Die Brücke’s Manifesto in Context

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner _ Programm der Kunstlergruppe Brucke 1906
“Programm der Kunstlergruppe Brucke”

A woodcut designed by Ernst Ludwig Kircher (1906), a founding member of the group Die Brucke.


“With faith in development and as a new generation of creators and connoisseurs, we call together all young people. As young people ourselves, we carry the future and want to create for ourselves freedom of life and movement against the long-established power of our elders. Everyone who conveys his creative energy directly and authentically belongs with us.”

Die Brucke was formed in Dresden in 1905 by four architecture students, with no formal training in the visual arts: Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Later joined by Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, and Otto Mueller.

Released a year after the group’s formation, the manifesto asserts the group’s youth and claims to authenticity. The woodcut medium speaks to earlier German precedents, which we’ll talk about later.

Formally this utilizes a technique in print-making developed for regular, consistent reproduction. Informally however it is hand-carved, with irregular lettering, more suggestive of the artisan through a hand-crafted aesthetic.
> they were hipsters!
Die Brucke are progenitors of the movement later known as German Expressionism; the first of two groups that pushed German modern art onto the international avant-garde scene.

The group was very communally-oriented, modelling themselves after a medieval guild, highly egalitarian in nature.

They worked together in a butcher’s shop in a working-class area of Dresden, taking as subject matter their everyday surroundings: landscapes, street scenes, portraits, etc.

Their work reacted to the established, bourgeois, conservative social values that continued from the 19th century. In response to the (conservative) constraints of conventional forms of representation (such as realism), they promoted a “naive and unadulterated need to bring art and life into harmony.”

In this they rejected the prevalent academic style (such as Impressionism) and called for a new form of artistic expression, one that conveyed intense emotion through the use of simplified forms, bright colors, and strong, sharp lines.

Which is where they overlap with: Expressionism

Broadly speaking, Expressionism is an artistic movement that spanned fields such as architecture, dance, painting, sculpture and cinema.

Expressionist work typically presents the world from a subjective perspective, distorting it for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas.

It suggests that depiction of outer appearances comprised only one aspect of reality and gave no access to the essence of things.

Expressionism is notoriously difficult to define, in part because it overlapped with other major ‘isms’ of the modernist period: with Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism, Surrealism and Dada. Many artists deemed “expressionist” were highly opposed to the label.

To contextualize the Manifesto, we need to see some of the influences that gave rise to Die Brucke’s style.

Precursors to Expressionism

Joseph Turner British landscape painter, laid the foundation for French Impressionism.
vincent van gogh the_starry_night
Vincent Van Gogh. Dutch “post impressionist” painter. Kind of a big deal.
Henri Matisse "Green Line" (1908)
Henri Matisse “Green Line” (1908)

Expressionism in the words of French painter Henri Matisse:

“What I seek above all to achieve, is expression. Expression does not lie for me in the passion which suddenly animates a face or which manifests itself in a violent movement. It lies rather in the whole organization of any painting. The space which the objects occupy, the emptiness around them, and the proportions, all play a part.”

Matisse was himself a part of the Fauvism Movement in France, which is seen as a precursor to Expressionism.

Artists in this movement include:

Andre Derain, "Self Portrait in the Studio" (1903)
Andre Derain, “Self Portrait in the Studio” (1903)
Maurice de Vlaminck, "Barges on the Seine" (1906)
Maurice de Vlaminck, “Barges on the Seine” (1906)

Back in Germany

Die Brucke is said to embody the aesthetics of early German Expressionism, though the movement began in a number of places independent of one another.

This included:

Christian Rohlfs "Landscape Vision" (1912)
Christian Rohlfs “Landscape Vision” (1912)

You can see the overlap with “German Expressionism” (Rohlfs’ work) and “Fauvism” (de Vlaminck’s work) clearly here.

Another early German Expressionist:

Paula Modersohn-Becker, "The Old Farmer" (1903)
Paula Modersohn-Becker, “The Old Farmer” (1903)

Less overlap here between “German Expressionism” (Rohlfs’ work) and “German Expressionism” (Paula Modernsohn-Becker).

If you look at some of the better-known works from Die Brucke though:

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff "Self Portrait with Monocle" (1910)
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff “Self Portrait with Monocle” (1910)
Erich Heckel, "Standing Child" (1910)
Erich Heckel, “Standing Child” (1910)
Emil Nolde, "Masks" (1911)
Emil Nolde, “Masks” (1911)
Max Pechstein, "Under the Trees" (1911)
Max Pechstein, “Under the Trees” (1911)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, "Street, Berlin" (1913)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Street, Berlin” (1913)

Their influence obviously came from elsewhere.

One big influence was a German movement called Jugendstil (c.1890s – 1914):

Hans Christiansen, "Woman and Snake" (1898)
Hans Christiansen, “Woman and Snake” (1898)

Jugendstil is German for “Youth Style.” The received its name from the Munich periodical Die Jugend, which focused on a design style known as Art Nouveau, which was then the most fashionable type of decorative art

Die Brucke took “homegrown elements” from Jugendstil, which is part of their “bridge” between past and present.

They also borrowed inspiration from elsewhere. Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, for instance, is closely linked with Symbolism movement and best known for his images of anxiety, isolation, rejection, sensuality and death.

Edvard Munch, "The Scream" (1893)
Edvard Munch, “The Scream” (1893)

Munch also spurred the revival of woodcuts, which took on a central significance in the work of Die Brucke.

The group is said to have confronted feelings of alienation from the modern world by reaching back to pre-academic forms of expression including woodcut prints, carved wooden sculptures, and “primitive” modes of painting.

Die Brucke Exhibition Poster 1906
Die Brucke Exhibition Poster 1906

This is the poster for the first Die Brucke Exhibition. The group actively promoted itself at over 20 exhibitions in 7 years, showing a variety of media including woodcuts, posters and fabric designs, as well as painting and sculpture.

This exhibition in particular focused on the female nude, where nudity was apparently meant to convey or provoke a form of primordial emotion. The figure in the poster was intended to be striking and direct, reflecting the group’s attitude towards open sexuality and the natural state of nudity. It was ultimately banned as pornography by the state.

The group also used the style in less provocative ways.

Die Brucke, Title Vignette, 1906
Die Brucke, Title Vignette, 1906

This is an example of a small vignette printed by the group. They designed, often hand-printed, and collectively published a variety of group ephemera, such as the Brücke program, letterheads, exhibition catalogues and posters, invitation cards, and a membership index and annual report.

Die Brucke Portfolio Cover 1909, designed by Ernst Kirchner
Die Brucke Portfolio Cover 1909, designed by Ernst Kirchner

Between 1906 and 1912 the Brücke group sent an annual portfolio of prints to its “passive members”—friends and supporters who helped finance their work and received the annual print portfolio in return for their subscription.

Die Brucke "Passive Member" list, 1910. Designed by Ernst Kirchner
Die Brucke “Passive Member” list, 1910. Designed by Ernst Kirchner

Here’s a list of passive members. This is a very common practice today in university alumni magazines, theatre and orchestral programs, and so on.

Michigan State Donor Wall
Michigan State Donor Wall (http://cas.msu.edu/donorwall/)

In their portfolios, Die Brucke circumvented intermediaries of the art market, such as dealers and galleries, and communicated directly with their patrons. Each installment was dedicated to the work of one artist.

Portfolio Brucke 1910, designed by Erich Heckel
Portfolio Brucke 1910, designed by Erich Heckel
From Portfolio Brucke 1910
From Portfolio Brucke 1910
From Portfolio Brucke 1910
From Portfolio Brucke 1910

From Portfolio Brucke 1910

The group published seven portfolios between 1906 and 1912, issued in edition sizes that varied according to the number of passive members in a given year.

By 1911 the major Brücke artists had moved to Berlin, where increasing success and competition resulted in destabilization of group cohesion, leading to their breakup in 1913.

During the 1930s several Die Brucke artists were persecuted by the Nazis as part of the Nazi campaign against Degenerate Art.

In the 1980s however, a museum dedicated to the art of Die Brucke was opened in Berlin by Schmidt-Rottluff.

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