Introduction to the Links and Similarities Between German Expressionism and Outsider Art

I am going to begin a series that looks at the links and similarities between German Expressionism and Outsider Art particularly between the years of 1905 and 1945. This will include contextual factors, pre-world war one, the Weimar period and then finally, the Degenerate Art exhibition organised by the National Socialist Party in Germany. Here is the first installment… just a quick intro…

German Expressionism, rather than being a distinct movement, with clear defining factors, was in fact the result of a whole host of contributing factors. Expressionism, similar, in fact, to Outsider Art, had no essential programme; instead, it was identified by content. David Elliott describes it as “paradigmatically asocial, the voice above all of the individual.”

When discussing the time period that German Expressionism spanned, it is important to define two key words at the forefront of German vocabulary at the time. The birth of a new Europe, industrialisation, modernisation, and social and economical change all define the era in which this movement was prevalent; these all characterise the spirit of the time, or Zeitgeist. Another German word, Kultur, which has no direct links with the broad English term culture, is also important when discussing German Expressionism. Kultur implies that which is generically German; seen during the reign of the National Socialist Party as superior to that of other nations. Kultur can be seen as bringing the individual and wider society together by providing mutual interests.

The birth of modernisation, which was spreading rapidly throughout Europe at this point, was the source of discontent for many and the continual growth of towns and cities often led to the public feeling isolated and alienated from the rest of this ever expanding society. This feeling of alienation was noted by many sociologists, psychologists and philosophers at the time, including Georg Simmel and Max Weber; it can also be seen described in much of Karl Marx’s work. The sense of alienation felt by many in a way turned them into outsiders; much like the Outsider Artists of the same period.

Artists at this point were becoming aware of Outsider Art, and were taking aspects of these works to inspire and enhance their own creations. Exhibitions of this art were being held for the first time, drastically changing the attitude of the public towards minority groups, such as the insane; finally, the ‘madman’ was becoming the romantic ideal.

Max Beckmann, a German Expressionist artist, can be seen relating to the work of outsider artists in his Self-Portrait with a Saxophone of 1930, in which he is almost representing himself as an outsider. The painting shows Beckmann slouched, clutching a saxophone below waist height, wearing very basic clothing. The artist appears distant and melancholic, with the painting portraying an overall sense of confusion and bizarreness. What Beckmann appears to be looking for is a new language for continuing contextual dilemmas. German Expressionists looked to convey certain aspects of outsider art in their own quest to create a language that was undoubtedly a critical response to contemporary political and social problems. The first exhibition of Expressionism in 1906 goaded the public and art critics to assume that the artists were of ill mental health, and it is obvious that Expressionist painters were in fact trying to imitate the often closed off worlds of the mentally ill.

The idea of alienation is a mutual factor of both German Expressionism and Outsider Art. Fired by a feeling of discontent with their current world, the German Expressionists sought something much more original and primitive to inform their works, and it seemed Outsider Artists could effortlessly achieve this much-desired uniqueness. German Expressionist art was not ‘insane;’ rather, it was reflecting the contextual tensions and conflicts occurring within politics and society in Germany at the time. To portray this conflict, a new style was needed, and Expressionists looked to the originality of Outsider Art for inspiration. The exploration of madness, alienation and discontent within the works of German Expressionism is one that is inevitable due to the political strife and social instability of the time, and it seems apt to look at ‘madness’ in terms of those who were often in fact clinically insane; the Outsider Artists.

 Max Beckmann, Self Portrait with a Saxophone

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