphics to which we do not possess the key.

An Italian, Giorgio de Chirico, is considered by some critics the most important of the newer painters. He differs from the others whose work we have reproduced in that he is rigidly classical, not only in his architectural groups and forms, but in his adherence to and mastery of pattern, space, and form. His form is as effective as Giotto's; his color, the most unusual combinations and harmonies of all the Modernists, excepting perhaps Braque.

He does not paint visions and fancies in the manner of Chagall. Nor does he express the thoughts and feelings of the characters in his canvas in the manner of Campendonck. Neither is he naive. He resembles in his preoccupation with the occult and the metaphysical, Paul Klee. But unlike the German he paints his symbolism with the most serious attention to the traditional qualities of painting, as if he were commissioned to execute his weird philosophies for the Sistine Chapel. He is not modern at all in the sense that the others are. His careful drawing and attention to the laws of composition and perspective are really preRenaissance. It is his color and his subject matter that are modern.

The picture which we reproduce is called the Diviner, or Mindreader (Fig. 47). It is very original in its pattern, full of variety. The space is remarkably well organized. The basilica in the rear and the manikin in the foreground are painted with an understanding of form that is rarely seen. Merely as a composition the picture is art, not only because of its good pattern (that is not enough), but also because it gives us, with intense reality, the feeling of the proper space (spatial relation) between the manikin, the easel, and the building.

What the picture means to say we leave to be determined. A friend in the engineering profession could make nothing of the problem on the blackboard. He insisted that the answer lay elsewhere in the picture, in the phallic symbol of the shadow on the floor. If this is so then here is one of the pictures Professor Tonks was thinking of when he wrote his article on the dangerous trend of Modernism.