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The Fractured Form
Expressionism and the Human Body

November 15, 1995 to January 06, 1996

As the academic realist tradition was systematically dismantled over the course of the nineteenth century, the human figure began to function, both visually and symbolically, in bizarre new ways. Artists as far ranging as Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and Cindy Sherman (to name but a random three) have each used the body to express distinctive sociological, cultural or psychological preoccupations in a formal vocabulary that intentionally undermines the soothing verisimilitude of pre-modern art. The art historian Linda Nochlin, in a seminal 1994 essay, "The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as Metaphor of Modernity," contends that the advent of the modernist era constituted a decisive break with a more cohesive past. In her view, the fractured forms employed by so many modern and post-modern artists are metaphors for the fragmentation that is endemic to contemporary living conditions. Whereas the past, at least in retrospect, is seen to be whole and coherent, the present seems lacking in fixed values, hierarchies and connections.

Nochlin traces the political as well as the artistic birth of the modern age to the French Revolution. However, Enlightenment ideals percolated more gradually through Austria and Germany, where monarchistic rule prevailed until 1918. Possibly there is a connection between the relative political retardation of these two lands and the rather slow dawning of modernism there (as compared with France). On the other hand, when revolution did come to Austria and Germany, it arrived in the wake of full-scale industrialization and with ideological input from Marx and Engels. The Expressionist era, which began around 1905 with the founding of Die Brücke group and faded out during the 1920s, encompassed both the buildup and the reaction to massive political and social changes. Many artists working during this tumultuous period employed the human body as a cipher on which to project the pressures of the moment. Abstracted, distorted, shattered, truncated, fractured, pulled apart and then reassembled anew, the Expressionist figure became a highly charged site.

The path toward Expressionist fragmentation was blazed by Impressionism, which by the turn of the century was widely known across Europe. The dissolution of form into particolored dabs of paint, as well as the use of erratic cropping (in a manner owing something to the slice-of-life views facilitated by photography), influenced artists as diverse as Lovis Corinth, an Impressionist in name only, and Gustav Klimt, who had virtually nothing to do with the French movement. Although Corinth's 1884 etching Alexander and Diogenes (checklist nos. 5 and 6) depicts a classical scene that harkens back to pre-modern times, the cut-off figures along the left side and top would have been inconceivable in Germany a hundred years earlier. The disjointed hatching intrinsic to etching, as well as the choice of this comparatively minor medium (as opposed to painting or sculpture) for the portrayal of a weighty subject, also bespeak a quintessentially modernist attraction to the transitory and ephemeral. Nevertheless, Corinth presents the story of Alexander and Diogenes in a setting that is reassuringly three-dimensional when compared with the work of younger artists such as Max Beckmann. Beckmann would later render traditional themes like The Descent from the Cross and The Resurrection (see checklist no. 3) as a hodgepodge of strangely skewed bodies and vignettes with little concrete connection to a plausible reality. The redemptive certainties of orthodox Christianity are thereby implicitly challenged.

The Austrian Klimt was, like Corinth, a transitional artist, and his early work was filled with fluid and smoothly modeled bodies, as promulgated by conservative academies throughout Europe (checklist nos. 27-30). However, Klimt's lines became looser over the course of his career. He began to trace and retrace the contours of his figures, as though somehow suddenly in doubt of their precise boundaries (checklist nos. 31-36). Corinth's lines, too, gradually flew apart as he aged. The protracted evolution of this effect indicates that it was not (as some contend) solely the result of the artist's 1911 stroke. It is moreover evident that the fracturing of form in Corinth's late self-portraits (checklist nos. 9-12) to a degree reflects the artist's growing pessimism in the face of his physical decline and the demise of the ancien régime after 1918.

Though artists have always injected personal feelings into their work, the notion that an artist's psychic preoccupations per se are a fitting subject for art is peculiar to the modernist--and especially the Expressionist--sensibility. Richard Gerstl, for example, adopted pointillism (originally a fairly cold-blooded theoretical construct) to chart his descent into madness. In a series of poignant self-portraits from 1905-06 (checklist nos. 16 and 17), he simultaneously captured and negated his own image through the use of divided strokes. The artist's face literally fragments and then reconstitutes itself, communicating a sense of insecurity and insubstantiality which the viewer by extension shares.

Similarly, after his affair with the notoriously fickle Alma Mahler ended, Oskar Kokoschka nursed his sorrow in a series of portraits and allegorical reenactments of the relationship. Karl Kraus' essay The Great Wall of China describes the brutal murder of a Caucasian woman in the Chinese quarter, but the female protagonist in Kokoschka's lithographic illustrations is clearly Alma (checklist no. 38). Alma is also the subject of the 1916 drawing Mania--the seductress as elusive siren, dissolving into a web of crazed lines (checklist no. 39). The brighter palette of Kokoschka's Dresden years (1916-24), indicates both a lightening of the artist's pain and the recognition of his true calling as a colorist (checklist nos. 40 and 41). Yet even so, his subjects remain suffused in a patchwork of brushstrokes--not palpably real, but rather obviously products of the artist's creative mind.

Among the most exquisite aesthetic exposés of psychic turmoil extant are those undertaken by Egon Schiele. Indeed, the human body looms so large in Schiele's oeuvre and is used to such a multitude of ends that he is among the prototypical exemplars of this modernist phenomenon. As with many of his colleagues, Schiele's attraction to fractured forms was both a rejection of his academic training and a repudiation of the bourgeois tradition which that training represented. Yet while on the one hand Schiele eagerly sought to destroy a past that was no longer viable, he was also intensely distraught at the void left by this destruction. At times disjointed and frenetic, his lines rarely convey hesitancy or insecurity, but rather great speed and explosive energy. Overall, however, Schiele was in search of the perfect, seamless line, the great unifier capable of binding up the chaotic forces of existential uncertainty.

Loss of wholeness is signaled in Schiele's work through unnatural cropping: figures that seem to slide off the page (checklist no. 53), bodies that are missing legs (checklist no. 54) or that inexplicably end at the neck or thigh (checklist no. 52). The elimination of a female model's face by cropping or extreme stylization in certain drawings conveys a fetishistic interest in the anonymous naked body, an adolescent delight in forbidden views and taboo topics (checklist no. 58). However, although this tactic can be used to focus attention on the genitalia, not all such works are overtly sexual. In some drawings (checklist nos. 56 and 64), there is rather an allusion to the headless casts of antiquity, an elegiac mourning for a ruptured past. Schiele's sense of impotence is graphically expressed in the blurring or elimination of the penis in many of his nude self-portraits (checklist no. 57). Castration and mutilation function together with a vast repertoire of exaggerated body language to express such varied emotional states as anguish, turmoil, fear, longing, devotion, desire, lust and even spiritual redemption. Schiele is the perennial explorer, and the human figure his preferred vehicle for personal discovery and conquest.

The introspective--indeed, almost solipsistic--nature of much early twentieth-century Austrian art was in part conditioned by that nation's relative isolation. To the extent that cutting-edge artists were aware of innovations in other countries, they tended to gravitate to the emotional probings of the Symbolists. The Germans, by comparison, had closer ties to a wider range of European developments, and the influences of bright, Fauvist coloring, angular Cubist design and Futurist dynamism imparted greater formal distance to their brand of Expressionism. This does not, of course, mean that the Germans were uninterested in emotional content, but rather that they tended to express their feelings in more universal terms than did the Austrians. As a group, they sought a new language of form capable of capturing underlying psychological truths rather than superficial appearances.

The fracturing of form thus served a variety of possible goals. In portraiture, the genuine self could be revealed only if the realistic facade was shattered and broken. Seeking pure, unmediated responses to experience, the Expressionists endeavored to overthrow both the personal and the aesthetic constraints of civilization. These cravings found a concrete outlet in the Brücke artists' attempts to commune with nature and in the idealization of "primitive" cultures. By abstracting the human body, artists created an illusion of unity with the abstract forms of nature, or alluded to those of tribal art (see checklist nos. 66 and 68). The flip-side of such preoccupations emerged in a general contempt for the metropolis, although the jarring juxtapositions and truncated forms found in many Expressionist cityscapes were often intended merely to reflect the pace and intensity of urban life. The city was alternatively alienating or invigorating, and a vocabulary of disjointed lines, shapes and impasto could be adapted to either purpose.

A common yearning to eradicate bourgeois society prompted many Expressionists to greet the outbreak of World War I with an enthusiasm that has surprised and dismayed later observers. The naïve excitement and thrill of war soon dissipated, however, as artists were overcome with grief at the loss of their colleagues and the senselessness of combat. In realistically cataloguing the destruction and horrors of the war, the later Expressionists transformed the human body from metaphorical emblem into a site of actual pain and suffering. Lost limbs and crippled veterans were rendered with harsh brutality by Rudolf Schlichter and George Grosz (checklist nos. 18 and 65). Short, rough strokes lent immediacy to Beckmann's war sketches, executed compulsively in the trenches. His grenade literally catapults human body parts into the air (checklist no. 2), and the broken body in his operating room is obviously beyond repair (see checklist no. 3).

The trajectory from glee to disillusionment and despair which characterized the avant garde's reaction to World War I was to be recapitulated in artists' responses to the political upheavals of the Weimar period. The utopian promise of democratic socialism was soon dashed by the German regime's entrenched ties to the military, industrial and religious establishment. Rampant inflation and unemployment were constant reminders of the inequities of society. Weimar-era artists reverted to the fractured body as a metaphor for lost hopes and shattered dreams. In Beckmann's tension-filled depictions of city life, bodies are compressed in claustrophobic spaces that cannot logically be "read," or eliminated entirely: social interaction consists of a whirlwind of freefloating, yapping heads. Incomplete bodies, also found in the work of Otto Dix, represent the decay and decadence that were eating away at contemporary German society. Prostitution and venereal disease, as shown in Dix's Syphilitic (a man whose head is literally composed of evil, teeming female flesh; checklist no. 15), became a symbol of wider social degeneration.

The most innovative dissections of the human form performed during the Weimar years were those undertaken by artists associated with the Dada movement. The Dadaists--many of whom first met during the war in neutral Switzerland-- subsequently launched a sustained attack on all forms of authority and anything smacking of middle-class respectability. Disowning the prewar avant-garde for its lack of political engagement, these artists looked to create a new style which could capture the chaotic, irrational nature of contemporary existence. Collage, by dismembering and mixing disparate elements culled from popular sources, highlighted the ephemerality and the artificiality of such supposedly "objective" records. Reflecting the cacophony of advertising, photographic and film images that suffuse modern life, the medium had the added advantage of eliminating all traces of the artist's hand--thought to betray bourgeois individualism. A deliberate emphasis on disjunctive associations, and especially the use of severed and savagely reconfigured body parts, simultaneously expressed and critiqued the sense of dislocation produced by rapid social and economic change (checklists nos. 1 and 43). Franz Roh’s buoyant babyface--mouth frozen somewhere between a yawn and a scream---is an apt correlative for the artist's frustration and unhappiness (checklist no. 51). Hannah Höch affixed the top-hatted heads of businessmen to the bodies of preening female beauties, simultaneously questioning gender stereotypes and indicting the exploitative captains of industry (checklist no. 23).

As is evident from even this brief overview of Austrian and German art during the first decades of the twentieth century, the fragmentary nature of modern life could evoke a disparate array of aesthetic responses. Some artists greeted the annihilation of precedent with undisguised glee and actively abetted the destructive tendencies of their time. Others, more troubled by what they saw as civilization's downward trajectory, crafted scathing denunciations or sought a return to a more perfect past. The fractured form could express sorrow and elation, revolutionary iconoclasm or utopian idealism. While Schiele, for example, was willfully hacking the human body to bits, older compatriots such as Klimt were painstakingly trying to rebuild a cohesive reality in the form of the Gesamtkunstwerk (a total aesthetic environment encompassing art, architecture and the decorative arts). The desire to destroy inevitably brought with it a need to rebuild, and both tendencies frequently existed side by side.