Donald Kuspit on Telling The Emotional Truth: Rambling Reflections On Expressionism, Especially German Expressionism

  Ludwig Kirchner, Red Tree on the Beach, 1912-1913 


By DONALD KUSPIT September, 2019

            The most influential and enduring movement of modern art is not Cubism, as Clement Greenberg said, but Expressionism, as Harold Rosenberg argued.  Cubism is a style, Expressionism is an attitude.  Cubism is concerned with form, Expressionism with seemingly formless feeling.  Cubism has been understood as a New Classicism, Expressionism as Romanticism run riot, especially Abstract Expressionism, all but chaotically unrestrained, intemperate and violent.  Cubism originated in pre-World War I France, Expressionism in pre-World War I Germany and returned, after being dismissed by the Nazis as “degenerate art,” with a vengeance in post-World War II Germany.  There is an emotional continuity between the paintings, sculptures, and prints of such originating expressionists as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Heckel (founding members of Die Brücke, 1905-1913) and Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc (founding members of Der Blaue Reiter, 1911-1914), and such latter-day neo-expressionists as George Baselitz (born 1938) and Anselm Kiefer (born 1945), however ostensibly different their works.  You know an Expressionist painting by its handling--some would say manhandling—of surface, its raw physicality—some would say gross materiality, as in Van Gogh and Wall, 1983, by the Berlin “Neu Wilde” (New Wild) painter Rainer Fetting, and a Cubist work by its eccentric not to say absurd—some would say precarious, even perverse--construction, as in Picasso’s Ma Jolie, 1911-1912.  

 Erich Heckel, The Crouching One, 1914 (woodcut of upper body and face of a female nude)


Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation No. 30, 1913


Franz Marc, Forms in Combat (or Fighting Forms), 1914


Georg Baselitz with his painting Die Grosse Nacht im Eimer, 1962-1963. In English usually titled "The Night of the Senses." Shows a demented man masturbating.


Anselm Kiefer, Holzraum (Wooden Room), 1972


Rainer Fetting, Van Gogh and Wall, 1983 


Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie, 1911-1912

How does Expressionism work?  By what the psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu calls “the destructive reversal” of the “skin ego” of the art object.  That is, its material surface--in traditional art, especially classical and neo-classical art, smooth, unmarred, with no sign of the work that went into it, the hand that made it, suggesting that it was immaculately conceived, and with that peculiarly artless however artful—is flayed alive, much the way Marsysas was flayed alive.  It is a kind of primitivizing of the art object, in defiance of its civilizing—classicizing.  But this destructive reversal—seemingly nihilistic undermining of the insulating skin of the work, which gives it an aura of timeless self-containment—is, unexpectedly, a “creative reversal,” and with that strangely revelatory.  It is an epistemological transformation, even enlightening revolution:  for imaginatively “turning the skin inside-out” makes “inner emotion into a knowable reality.” 

Jose de Ribera, Apollo and Marsyas (or Apollo Flaying Marsyas), 1637

That is, the material surface of the art object becomes uncannily expressive—conveys, evokes, arouses intense, unexpected emotion.  With that, the form of the art object comes to seem beside the expressive purpose of its emotionalized matter.  There is a tendency to formlessness in expressionistic art, for feeling seems formless and in endless flux, and as such the matter that conveys it seems uncontainable and uncontrollable by any form, be it that of the human figure, and however much some of it seems to mimic biomorphic form, geometric form being a simplistic imposition on it, an attempt to cage and tame instinctive feeling, fraught with fear of its power.  Form can no longer be taken for granted, it is no longer given by convention, it can no longer be imposed and standardized, it is unable to hermetically contain and repressively subsume hyper-expressive matter.  Feeling may sometimes flicker in the texture of traditional painting—Chardin’s still lives are an example--but it quickly turns to aesthetic ash.  The slick surface remains the norm in traditional painting.  In expressionistic art form is no longer a foreordained Procrustean bed, as it tends to be in classical and neo-classical art, and with that a guarantee of aesthetic credibility, because the matter of which the art object is made has become more important than its form, perhaps evident and seemingly familiar but no longer essential to its identity and meaning.  The expressionist artist makes creative use of his or her emotions by embodying them in the material of the object he or she makes rather than by giving them familiar form, which is why the expressionistic art seems unfamiliar—and emotionally provocative--at first glance however unconsciously familiar the feelings invested in its material surface may be. 

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, The Ray, 1728

Freud famously said the first ego is the skin ego, that is, the surface of the body:  giving dynamic, not to say dramatic, presence to the skin ego of the art object, the expressionist artist returns to the visceral roots of his or her being.  Expressionism is an attempt to rejuvenate an art that seems to have become decadent—to refresh art that seems to have become stale.  It is a regression in the service of the ego of art, more particularly, a deliberate undoing of classical art, with its emphasis on ego and superego control (autonomy and morality), an art of consciousness, and since antiquity the model for representational art, not to say the dominant mode of art, by emphasizing, with revolutionary zeal, art’s instinctive, primitive roots in the unconscious.  They are made visible, as it were, in the seemingly spontaneous gesture or “mindless” mark—what André Breton, stealing a famous idea of the psychologist Pierre Janet, called “pure psychic automatism”--of the regressing artist.  Van Gogh is the emblematic expressionist artist—one can trace his regression from a representational, consciously made, socially concerned type of art, the art he made in the Netherlands, to an expressionist, unconsciously expressive type of art he made in Arles, an art in which he slowly but surely loses ego and superego control and becomes victimized by his instincts, ambivalently erotic and aggressive, not to say orgasmic, in his increasingly intense, explosive gestures.  Increasingly panicked, his paintings prefigure his suicide, as Pollock’s panicked paintings prefigure his suicide, that is, the complete collapse of self-control.           

Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913


Pollock, No. 5, 1948


Picasso, Woman's Head (Fernande), 1909


Ibram Lassaw, Kirkea, 1962

Such manic gestures have become the model for the so-called distinctive “signature” of the expressionist artist, a sign, proof, performance of his or her individuality, unusual and unique identity, even though that signature surface—a material surface informed by the artist’s particular mark or gesture, grand or intimate, made by his or hers restless working hand, and thus a surface no longer impersonal, anonymous, passive, and calming as the surface of classical art is, but profoundly personal, insistent, and manic, or at least hyperactive, as it is in Kandinsky’s and Pollock’s paintings, Picasso’s Woman’s Head (Fernande), 1909 and Ibram Lassaw’s Kirkea, 1962--signals some universal emotion, paradoxically making it more meaningful than it would be if it was merely the expression of the artist’s personality. 

In expressionistic art surface is manically emphasized—thus the so-called energy of Pollock’s all-over-paintings, which spawned a movement called Energism--at the expense of the image.  It is unsettled, distorted, even mangled to the point of incoherence, incomprehension, suggesting that the so-called reality it represents is inherently unrepresentable.  Becoming estranged from the image, we find the reality it professes to represent strange:  becoming “insane,” the world becomes insane—the reality principle collapses, with the gain in dubious pleasure of rapid instinctive discharge (especially in Storm and Stress painting).  Strangely, this makes the image more intriguing than it would be if it was rendered with straightforward verisimilitude, that is, if it was “normal” rather than “abnormalized” by the manic surface.  No longer serving a representational purpose, it serves a presentational purpose:  the image gives feeling presence, that is, what is left of the image after it has been undermined by the manic surface becomes the platform for the performance of feeling by the surface.  The manic surface of so-called all-over painting is in effect feeling crudely materialized—feeling enacted by paint.  Tracking painterly gesture, emblematic of expressed feeling, from Monet to Pollock, one sees feeling becoming increasingly uncontrollable as it becomes increasingly detached from the image—no longer subsumed by a representational purpose, as it continues to be in Monet.  Feeling finally becomes explosively chaotic and unmanageable in Pollock’s all-over paintings, the nihilistic dead-end of romantic painting.     

The upset surface of the art object upsets the viewer, altering his or her consciousness, turning it toward the unconscious, and with that undermines his or her sense of self, his or her self-possession, so that he or she becomes possessed by the art object, more precisely entranced—or is it traumatized?—by its surface, ambiguously destroyed and created, and thus peculiarly insane.  For it has become self-contradictory, and with that emblematic of the conflict between the death instinct and the life instinct, the unresolved and inescapable dialectic, as Freud said, that is the emotional fundament of our psyche.  Nonetheless, experiencing the traumatizing expressionist art object, unconsciously drawn to its anxious surface—unconsciously identifying with it, so that the anxiety, even panic implicit in its rawified, disintegrating, chaotic surface (as distinct from the refined, integrated, carefully composed serene surface of the traditional art object, conveying the seemingly calm, steady, self-certain, reassuring hand of the traditional classical artist)--gives the viewer a kind of holiday, a sort of strange relief from everyday consciousness, an inward-looking, self-conscious pause in the daily routine of life.  I suggest that it is because of such oddly welcome introspective relief from everyday consciousness that all art objects are regarded as holy, preserved in the church of the museum as miraculous relics. 

Unlike Pollock—but like de Kooning—the German Neo-Expressionists never abandon representation, but put manically material expressive surface to representational purpose.  The result is a kind of hallucinatory representation with social as well as psychological content, like the works of the original German Expressionists.  Kiefer’s allegorical moralizing history paintings, especially Germany’s Spiritual Heroes, 1973 are exemplary, all the more so because they explicitly use raw material—charcoal and burlap (along with paint)--to psychosocial effect.  The grain of the wood in the representation of the interior of the wooden room pictured—supposedly a memorial hall and crematorium in one (perhaps also a barrack in which the victims of the Holocaust were housed before they were exterminated)--are conspicuously tactile and elementally expressive.  Their “touch” arouses touchy feelings, further implicating the viewer in the obscene history of Germany, all the more so because the room incorporates the viewer in the work by reason of its theatrical grandeur and steep perspective.    

Anselm Kiefer, Germany's Spiritual Heroes, 1973 

In sum, after expressionistic treatment, the content of the work seems irreal:  Kiefer’s room, symbolizing Germany’s delusion of grandeur, seems like a pathological phantasy.  More pointedly, Abstract Expressionist surface has a tendentious purpose:  to break through the viewer’s defensive indifference to his or her feelings—his or her refusal to heed their meaning, and with that acquire self-knowledge, helpful in coming to terms with such horrors as the Holocaust, in awakening from what James Joyce called the nightmare of history.  Abstract Expressionism, from Kandinsky to Pollock, engages the personal unconscious—what Kandinsky called inner necessity, what Pollock called “painting out of the  unconscious,” making for an individualistic cathartic art—but to my mind German Expressionism and German Neo-Expressionism are more meaningful because they engage the social unconscious, suggesting they are an art of conscience not simply of so-called self-expression.  One can get the point by noting the radical difference between two figurative expressionistic sculptures, David Smith’s Tanktotem 1, 1952 and Fetting’s Willy Brandt, 2007 (Stockholm).

David Smith, Tanktotem 1, 1952


Helmut Fetting, Willy Brandt, 2007 (Stockholm version)

In his essay on “Modernist Painting” Clement Greenberg wrote that “Manet’s paintings became the first Modernist ones by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the surfaces on which they were painted,” arguing that “with Manet and the Impressionists” painting began to become a “purely optical experience as against optical experience modified or revised by tactile experience.”  In fact, there is no such thing as a purely optical experience—it is misleading to say there is--for it is always inseparable from, not to say subliminally informed by tactile experience.  For to see is to touch from a distance—all sensing is a form of touching (the senses are instruments of attachment)--and with that to be touched by what one sees, to become unexpectedly, unwillingly emotionally attached to what one sees, for better or worse, so that the work of art becomes a lived experience rather than an intellectual curiosity, not to say elite entertainment.  One is implicated in what one sees; detached contemplation is an intellectual illusion—an intellectual defense against what one consciously or unconsciously experiences or feels when one sees an art object, ostensibly not the same as a human object, but made by and for human beings, who unavoidably project their all too human feelings into it, whether it is abstract or representational, whether its surface is refined or raw—frankly declared and tactile, and with that unashamedly expressive, the difference being in the nature and quality of the feelings.  To have only a purely optical experience of a painting is to be blind to it, to ignore or deny or repress the feelings—what, in a less authoritarian moment, Greenberg himself once called, using Freud’s terms, the “unconscious and preconscious feelings” aroused by art—a frankly material surface declares is to be emotionally defective. WM


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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