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The Expressionist City

September 19, 2000 to November 04, 2000

The city figured prominently in many modern art movements, starting with French Impressionism. However, no group of artists was as transfixed by the metropolis as were the German Expressionists. It is difficult for most of us, living at the dawn of the twenty-first century, to imagine how differently Europeans a hundred years ago perceived the urban environment. The industrialized city as we now know it was then a fundamentally new phenomenon. Socially, economically, politically and--last but not least--aesthetically, urbanization overthrew all the comfortable assumptions and habits of the past. Whether one saw in this the prospect of utopian transformation or the death of human civilization, depended very much on one's point of view. Both attitudes were encompassed by Expressionism.

Expressionist ambivalence reached its peak in that movement's cityscapes. The metropolis was at once exciting and threatening, liberating and oppressive, hope-filled and doomed. Expressionists were divided, amongst and sometimes within themselves, as to whether they wanted to go backwards, to a kind of primordial natural innocence, or forwards, into a dynamic technological future. On the one hand, they reviled the stultifying bourgeois values of their parents' generation and sought to figuratively annihilate all that had come before. On the other hand, they feared urban dehumanization, which seemed to short-circuit culture and reduce all social relationships to commodity transactions. If the Expressionists could have picked and chosen, they would have taken urban energy without the squalor, and preferred a society capable of reconciling the conflicting values of individualism and community. Such a paradise was not, however, to be found in the capitals of Germany or Austria during the first decades of the twentieth century.

Expressionism was a diverse movement, with differing manifestations in each of the major German-speaking cities, including Vienna. Naturally, individual artists' views of the city were shaped by their specific urban experiences. Furthermore, Expressionist cityscapes varied not only according to artist and to place, but also over time. The early years of the new century were bursting with promise and ambition, whereas in Austria and Germany the period after World War I was plagued by insane inflation, crippling war debt, endemic poverty and social unrest. This shift from prewar optimism to postwar pessimism is readily observed in Expressionist cityscapes, which more closely mirrored social concerns than did other subject genres.

Berlin was the Expressionist metropolis. It was new, and it was big, and it was relatively ugly. Unlike other, older European capitals, Berlin did not for the most part hark back to a genteel past. Much of the city had grown up quickly following German unification in 1871. Shaped largely by modern industry, it was a sprawling mass that had little in the way of architectural or natural beauty to recommend it. Nevertheless, although Berlin embodied some of the worst aspects of urban life, it also represented Germany's claim on the future, the nation's one Weltstadt (world-class city). As such, it was a powerful magnet for artists, who came to study or teach at the city's academies and exhibit at its many galleries. Berlin nurtured the avant garde as did no other German city. Perhaps as a result, Berlin is the city that figures most prominently in the Expressionist canon. Among those whose views of urban life were shaped by Berlin are Max Beckmann, Lyonel Feininger, George Grosz, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka, Käthe Kollwitz, Ludwig Meidner and Max Pechstein.

The Expressionist city was distinctive in form and content, and these two factors often worked in tandem. Harsh contrasts in black and white (epitomized by the Expressionist fascination with printmaking) were used to portray a relatively colorless landscape demarcated by tall, shadowy buildings. Germans adapted the compositional fragmentation of French Cubism to capture a disjointed reality too fast-paced to comprehend in one take. The angular, jangling Expressionist aesthetic accurately reflected a society that was constantly in flux, propelled onward by an insatiable thirst for new sensations. Particularly in the prewar period, the Expressionist city was often unpopulated or filled with abstracted "types" rather than identifiable personalities. Artists were more interested in the generic energy of the metropolis than in specifics of locale or character. These scenes can typically be read in two contradictory ways: as paeans to the force of modern technology, or diatribes against the obliteration of individuality by the urban crowd.

The anecdotal pleasures of urban life, so prominent in French Impressionism, are not wholly absent from German Expressionism. But for the most part, when the Germans shifted their focus from the generic to the specific, their judgments were harsh. The more realistic Expressionism became, the more scathing and explicit was its indictment of modern society. Käthe Kollwitz, whose work preceded and ultimately superseded Expressionism, was from the outset a social realist, her art always intended as a critique. In the period after World War I, many others joined her in a quest to reform society by pinpointing its shortcomings. The metropolis of Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz and other Weimar-era artists is characterized by grotesque entertainments, bloated capitalists, venal whores and downtrodden losers. To the extent that these artists still relied on Expressionist formal devices, their aesthetic matrix became a vertiginous hell. Expressionist exaggeration was used to populate the city with politically inspired caricatures.

Austria's political and artistic history in the first decades of the twentieth century paralleled Germany's in many ways. Both countries lost their empires after suffering defeat in World War I, and then flirted briefly with social democracy before succumbing to Nazism. And both countries developed an Expressionist aesthetic as a way of tracking the human toll of such rampant upheaval. Nevertheless, there were significant differences between Austria and Germany. For one thing, Vienna, the Austrian capital, was not heavily industrialized. This was to cost the nation dearly after World War I, when it ceded its industrial base to the newly formed countries of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Still, the benefits of a beautiful, human-scaled and comparatively bucolic capital were not lost on Austria's Expressionists. The metropolis, as such, figured hardly at all in their work, and the city was as a rule presented in a nonthreatening manner.

Compared to their German counterparts, Austrian cityscapes of the Expressionist era are surprisingly serene. Quaint architecture, old walls and cobblestones evoke a very passive sort of decay, as in Egon Schiele's "dead cities" or certain works by Alfred Kubin. At the same time, however, these aged buildings seem to vouchsafe the permanence of human creation. Conceptually, many modern Austrian cityscapes are difficult to distinguish from those of nineteenth-century predecessors such as Rudolf von Alt. Gothic and Baroque monuments still dominated views of Vienna, and smaller towns, such as Anton Faistauer's Salzburg, tended to exude stability. Especially under the increasingly dire circumstances of the postwar period, there was more than a little escapism to this approach. Austria's fear of modern urbanization was expressed in a denial of its existence. At the same time, by memorializing the enduring traits of the Austrian cityscape, artists endeavored to preserve their sense of national identity in the face of impending dissolution. The modern metropolis was foreign to them.

Whether one confronted urbanization or attempted to flee it, loved it or hated it, the city was an unavoidable part of twentieth-century life. But Expressionists on some level failed to fully accept this reality. German ambivalence toward the city contained elements of utopianism and nihilism that proved a futile defense against Nazi efficiency. Austrian escapism and denial were equally useless. The destruction of so many German cities by Allied bombing in World War II provides an ironic coda to the pro- and anti-urban struggles of the Expressionist generation. In retrospect, it may certainly be said that neither the German-speaking peoples nor their artists fared particularly well in adapting to the dramatic exigencies of change that gripped the Western world at the turn of the last century. In this sense, the Expressionists were like the proverbial coal-miners' canaries, bravely cheeping out an unheeded warning.