10 June 2005



A modernist mode, mainly in the second decade of the 20th century, perspective of angst and absurdity, disturbing visions of downfall and decay, pathological world of the crippled and insane, images of the city and war, ‘Aufbruch’ becomes ubiquitous, new era, dislocated colour, shrill tone, the grotesque, deathliness and dissolution.


Georg HeymHeym is the major poet of Expressionism, with countless stunning poems, especially in the collection Umbra vitae. Known for his poems on war and the city, he also created compelling portraits of, for instance, Robespierre and Savonarola.
Ernst Stadler – the poem ‘Form ist Wollust’ is often regarded as articulating the Expressionist programme. Stadler put body images at the centre of many of his poems, especially evoking dancers, strumpets and statues.
August Stramm – Stramm’s poems share a distinctive idiom, terse and staccato, and cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s.
Jakob van Hoddis – the poem everyone knows is ‘Weltende’. Exhibition
Wilhelm Klemm – see the poem ‘Erfüllung’.
Paul Zech – see the sequence ‘Die neue Bergpredigt’
Johannes R. Becher – ecstatic tone, concern for revolution. See ‘Mund auf Mund’ and ‘Vorbereitung’.
Else Lasker-Schüler – diffuse metaphorial elements, many love poems, invariably addressing ‘du’.
Gottfried Benn – Benn’s Morgue sequence is rightly well-known and contains some of the most memorable images in German poetry.
Alfred Lichtenstein – see the poem ‘Die Dämmerung’.
Alfred Wolfenstein – see the poem ‘Städter’.
Ernst Wilhelm Lotz – see ‘Aufbruch der Jugend’.
Walter Hasenclever – see the poems ‘Der Gefangene’ and ‘1917’.
Georg TraklTrakl’s use of colour is Expressionist, in poems such as ‘Helian’ and ‘Ruh und Schweigen’. See also the war poem ‘Grodek’.
Franz Werfel – see ‘An den Leser’.


Menschheitsdämmerung, ed. Kurt Pinthus


The visual image and colour are crucial aspects of Expressionist poetry, and there are many thematic correspondences between the poetry and art of the era.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Georg Heym’s signal collection Umbra vitae (1912) was published with woodcuts by Kirchner. Exemplifying the contrast of planes and abrupt angularity, Kirchner’s woodcuts became characteristic of Die Brücke style. In painting, he used bold colours to express the atmosphere in circus and music hall, and the gaiety and gaucheness of the urban. During 1912 and 1913 in Berlin, he created the series of street scenes regarded as the most mature manifestation of German Expressionist art. These pictures convey the frenzied, fragmented urbanites, amid the pace and glare of the metropolis. The Nazis declared Kirchner’s work degenerate in 1937 (which added to his acute depression at the political events in Germany and in 1938 he killed himself).
Otto Dix – In the 1920s Otto Dix’s work evoked the horrors of war and the depravities of a tawdry society. It echoes the Nietzschean recognition of the world as false, cruel, seductive and without meaning. Dix’s triptych ‘Großstadt’ (1928) exemplifies his favoured motifs of strumpets, jazz, feathers and furs. On war, he produced a sequence of 50 etchings ‘Der Krieg’ (1924) and a triptych ‘Der Krieg’ (1932). His female nudes, portraits, and wizened old men show a focus on the painted, made-up and the sickly. The Nazis declared his work degenerate.
Käthe Kollwitz – Kollwitz’s work is almost all in black-and-white. Many of her images make a protest against the wretched conditions of the poor, especially of women and children. Her series of etchings ‘Weberaufstand’ (1897-8) and ‘Bauernkrieg’ (1902-8) both thematize oppression and the outraged response to oppression. Bodily posture is at the heart of Kollwitz’s images, or bodies pulled and distorted, often in dark, low-ceilinged interiors. Her ‘Bilder von Elend’ and ‘Sieben Holzschnitte zum Krieg’ (1920-3) are paradigmatic. In the 1930s she made a series of lithographs ‘Tod’ (and as an elderly woman she was harassed by the Nazis and died just before the war ended).
Max Beckmann – Among Beckmann’s paintings of pandemonium and ferocity is ‘Die Nacht’ (1918-9). He made many self-portraits and also many images which evoke the carnivalesque. In 1931, Le Figaro described Beckmann as ‘Picasso germanique’. Paintings such as the ‘Kleine Sterbeszene’ convey a queasiness characteristic of Expressionist colouring. Needless to say, the Nazis excoriated his work as degenerate.
George Grosz – Grosz was part of the political Berlin Dada scene and frequented the Café des Westens with poets such as Theodor Däubler, Else Lasker-Schüler and Johannes R. Becher. Much of his work portrays the diabolical. Paintings such as ‘The City’ (1916/7) and ‘Selbstmord’ (1916) use reds to create apocalyptic visions of frenzy and violence. Urban turmoil and ugly, white bourgeois males, who are sometimes automaton figures, are at the core of Grosz’s oeuvre, as in ‘Stützen der Gesellschaft’ (1926) and the seminal painting ‘Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen’ (a nod to Heine’s biting representations of Germany). The structure of many Grosz works draws on montage. His album of lithographs ‘Ecce Homo’ (1922/3), including ‘Dämmerung’, focusses on the dissolute bourgeoisie.

See also German Expressionist art in Leicester and German Expressionist art in Berlin