World War I Anxieties Reflected in “Graphic Discontent”

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s latest exhibit, “Graphic Discontent: German Expressionism on Paper,” opened on Jan.14 and will remain until May 13. Featuring works from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s own collection, the exhibit displays over fifty Expressionist prints and drawings made between 1905 and 1922.

Seeking authenticity and rejecting the shallow materialism of the world around them, the Expressionists renounced the traditional training and standards of early 20th century European art. In a repudiation of bourgeois over-indulgence, the Expressionists adopted an abstract style meant to showcase emotions rather than the frivolous subject matter of previous periods.

Among the various groups formed by the Expressionists were Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), both of which dominate the exhibit. Although the Expressionists were concentrated in Berlin and Vienna, Die Brücke was founded in Dresden by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel in 1905 while Der Blaue Reiter was established in Munich by Vassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1911.

By employing woodcuts – the signature of the Expressionists – etchings, lithographs and black and white color palettes, the Expressionists utilized abstract forms to portray disturbed and uncomfortable emotions. In fact, the era’s etching and lithographic techniques caused the artist to make more mistakes–increasing the degree of spontaneity and chaotic emotion–and woodcuts served to simplify and distort forms. Suffice to say, most works created at this time did not have the objective of being aesthetically pleasing.

More than anything, the exhibited works are a product of their time. Surprisingly, many of the Expressionists welcomed World War I thinking that it would purify society of its extravagance and ills. However, after exposure to war and realization of its horrors, they reflected the era’s sense of fear, loss and disillusionment in their art, creating distressing imagery. For example, many works depict street scenes with homeless, begging soldiers and prostitutes juxtaposed with well-fed bourgeoisie looking down on those around them. Other works showcase isolated individuals, many of whom were naked: A sign that they wished to rid themselves of society’s expectations and materialism by embracing what lies beneath the surface.

One memorable drawing portrayed a prostitute who had attained enough financial success to dress in expensive clothes but had a gruesome scar on her face, the result of an attack by street gangs which preyed on such people. This demonstrates the moral depravity of society by not only highlighting the criminal activity of street gangs but also the vice of those who take advantage of prostitutes.

While it is unlikely that many people would want to hang one of the exhibited works in their home given the unsettling subject matter, the works do express necessary societal critiques. By breaking with the standards of the past, Expressionism liberated the artist to pursue new techniques and convey pure ideas and emotions.


Exhibit: “Graphic Discontent”

Venue: Cleveland Museum of Art

Dates: Jan. 14 to May 13