7 Things You Need to Know About German Expressionist Prints

By Sotheby's
Ahead of Sotheby’s Prints & Multiples sale on 26 March, we explore the birth of Expressionism and its strong connection with printmaking, particularly the Expressionists' adoption of the woodcut as their primary artistic medium and its use by German artistic collective Die Brücke.

1. The World of Emotion

Expressionism is an artistic movement that originated in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its approach emphasised an exploration of the meaning of emotional experience over the apprehension of material reality, distorting depictions of the world in order to express the strength of subjective experience, often through the use of strong colours and simplified forms.

2. Provoking Reactions

Expressionist works were characterised by exaggerations of features, gestures and expressions, along with formal distortions and an emphasis on the physical attributes of a specific medium that provoked an emotional response.

3. Die Brücke

The birth of Expressionism is considered to have occurred with the formation of the artistic group known as Die Brücke (The Bridge) in 1905. Die Brücke was formed by Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and their objective was to “carry the future”, break free of the influence of bourgeois social values and “create…freedom of life and of movement”.

4. The Importance of Prints

Printmaking and drawing were integral to Expressionism on both practical and conceptual levels. Practically, prints and drawings were quicker and less expensive to produce. Conceptually, the boldness, flatness and greater simplicity of woodcuts fit well with the Expressionist agenda, clarifying their reductive style in painting. and enabling a more direct assault on the viewers’ senses, provoking an emotional reaction.

5. In the Wake of the Great War

Expressionism was in many ways an extension of Romanticism. It shared Romanticism’s ambivalence towards modernity and exploration of emotion, but shed its inherent idealism in favour of deeply humanistic concerns. Expressionism explored darker themes associated with urban life and the comparative solace associated with nature; the capacity of the naked body as a signifier of primal emotion, and the need to confront the devastating experience of World War I and its aftermath.

6. Depicting the Psyche

For these reasons, the woodcut was the ideal artistic vehicle. It had a long and rich heritage in European art, and so represented a return to an older, truer form of expression. Brücke artists strove to distance themselves from the traditional academic style of the time while manipulating traditional subject-matter to their own end. Undergoing a dramatic transformation at the hands of the Expressionists, portraiture became a depiction of the sitter (and artist’s) inner psyche.

7. Portrait Otto Mueller

Portrait Otto Mueller, printed by Kirchner in Berlin during a three month leave of absence from the army in 1915, demonstrates many of these concepts. Printed from a single woodblock inked using a brush rather than the typical roller, this portrait of Mueller is halfway between a woodcut and a monotype, a technique believed to be unique to Kirchner at this time, producing a bold, angular and painterly likeness to his friend.

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