Expressionist Painting Before World War I

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Due to the redesign of, past exhibitions prior to 2008 are archived externally; visiting these pages will open a new window.
Marc Chagall, The Soldier Drinks (Le Soldat boit), 1911–12

Marc Chagall, The Soldier Drinks (Le Soldat boit), 1911–12. Oil on canvas, 43 x 37 1/4 inches (109.2 x 94.6 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 49.1211. Marc Chagall © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris


The work of Post-Impressionists such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and the Fauves, and the Cubists in Paris, all informed the development of Expressionist art in the years immediately preceding the First World War. The practitioners of this style, largely working and exhibiting in Germany, crossed paths via various associations and were also deeply influenced by their encounters with Japanese and African art, as well as Germanic folk art. From Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to Franz Marc, artists who came to be associated with Expressionism sought to convey the communicative force of color through vibrantly hued canvases and bold forms.

Vasily Kandinsky became a leading theoretician on chromatic symbolism after arriving in Munich from his native Russia at the turn of the century. Kandinsky’s color theories, as outlined in his treatise Über das Geistige in der Kunst. Insbesondere in der Malerei (On the Spiritual in Art: And Painting in Particular, published 1911, dated 1912), were echoed by Marc and Alexei Jawlensky, among others. Marc first met Kandinsky and Jawlensky when he joined the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM) (New Artists’ Association of Munich) in 1911. At this time, Marc was exclusively depicting animals in nature and endowing his colors with expressive value and symbolic meaning in a manner similar to Kandinsky in his Bavarian landscapes. Meanwhile, Matisse’s 1910 Munich exhibition had left a strong impression on both Jawlensky and Kandinsky. The two shared an affinity for Matisse’s brilliant canvases and those of the other Fauves—works Kandinsky had had the opportunity to observe during his stay in Paris from 1906–07.

In 1911, Kandinsky and Marc formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group along with Jawlensky, Paul Klee, and other members of the German avant-garde. The premier exhibition of this group took place that December at Heinrich Thannhauser’s Moderne Galerie. Two months after the first showing, the Die Brücke (The Bridge) group in Berlin, led by Kirchner, was invited to participate in a second Blaue Reiter exhibition. Kirchner and the other members of Die Brücke frequently employed dissonant color patterns and angular stylizations to increase the intensity of their paintings. Furthermore, Marc Chagall, who had been working in Paris beginning in 1910, received his first solo show in 1914 at Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm gallery in Berlin, thus forming a link with both Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter artists and exposing them to his imaginative, colorful works.

The connections among these different artists were severed with the 1914 outbreak of World War I. Nonetheless, the postwar period saw the reunion of Kandinsky, Klee, and Jawlensky, who together with Lyonel Feininger formed the Blue Four group in the United States. It was then that these artists were able to pursue their color theories with renewed vigor. Currently on view are nine paintings by various artists.

Megan Fontanella, Assistant Curator



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