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20th Century Pessimism: Examining Emotion in Expressionist Portraiture


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The Expressionist movement in early 20th century Europe reflected a change in the mindset of artists; the tension caused by political and social developments of the time induced a shift away from the rigidity of academic guidelines toward the freedom manifested in abstraction and subjectivity. Germany and France, two countries particularly transformed by the impact of the World Wars, harbored artists who strived to communicate the atmosphere of the time through painting. Although it is a traditional genre, portraiture is especially relevant when examining the effects of cultural changes on modern art, being that the distinct portrayal of facial expression and body language provides a more explicit insight into the emotions of the artist. In combination with Expressionism, a style indicative of distinct artists in its inherent subjectivity, the genre of portraiture highlights the effects of conflict on the individual. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Woman in a Green Blouse (1913), Max Beckmann’s The King (1937) and Georges Rouault’s Chinois (1939) all exemplify the potency of expressionism in conveying cynicism and despondency through the artists’ distinct approaches to abstract portraiture.

All three artists suffered the effects of pre- and post-war European society in the 1900s in ways that defined the trajectory of their artistic careers. Kirchner painted Woman in a Green Blouse right before the first World War, after the dissolution of The Bridge (Die Brücke), the group of Expressionist artists he had co-founded in 1905. The painting is reflective not only of the artist’s angst regarding a significant event in his life, but also of the strain on society caused by the impending war. The distress imparted to the viewer by the position and expression of the woman, composed of short, abrupt brushstrokes, emphasizes the presence of Kirchner’s emotions within the painting. Both Kirchner and Beckmann fell victim to the Nazi Degenerate Art movement, which severely restricted their ability to succeed as artists in Germany.

The rejection of Beckmann’s work by the Nazi government in the 1930s is represented in the transformations he made to The King over a period of four years; the painting is a self-portrait that depicts the artist and his wife, and the dominance of black paint within the composition emphasizes the dark shadows that express Beckmann’s dejection regarding his exile. Rouault’s piece also speaks to the theme of negativity: his illness in the early 1900s in conjunction with his experiences as an outsider in society brought about a new perception of the human condition, and his paintings thereafter expressed a concern for the suffering caused by societal transformations. Chinois is indicative of the dismal aspects of the 1930s, nearing the onset of World War II, in that it comprises thick, heavy strokes of somber colors, and the viewer’s inability to fully see the eyes of the figure creates a sense of ominous mystery.

Though their styles and techniques differ considerably, Kirchner, Beckmann, and Rouault are linked thematically in their approach to their respective portrait paintings. The three European artists are undoubtedly embodiments of Expressionism, due to their color choices, which appear instinctive rather than imitative in order to convey emotion, and the varying degrees to which they abstract faces, figures and objects. Their methods of depicting the human figure within a context exude different elements of pessimism, from melancholy and anguish to indignation and discontent. The King, Woman in a Green Blouse, and Chinois epitomize portraiture of the first half of the 20th century in demonstrating how artists were influenced by the negativity invoked by the repercussions of political, social, and cultural change. 

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