Die Brücke (The Bridge) was a German Expressionist group based in Dresden, then Berlin, from 1905-1913. The name indicates the influences on their work, with their art viewed as a bridge between the past, present and future. They are noted for their revival of the woodcut print.
The Movement’s Origins
At the turn of the century European cities underwent periods of rapid development and urbanisation, changes which left many feeling alienated and lost. The most progressive artists were looking for an art which could express such emotional responses with greater force and intensity, beyond the confines of an outward-looking Impressionist and Post-Impressionist oeuvre.
In June 1905 four architecture students at the Technical Institute of Dresden came together and formed the bohemian painting group Die Brücke, the name lifted from the excerpt in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883-85: ‘What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.’ Founding members were Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, later joined by Max Pechstein, Otto Mueller and Emil Nolde, who was invited to join the group. In their first manifesto, titled Programm, Kirchner wrote, ‘We call all young people together, and as young people, who carry the future in us, we want to wrest freedom for our actions and our lives from the older, comfortably established forces'. They were particularly drawn to marginalised or lonely individuals on the fringes of urban society, aiming to capture a sense of tortured pain and anguish brought about by modern life.
Style and Influences
Die Brücke artists produced painting, printmaking and sculpture, explored with free brushwork, crude, heightened colour and jagged, elongated forms, as demonstrated in Kirchner’s Japanisches Theater (Japanese Theatre), 1909. Their work was influenced by the Symbolist Post-Impressionism of Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh, as well as the vivid colours and expressive techniques of the French Fauvists, but Brücke was far more aggressive, nihilistic and anarchic in spirit, with discordant colours, harsh, jagged outlines and deliberately crude or ugly forms.
Other influences were mined from Germany’s art historical past, particularly paintings and prints by Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grunewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder. The artists often visited Dresden’s Ethnological Museum, developing a particular interest in primitivism, which fed through into their paintings. As with many of the early twentieth century movements, they saw African, Pacific and American artefacts as a freer, rawer form of expression than those imposed by the intellectual and naturalistic constraints of modern Western society. Nolde’s Kopf (Head), 1913, has a sense of solidity resembling a tribal wood carving. Many Brücke members also embraced Germany’s tradition of Naturism, seeking refuge from the modern city in Germany’s lakes and forests, as reflected in their paintings. Nolde’s watercolour landscapes capture the spirit of his native Germany with glowing luminosity, such as Abendhimmel uberm Gotteskoog (Sunset over Gotteskoog), date unknown.
Brücke artists are now widely acknowledged for their innovative contributions to modern printmaking, including woodcuts, etchings and lithography, as seen in Kirchner’s Weisse Tanzerin in Kleinem Variete (White Dancer in a Cabaret), 1914 and Schmidt Rottluff’s Heiliger Franziskus (St Francis), 1919. Pechstein was a particularly prolific printmaker, producing nearly a thousand prints throughout his career. Members drew inspiration from Germany’s rich history with printmaking from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, which they updated with modernised subject matter and revolutionary techniques, inventing the modern linocut in place of traditional woodcuts. Guided by the Art and Crafts spirit, they established a bohemian and often promiscuous workshop space for living and working in Dresden to make paintings, carvings and prints. Together they led to the revival of printmaking as a serious art form.
Die Brücke in Berlin
In 1908 Pechstein moved to Berlin, followed by the rest of the group in 1911. Influences from Italian Futurism and French Cubism fed through into the painting style of many artists, whose work became more angular and deconstructed. The group remained in Berlin until their dissolution in 1913, when Kirchner published a final manifesto outlining the main achievements, in Chronik der Kunstlergemeinschaft Brücke (Chronicle of the artists’ community of Die Brücke), 1913.
Die Brücke is now recognised as part of the wider Expressionist trend in the early twentieth century, forming a figurative counterpart to Der Blaue Reiter’s abstracted landscapes. Expressionism as a whole was revolutionary and far-reaching, and paved the way for subsequent movements including Abstract Expressionism and Neo-Expressionism.