Germany, at the turn of the twentieth century saw major shifts from an agrarian economy to a modern industrial economy. Under Otto von Bismarck, who oversaw the unification of Germany in the late nineteenth century, the years 1870 until 1890 saw a huge period of transformation and an increase in Bourgeois power; these years were known as the ‘taking off period,’ or the Grunderzeit. During the first decades of the twentieth century, Germany experienced the apocalyptic destruction of war, and the rising social and economic upheaval of the Weimar period and as a result of this, German art appeared to mirror the tensions and divisions within German politics and society.
One explanation for the changing process and apparent ‘insanity’ within modern art, particularly German Expressionism, is the ‘kunstwollen’ theory, or the “Immanent artistic drive.” This principle of ‘kunstwollen’ began with Alois Reigl and was extended by Wilhelm Worringer (1881 – 1965) in his thesis Abstraction and Empathy (1908), where Worringer claimed that the political and social contextual background at the time of the production of a work had a huge impact on the outcome; and, he claimed, this was the reason for revolving themes and styles within the art world. Worringer pushed the notion that classical art, such as Greek or Roman sculpture was the product of a harmonious society, whereas, in times of economical or political hardship, art would become much more angular; as seen in Dadaism, Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, and to some extent, Expressionism. This thesis was popular amongst both the British and German avant-garde, and goes some extent of the way in explaining why German Expressionism was often particularly violent, angry and ‘insane’ just after the First World War. In Germany at this point, the relationship between the artist and his community was not harmonious, and political and economical circumstances were not favourable, therefore soft curves and pleasant colours were replaced with sharp, angular and complex works of art.
During the nineteenth century, there was a definite drift towards a more materialist philosophy in the Western world. The emergence at this time of the social revolutionary works of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud’s creative impulse theories and the Apollonian (idealist) versus Dionysian (realist) debate raised by Friedrich Nietzsche had a huge impact on the cultural avant-garde. These theorists and philosophers ultimately defined the world by what they could see, rather than with the optimism of idealism. This, of course, directly opposed the idealist philosophies of previous decades; of which Kant and Hegel were visionaries.
This sudden progression of industrialisation and capitalism in Germany left German Expressionist artists feeling isolated and alienated from their own society. Die Brücke, founded in Dresden in 1905, had seen most of its members move north to Berlin by 1911. Max Weber claimed that human behaviour was being altered by the demands of industrialisation and capitalism. Stephen R. Marks also claims that alienation can be a considerable resulting factor of industrialisation and commercialisation; group life, particularly during times of industrialisation can cause group members to feel purposelessness or normlessness. Georg Simmel – interested in the modern urban individual – states that the metropolitan dweller must exaggerate his own personal qualities in order to be heard in the vast society of the metropolis.
Primitivism, Lloyd claims, was used by German Expressionists to question values held by Western society. The use of primitivism in their work sees the Expressionists looking for inspiration from already alienated groups. Outsider Artists and primitive artists were already isolated from society, and somewhat untouched by industrialisation and capitalism. German Expressionists used similar techniques to portray their discontent with society and their rejection of modernity. Art and creativity, it seems, was an acceptable way for the alienated man to channel his discontent. Emile Durkheim’s ‘Theory of Anomie’ outlines this idea of alienation from society. Alienation is a feeling whereby the socialised man no longer feels a sense of belonging within his own community. This need to channel feelings of alienation in some form or another sees a similarity between Outsider Art and German Expressionism. Creativity was a socially acceptable way to challenge society and explore the alienation that one felt, and one that both Expressionists and Outsider Artists shared. Although Outsider Artists may not have been aware of societal and economic changes, they were still part of an alienated group within society, and because of this, German Expressionists could relate to their work.
Social, political and cultural factors played a huge role in the shaping of German Expressionism as an art movement. It was wholly built upon foundations of discontent and the rejection of modernity, rather than technique or subject matter. Peter Bürger, in Theorie der Avantgarde (1974), confirms that contextual factors, predominantly social, political and economical factors, certainly have a profound effect on artistic style and subject matter.