WUSTL Digital Gateway Image Collections & Exhibitions

Facing Despair: Expressionist Portraiture in Wartime

Expressionism, reliant as it is upon the subjective emotional approach of the artist, has a powerful ability to reflect the circumstances of the world around the artist. Portraiture in particular shows the emotional response of both the subject and artist to their particular personal and historical contexts. As a movement, Expressionism had reached its peak in influence and popularity during the pre-World War I and interwar years, and many of its main practitioners were in the later stages of their careers by the time Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933. In the late 1930s, many German Expressionists, such as Max Beckmann, were forced to flee Germany due to Nazi persecution. Expressionists working elsewhere in Europe, like Georges Rouault and Paul Klee, were also overwhelmed by the specter of war and Fascism that haunted Europe during that time period. This exhibition will explore the portraiture of these three artists—Beckmann, Rouault, and Klee—on the cusp of the breakout of World War II.

Professionally, these artists had achieved fame and success for their contributions to Expressionism long before World War II. But the rise of Nazism jeopardized their place in European culture and society and threatened the forms of expression that they had worked with throughout their careers. Though always dealing with fraught, subjective, and deeply personal subject matter, the prospect of devastating war and the muzzling effect of totalitarianism permeated both the subject matter and the emotional underpinnings of the artists’ work.  Though they had lived through and been deeply affected by the horrors of World War I, the rise of Nazism threatened their style of expression in new and terrifying ways. They used techniques they had been using for years but now applied them to much darker themes and experiences.

While they have common themes like numbness, isolation, darkness, and dread, the works are also a study in contrasts. Klee would die in 1940, and his The Man of Confusion shows a fearful, isolated figure floating in undefined ether, reflective of the emotions of a dying man in uncertain, frightening times. Rouault’s Chinois was part of a series of works called “Miserere et Guerre” (“Misery and War”) that dealt with the emotions of the individual in suffering and strife, heavily influenced by the artist’s Christian faith. The last work is Beckmann’s Acrobat on Trapeze,which he painted while in exile in Amsterdam in 1940 after fleeing Nazi persecution and the label of “degenerate.” The figure of the acrobat, long a source of inspiration for Beckmann’s work, is represented as a reclusive, shadowy figure who is entirely removed emotionally from the adoring crowds below—a reflection of Beckmann’s state of mind in exile. Together, these paintings show the attempt of these Expressionists to communicate the melancholy experience of the individual in a continent on the precipice of immense human disaster, on the grand scale and for the individual.


Gabriel Rubin