Dictionary of Art and Artists


Impressionism to Post-Modernism





1 Impressionism

2 Symbolism and Art Nouveau

3 Fauvism and Expressionism

4 Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism

5 Dada and Surrealism

6 Abstract Expressionism

7 Pop

8 Pluralism since 1960





3. Fauvism and Expressionism




Expressionism is one of those words, like romanticism, which have a general and a specific meaning in their function of defining cultural phenomena. In its wider sense it is taken to describe works of art in which feeling is given greater prominence than thought; in which the artist uses his medium not to describe situations, but to express emotions, and allows it to be manipulated beyond currently accepted aesthetic conventions for that purpose. Further to enhance the effect on the spectator, the artist may choose a subject which in itself evokes strong feelings, usually of repulsion - death, anguish, torture, suffering. In a stylistic context, expressionism in painting often implies an emphasis on colour at the expense of line, largely because the effects of colour are less patient of a rational explanation than are the effects of line.

Expressionism in this sense is one of the constituent elements in the dialectic between thought and feeling which powers so much creative activity, and it is to be found, with varying degrees of intensity, in all periods and most cultures. The thirteenth-century Byzantine murals in the church of San Zan Degola in Venice, Giotto's The Mourning over Christ, in the Capella dell'Arena in Padua, Rembrandt's self-portraits, the etchings of Goya, and Delacroix's Dante and Virgil in Hell, are all symptomatic of its spirit.

In a more specific sense, however, Expressionism refers to the works of a large number of painters (among whom there were many varieties of style, and some of whom were absorbed into other movements), who during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries translated the general principles of expressionism into a specific doctrine. In so doing they effected a transformation of the nature of art which made possible the traumatic revolution which it has experienced during the last three-quarters of a century. Expressionism in this sense involved ecstatic use of colour and emotive distortion of form, reducing dependence on objective reality, as recorded in terms of Renaissance perspective, to an absolute minimum, or dispensing with it entirely. Above all else, it emphasized the absolute validity of the personal vision, going beyong the Impressionists' accent on personal perception to project the artist's inner experiences -aggressive, mystical, anguished or lyrical on to the spectator. Though this is to define Expressionism in terms of the visual arts, it was as powerful in music, literature and the cinema as it was in painting.

The revolt against rationalism, and the accompanying cultivation of the sensibilities, had been proceeding apace since the beginnings of the Romantic movement. But in the nineteenth and early twentieth century it had received support from a variety of sources. The revolutionary mysticism of Kierkegaard, the existentialism of Heidegger, the tortured social preoccupations of Ibsen and Strindberg, the febrile anguish of Swinburne and Whitman, the aggressive Dionysian myths of Nietzsche, all created a climate of intellectual violence which intoxicated the young. The discoveries of Darwin reduced the status of man in the scale of life, and emphasized his relationship to other, more instinctual creatures. The theories of Marx suggested that he was the toy of history rather than its master. The researches of Freud, which made their impact felt most clearly in those countries where Expressionism flourished, suggested that our actions are not motivated by those processes of conscious thought on which we had placed such reliance. Bergson stressed the subjective nature of perception, and the flow and flux between nature and the mind of man. In developing humanism, Western man had begun to alter his notions of humanity.

The romantic stereotype of the artist as an anguished creator, tormented into creativity by his finely attuned sensitivities, had become accepted by the 1870s, and it is not without significance that among those artists involved in Expressionism, at least six, Van Gogh, Munch, Ensor, Kirchner, Beckmann and Grosz, experienced psychotic as well as neurotic episodes. Nor was the situation helped by the temper of the times. Most of the Expressionists were young men when the Great War broke out, and old men when the horrors of Hitler's extermination camps were unveiled. Events provided them with as much anguish as they needed, and their involvement with the more macabre aspects of history is reflected in such coincidences as that the leading Expressionist magazine in Berlin was entitled Der Sturm, foreshadowing the Stormtroopers of a later decade.

There were recent precedents for the Expressionists' hunger for sensation. In the 1880s and 1890s the so-called Decadents and the Symbolists had explored sex, drugs, religion, mysticism, magic and alcohol as paths to creativity, and in so doing had helped to cast the artist in the role of archetypal rebel against society and the establishment. The Expressionists were to go further in this respect than the socialists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, such as W'illiam Morris and Walter Crane; and the same individualism which led them to reject the conventions of official art led them to a profound concern with human suffering and deprivation which found expression in Anarchism or Communism. Indeed, the relationship between Expressionism and Communism still survives on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

In one of the most popular books of the fin de siecle, La- bas, J. K. Huysmans describes Griinewald's Karlsruhe Crucifixion thus: 'Dislocated, almost dragged from their sockets, the arms of Christ seemed pinioned from shoulder to wrist by the cords of the twisted muscles. . . . The flesh was swollen, stained and blackened, spotted with flea-bites. Decomposition had set in. A thicker stream poured from the open wound on the side, flooding the hip with blood that matched deep mulberry juice. . . . The feet, spongy and clotted, were horrible; the swollen flesh rising above the head of the nail, the clenched toes, contradicting the imploring gestures of the hands, seemed cursing as they clawed at the ochreous earth.'

This expressionist prose, replete with horror, highly personal, full of chromatic adjectives, describes the work of a rediscovered artist who himself was one of the most significant forerunners of Expressionism. The movement was in fact greatly nurtured by the work of art historians such as Friedlander, whose exhaustive study of Grunewald appeared in 1907, of Mayer whose monograph on El Greco was published in 1911, and of others who at this period wrote about Hogarth, Bosch, Goya and Bruegel, all of whom represented elements in the expressionist tradition. At the same time, too, new precedents were provided by the discovery of irrational, 'primitive' art, of popular art, which owed nothing to cultured sensibilities, and of the traditions of caricature, which had always distorted objective reality to convey a message or sensation.



Expressionism, in the sense in which I have described it, has always been regarded as a Teutonic and Nordic phenomenon; but its appearance in modern painting is the result of a liberation of colour and form which took place in France, and which culminated in the short-lived but seminal style known as Fauvism.

When in 1906 the group which had gathered round Henri Matisse exhibited together as the Salon des Independants, it is little wonder that in terms of current conventional sensibilities, the art critic Louis Vauxcelles (who had a gift for assessing art historians of the future; he also coined the word 'Cubists') should have described them asfauves wild beasts. As a coherent group it was remarkably short-lived, and virtually ended a year after its birth; most of its members went on to other styles, and of those who retained the original Fauve inspiration many became embedded in its mannerisms. But it represented the birth of the School of Paris, and shared (with Expressionism proper) the responsibility for creating the art of the twentieth century.

France was special. Since at least the time of Louis XIV, the arts there had been fostered by the State on a formidable scale, discussed by the intelligentsia with passion, explored by their practitioners with a vigour never consistently attained in any other European country. French painting, marked in the eighteenth century by elegance and visual sophistication, was characterized in the nineteenth by an evolutionary dynamism. Stimulated by the special social and cultural atmosphere of Paris, with its museums and galleries, its art schools, still working on the traditional atelier system, its closely-knit community of artists in constant social contact through the network of cafes, French painting evolved with a remarkable speed and diversity, establishing a dialogue which lasted for more than a century between the romantic and the classical, the hard and the soft, the emotional and the intellectual. The pattern which had been established in the contrast between Ingres and Delacroix persisted under many different guises.

The Impressionists in the 1870s had made the most spectacular contribution to what might be called the perceptual revolution, creating a new form of visual humanism by vindicating the primacy of the individual sensibility. As a result, Impressionism was never consistent or homogeneous. Tensions between thought and feeling, between line and colour, between analysis and synthesis, were there all the time, expressed not only in the difference between, say, Sisley and Pissarro, but between phases in the work of single artists, such as Manet and Renoir.

The hunger for ordered structure was the most apparent of the disruptive elements, producing the Pointillism or Divisionism of Seurat and Signac, with its hieratic rigidity of structure and its dogmatic use of dots of pure complementary colours, and those architectural explorations of form which led eventually from Cezanne to Cubism. But its complementary antithesis was also very much present. The current was flowing strongly in the direction of emotional sensibility, in France as elsewhere. A generation which looked up to Baudelaire could not but be aware of the fact, and towards the last quarter of the century the desire to wring the last drop of sensation took the same shapes in Paris as it did all over Europe. Beneath the surface of conventional life there existed an 'underground' as active in its explorations as any which exists today. Drugs were endowed with a cultural cachet by readers of Poe, Coleridge and Baudelaire; alcoholism was as widespread in Montmartre and Montparnasse as it was in the deprived rural areas of France. There was a hunger for unmentionable vices and strange experiences; there was even a not unfamiliar passion for anarchism. An important Fauvist painter, Maurice de Vlaminck, once wrote: 'Painting was an abscess which drained off all the evil in me. Without a gift for painting I would have gone to the bad. What I could have achieved in a social context only by throwing a bomb, which would have led me to the guillotine, I have tried to express in art, in painting, by using pure colours straight from the tube. Thus I have been able to use my destructive instincts in order to recreate a sensitive, living and free world.'

This romantic agony, as it took shape in the context of French culture, touched a wide range of artists. The music of Debussy and of Faure throbbed with new excitements, and the theme of Salome as expressed in Oscar Wilde's verse drama attracted not only Aubrey Beardsley but
Gustaves Moreau, too often described as a traditional salon painter. 'Nature itself is of little importance; it is merely a pretext for artistic expression. Art is the relentless pursuit of the expression of inward feeling by means of simple plasticity.' These sentiments were the basis of Moreau's teaching, and his pupil Henri Matisse was to find them 'profoundly troubling'; they were to be the unavowed credo of Fauvism.

There were more apparent precedents.
Vincent Van Gogh had never made any pretence that his art was other than the expression of inward feeling. T don't know if I can paint the postman as I feel him,'' he once wrote to his brother Theo; and the fervour of his colour, the emotive violence of his forms, were having an impact which was emphasized by the first retrospective held at Bernheim-Jeune's gallery in 1901, at which Matisse was introduced to Vlaminck by another painter, Andre Derain.

In 1889
Paul Gauguin, staying at Pont-Aven in Brittany, had been moving towards a style which would combine spontaneity, mysticism and a complete disregard for 'truth to nature' with the use of non-descriptive colours, as exemplified in The Yellow Christ. The motivation may well have been literary and Symbolist; 'I find everything poetic, and it is in the dark corners of my heart, which are sometimes mysterious, that I perceive poetry,' he wrote to Van Gogh at this time. The stylistic origins lay in Japanese and primitive art, but the total effect was one of emotional excitation of the 'dark corners of the heart', implying as time went by (Contes Barbares of 1902) a total independence of the artist from any terms of reference except those of his own sensibilities.


Paul Gauguin
The Yellow Christ


The technical revolution which was under way was Expressionist in perhaps the purest sense of the word: it had no exclusive connection with any particular kind of subject matter, but was concerned with the direct use of colour and form, not to suggest but to express. It was a necessary step in the emancipation of art from literal depiction. The essence of what came to be known as Fauvism, which every painter interpreted in his own way, lay in the uninhibited use of colour to define form and express feeling. In Matisse's Nude in the Studio of 1898, the purity, the violence of the colour conveys a sense of audacity that disguises the resolute quest for formal coherence, inherited from Cezanne, which he was never to abandon.


Henri Matisse
Nude in the Studio


There was clearly something in the air at the moment which transcended personal contacts and coteries, for in Barcelona, for instance, nineteen-year-old Pablo Picasso was painting pictures such as The Window which showed the same tendency for forms to dissolve in, and be moulded by, evocative colour; in Picasso's case they were less pure, less adventurous, echoing the palette of Manet rather than venturing into new chromatic dimensions.

Personal contacts, however, were the flashpoint which ignited Fauvism. The common experiences of Moreau's studio were extended in 1899 at the Academie Carriere, where Matisse met two painters from the Paris suburb of Chatou, Andre Derain and the self-taught
Maurice Vlaminck, both of whom were making adventurous visual experiments in the same direction under the influence of Van Gogh. Vlaminck, an explosive, naturally gifted, physically vital man, an anarchist and a champion cyclist, who once said that he loved Van Gogh more than his own father, obviously owed something to his Flemish ancestry. Consumed with a passion for brutal truth, he crucified his sitters with something approaching relish, handling paint with a Chardin-like verve.

Pablo Picasso
The Window

Maurice Vlaminck
The Bar Counter


Matisse was to build his subsequent career on his experiences and discoveries during this period, in which he produced some of his most spectacular works. The continuing evolution of colour and its emancipation from accepted perceptual conventions led to an increasing concern with what he called 'pictorial mechanism', which owed a lot to the disciplines of Seurat's Pointillism: its structural purity and use of dots of pure colour. Abandoning realism, he kept a tangential hold on reality; and even in a painting such as Luxury I he not only retained spatial depth, but arranged the figures in a composition which would not have been unfamiliar to an artist of the Renaissance. They are simplified, stylized, but not distorted for any emotive reason. At the same time, however, they convey perfectly the resonances of the title.

Henri Matisse
The Green Stripe

Henri Matisse
Luxury I


Among Matisse's associates in the early 1900s, the closest to him was Albert Marquet. From a style close to the bold formalism of Edouard Vuillard and the other members of the Nabi group of the 1890s, Marquet migrated to one which, though expressive in form and technique, eschewed the pure brilliant colours of Vlaminck or Matisse, and kept much closer to figurative sources. In Matisse Painting a Nude, for instance, the colour appears rather as a background than as an integral part of the whole composition; the figure is defined by a line, and not modelled by the surrounding areas of colour. There is also apparent Marquet's growing concern with a subdued palette, and with the potentialities of a luminous black; in many ways he reverted to a Manet-like approach to painting, and his draughtmanship was such that Matisse once described him, with some pertinence, as 'the French Hokusai'.


Albert Marquet
Matisse Painting a Nude


Andre Derain brought to the Fauves something of the same vigour and panache as his friend Vlaminck; he too used colour directly from the tube, applied in broken lines with quick impetuous brush-strokes; but even in his youthful works he was more lucid, more thoughtful, more graceful. Conscious of the past, his discovery of the emotive use of colour owed as much to the Pointillists as it did to Van Gogh, and his forms were influenced by a variety of precedents: Images d'Epinal, those simple folk-images which had so appealed to Courbet and Gauguin; Byzantine art; and the simplified planes of African sculpture. In 1905, the year in which he visited London and painted scenes on the Thames, he produced views of the Seine in which Seurat's Pointillist technique is allied to Van Gogh's hatched brush-strokes to produce works of organized lucidity, remarkable for their emotional coherence.

Face to face with a living model, however,
Derain's work took on greater immediacy; and in Lady in a Chemise he came close to the impetuous vehemence which was at the heart of Fauvism. The multiplicity of colours and tones, the flickering flame-like brushwork, the exaggeration of the face and eyes, the heavily pendulous and slightly distorted left hand, the partial use of a contour line to define those parts of the figure which play a dominant part in the composition, create an impression of adventurousness which in the long run turned out to be alien to his talent.

'How, with what I have here, can I succeed in rendering, not what I see, but what is, what has an existence for me, my reality, then set to work drawing, taking from nature what suits my needs? I drew the contours of each object in black mixed with white, each time leaving in the middle of the paper a blank space which I then coloured in with a specific and quite intense tone. What did I have? Blue, green, ochre, not many colours. But the result surprised me. I had discovered what I was really looking for.' The description which
Raoul Dufy gave, many years later, of his conversion to the ideas of Fauvism, describes as well as anything the sense of elated emancipation which so many of his contemporaries felt, and it is immediately apparent in his paintings of this period; they have a chunky vitality which his later, more graceful and sophisticated works were to lose completely. Placards at Trouville, with its movement, its bold simplified outlines, its areas of bright colour, each emitting an air of joyous sensationalism, conveys perfectly the sense of seaside holiday-making in fresh sparkling air. Born at Le Havre, Othon Friesz studied at school under the same teachers as Dufy, and he too was fascinated by seaside subjects. His Sunday at Honfleur, painted a year after Dufy's exercise at Trouville, emphasizes the differences between them. The composition is more static, the colour less adventurous, the lines heavier, more dominant; the desire to charge the canvas with some kind of lyrical emotion is more apparent, and therefore less successful. Friesz's thirst for visual eloquence was to lead him eventually to a baroque exuberance which verged on the hysterical.

Andre Derain
Lady in a Chemise

Raoul Dufy
Placards at Trouville

Othon Friesz
Sunday at Honfleur


The Fauve experience was for many artists a period of liberation, marking the moment at which they escaped from the conventions of realism and the confines of the conventional palette to achieve a realization, on which their future careers would be built, that the artist was concerned with the primacy of his own personal vision, and with creating a world which he himself controlled. This is especially evident in the case of Georges Braque, who was, like Friesz, a native of Le Havre. It was Friesz who first introduced him to what the Fauves were doing; and for some three years, between 1904 and 1907, he produced a series of works which, though vivid in colour and exuberant in line, are thoughtful in composition, velvety in texture, and more deliberate in execution than the general run of paintings his friends were producing. Already there was implicit in them a concern with construction, a tendency to flatness of composition, which foreshadowed the emergence of Cubism. But artists such as Robert Delaunay, who themselves were never Fauves, and who went on to Cubism, Futurism or any of the other subsequent movements which the Fauve revolt had made possible, always retained strong evidence of its influence in their works, paying unconscious tribute to its liberating force, and to the new significance which it had given to colour.

This was even more true of those artists whom one might define as unconscious
Fauves, of whom the most outstanding example was Georges Rouault. A pupil of Moreau, and at one time marginally connected with Matisse's group, Rouault never really felt in sympathy with the movement, although he was equally concerned with wringing anguish from his colours, and using art as a means of expressing a personal, anti-realist viewpoint. The two dominant elements in his creative make-up were his early experiences as an apprentice to a maker of stained glass, and his friendship with two prominent figures in the Catholic revival which had such an important influence in the cultural life of the early twentieth century: J. K. Huysmans, a convert who united the fervours of belief with the recently shed languors of decadence, and Leon Bloy, one of the new school of writers who combined a radical concern about social justice with an almost excessive passion for the traditional values which he saw enshrined in Christianity. From these combined sources Rouault built up a style which varied little throughout the whole of his career. From his religious and social preoccupations he evolved an iconography which dealt with religious subjects, with whores and clowns, with all that involved the grandeurs and miseries of la condition humaine, and a passion tinged with bitter irony, even pessimism. From his feeling for the translucent beauty of stained glass he evolved a style characterized by its craftsmanship, its Byzantine simplicity, its luminous colours. But, in spite of these personal mannerisms, Rouault was still at heart a Fauve. The sense of stylistic passion, the savage slashes of colour, the need for vehemence, become more apparent when, as in Versailles: The Fountain, the subject matter is not overtly Expressionistic.

The extent of Rouault's Fauvism can be assessed by comparing his work with that of the happy, extroverted
Kees van Dongen, an instinctive, archetypal Bohemian, who also had a penchant for painting clowns and the demi-monde, and whose finest work has an exuberant panache, an evocative passion, which seduce rather than convince. His momentary strengths and his eventual weaknesses sprang from the fact that he was a natural painter. A member of the Fauves, he later went on to join the German group Die Briicke, and in this context demonstrated the gulf which existed between those artists to whom passion in painting was a matter of style and those for whom it was a way of life.

Georges Rouault
Dancing the Chahut

Georges Rouault
Versailles: The Fountain

Kees van Dongen
The Speech





A Northern Episode

The almost irresistible urge to identify the genius of Expressionism with that of Nordic cultures - and to relate its degrees of intensity to the distance which separated its practitioners from the shores of the Mediterranean and the influences of Catholicism receives its most cogent support from the work and personality of , whose paintings have become the very archetypes of all that the movement implied. A Norwegian, he was nourished in the same traditions which produced the guilt-tinged work of Ibsen and Strindberg (who wrote a catalogue entry to his The Kiss). Profoundly neurotic, his childhood was spent in the most inauspicious circumstances: his mother died when he was five, and one of his sisters when he was thirteen; his father was a doctor who practised in a poverty-ridden area of Loiten. He grew up in an atmosphere dominated by the ideas of death, disease and anxiety, and the images of this period of his life were always to remain with him. In the Madonna of 1895-1902, for instance, the typically 'decadent' concept of the subject as a nearly nude, whore-like figure is reinforced by a painted border of spermatozoa, which lead to an embryo in the lower left-hand corner, derived from an illustration in a German anatomical text-book published in the middle of the century, and presumably forming part of his father's library.

Significantly enough, Aubrey Beardsley made use of the identical figure in several of his drawings; which underlines the fact that many artists who came to creative maturity in the later nineteenth century were obsessed with the same symbols, the same preoccupations. The concept of the femme fatale, using the phrase in its literal sense, to indicate the idea of woman as a malevolent, destructive and seductive siren, played a vital part in the work of Munch. Time and time again he reverts to the theme of woman as vampire, as the fatal temptress, and even in his Madonnas he seems intent on destroying utterly the icon which in the past had done so much to idealize femininity.

No less was he seduced by the idea of death and disease. In part this may have been due to the circumstances of his childhood; death struggles, sick rooms and the paraphernalia of mortality intrigued him as much as the themes of classical mythology had obsessed Poussin. But there was more to it than that. The idea of eventual personal annihilation has always been emotive, and the ninteenth century was more than half in love with easeful death. Queen Victoria was as susceptible to the idea as Munch, and in some curious way partly at least explained by Mario Praz it had become intermingled with sexuality. Keats, Schubert, Schiller and many others had underlined the connection in the early part of the century; the Belgian Antoine Wiertz (180665) devoted his whole artistic career to the theme, and bequeathed to an ungrateful posterity a museum commemorating the fact. But nowhere - because he bent his technique to underlining his image has the idea been better elaborated than in
Munch's Death and the Maiden of 1893. On the left of the picture wriggle the spermatozoic shapes; on the right is a frieze composed of two foetus-like creatures. Death himself is no traditional Gothic-horror skeleton, though the black branch-like lines which echo his shape suggest the anatomical: he is a semi-human shape, full of amorphous ambiguities, the sense of horror emphasized by the wooden leg-stump which emerges through the girl's thigh. She, on the other hand, is characterized by an exuberant sensuality, underlined in a formal sense by the heaviness of her thighs, the solidity of her buttocks, the bluntness of her face, and the exaggeration of the line which runs from her left armpit to her knee.

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch
Death and the Maiden


That Munch had personality problems more pressing than those which beset the generality of mankind is obvious, and it would be ridiculous to disregard them in assessing the nature of his work. His neuroses are apparent in such a way that the work is often the graphic expression of actual experience. He was conscious of this, and in his diary he records the experience which created one of his most symptomatic subjects, The Scream. 'I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun was setting, and I began to be afflicted with a sense of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became blood-red. I stopped and leaned against a fence, feeling dead-tired, and stared at the flaming clouds that hung, like blood and a sword, over the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends walked on. I stood riveted, trembling with fright. And I heard (felt) a loud, unending scream piercing nature.'


Edvard Munch
The Scream


The experience, then, although psychological in origin, was as real to him as to a mystic. But many have had similar sensations; what was in a sense unique about Munch was that within the traditional framework of the European artistic tradition, he forged a remarkably expressive - the adjective is inescapable - visual technique, combining the curved whiplash line of Art Nouveau with colours which range from the acidulous to the sentimental in a frenzy of compositional vigour which is often strongly reminiscent of Van Gogh. Nor is the stylistic affinity accidental. In 1889 Munch had travelled to Paris on a state scholarship and had come into contact with Van Gogh and Gauguin - the latter, as usual with younger artists, exerting a strong influence on him. In 1892 he was invited to exhibit at the Verein der Berliner Kiinstler, where, after a great deal of controversy which helped to impress Munch on the German artistic awareness, and led to the foundation of the Berlin Secession, the leaders of the society closed the exhibition in which he was participating. But it was in the German capital that he came into fruitful contact with the poet Richard Dehmel, the critic and historian Julius Meier-Graefe, the enlightened industrialist Walter Rathenau (who first bought a Munch painting in 1893) and Strindberg. By 1895 he was back in Paris again, and for the next few years lived a cosmopolitan existence, though forced to spend occasional periods in a sanatorium. In 1908 he suffered a complete collapse and spent a year in Dr Daniel Jacobson's hospital in Copenhagen. In 1909 he returned to Norway and passed the rest of his life there in relative seclusion.

Like his literary compatriots,
Munch was preoccupied with feelings rather than objects, and above all else with their effects on people and their relationships. In this latter respect he was unusual among the Expressionists. This is apparent especially in the contrast between his work and that of his Belgian contemporary James Ensor, with whom, in other respects, he has many affinities. Both were ecstatic in their approach; both concerned themselves with the dark underside of life; and yet both drew support and nourishment from the traditional elements of art though this was more apparent with Ensor, whose affinities with Turner, and even with Chardin, need no underlining. Even physically they were rather alike. But the style is almost invariably the man, and Ensor seems through his Flemish mother to have established instinctive contact with the cultural tradition which she represented. It was derived not from the Italianate episodes of the seventeenth century as represented by Rubens, nor from the French-orientated style of the Walloons, but from a stream of uninhibited visual fantasy, interlaced with bucolic folklore, which, stretching back to the Middle Ages, had found its supreme expression in the works of Pieter Bruegel, and which, continuing into the twentieth century, has helped (largely through Belgian artists such as Magritte and Delvaux) to link Expressionism with Surrealism. Ensor marks, more clearly than any other artist the line of continuity between the so-called 'Nibelungen Expressionists' - Hieronymous Bosch, Urs Graf, Hans Baldung Grien and the artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Satirical, compassionate, acerbic and whimsical, Ensor created a universe of his own, peopled with absurd, tawdry, moving, shocking figures which grip the imagination, stimulate the fancy and by their very vehemence produce just that shock to the susceptibilities of the spectator which is the prime goal of Expressionism. Skeletons Warming Themselves at a Stove might well be an epitome of the whole movement: the macabre theme, the sinister whimsicality of the scattered skulls grouped grotesquely in a clumsy pyramid around the stove, the minatory figure in the right-hand corner of the composition. But despite the subject matter and this is a consistent element in Ensor's work - the colouring has a light, sensuous quality, which verges on the lyrical, and underlines his debt to the Impressionists. It was only in his early phase that his technique verged on the sombre, and even then it had a delicate, velvety texture.

Skeletons Warming Themselves at a Stove looks almost as though it might be an illustration of some pungent, folksy proverb, and though Ensor was capable of painting such pictures as The Ray which have no meaning other than that conveyed by the form and colour, there are always literary and social implications in his major works. They are commentaries, even though the precise nature of the moral is never clearly indicated. This is especially true of the Entry of Christ into Brussels, which packs into one massive composition (250 x 434 cm) a whole host of satirical, grotesque episodes and situations. A great mass of ugly, distorted faces; Christ mounted on an ass; a broad banner with the inscription Vive la Sociale: the whole thing is like some mad kermesse portrayed in a manner which hints at a parody of a historical grande machine by a Baroque artist. Again, the colours are light, lyrical, but emphatically dissonant; and the substructure of drawing is marked by a deliberate coarseness - vulgarity would not be too strong a word - which underlines one of Ensor's greatest contributions to the vocabulary of Expressionism, the use of line to create an emotive effect independently of colour. It was this quality which especially endeared him to Paul Klee, and to Emil Nolde, both of whom derived a great deal from his influence. It is important to remember that Ensor produced his most significant work in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century The Entry of Christ into Brussels was painted in 1889 and that, more forcibly than Gauguin, and even than Van Gogh, he assailed the primacy of the representational element in art, deriving his inspiration largely from that one area in which it had never played an important part - caricature. At the same time too his exploration of the incongruous and the irrational anticipated developments which would not become apparent in the mainstream of art until the second decade of the twentieth century. Life, death, the absurd grandeur of the human condition, were themes which obsessed him, whatever the changes which took place in a style which showed at times the influence of Turner, of Constable and of Rowlandson (in the Royal Museum at Antwerp there are copies by him of works by all three of these). An assiduous student of the great printmakers and etchers (Rembrandt, Callot, Daumier and Forain were his favourites), he produced, especially in the 1880s, a great number ol etchings and other monochrome works in which Goyaesque fantasy illumines disciplined skill.

He was subject to the ambiguities of his time, and though public recognition came late, he could well be claimed as a precursor by Fauves, Expressionists and Surrealists alike; while, equally, the Symbolists might have observed in his work strong elements of their own preoccupation with metaphysical references. He was, after all, the compatriot and largely the contemporary of Emile Verhaeren and Maurice Maeterlinck. His iconography with its strong allusive qualities would have been acceptable to artists who eschewed the violence of his technique, and his preoccupation with those imaginative resonances which were the concern of painters as disparate as Redon and Klimt is suggested by his concern with masks as in the famous Self-portrait with Masks. The autobiographical source of these (as well as of his concern with shells and Chinese porcelain) was doubtless the stall which his mother used to run on the front at Ostend. But they came to possess for him an abiding significance, reflecting at once the psychic anomalies of his own life and the baffling enigmas of interpersonal relationships. Masked figures were almost a cliche of Symbolist art, but Ensor was the first to raise them to the status of independent entities, suggestive question-marks in the carnival of life.

James Ensor
Self-portrait with Masks

James Ensor
Skeletons Warming Themselves at a Stove



James Ensor
The Entry of Christ into Brussels


Although he was a co-founder of the avant-garde group Les XX, which exhibited Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon at the Island of La Grande Jatte in 1887, Ensor did not start to receive real recognition until the 1920s, by which time he had long done his best work. But he did play a significant part in forming the considerable tradition of Belgian Expressionism, itself a vital link in the transmission of all that the movement implied to later generations.
The links between Paris and Brussels had always been close, and a typical transitional figure was Rik Wouters, who, commencing as a self-taught artist, visited Paris, where he came under the influence of Degas and Cezanne, to whom, superficially, his style owes a great deal. But in his case what might have been little more than a kind of derivative Post-Impressionism was transformed, partly through the influence of Ensor, partly through the consuming passion which he felt for his wife Nel, into something much more dynamic, broad in handling, lyrically emotive in colouring, with passages of rich vibrancy which suggest the basic grammar of pure Expressionism.

For him there was never any precise moment of conversion; perhaps his life was too short for that, and a more typical figure was Gust de Smet, whose career illuminates the way in which the dormant inclination to Expressionism which was inherent in Flemish art could be triggered off by external stimuli into something closer to our conception of an international style. When in Holland he broke away from the luminist tradition which he had derived from the Impressionists, and, largely through the magazine Das Kunstblalt, became familiar with what was happening in Germany. His art became wilder, more tragic, the brushwork quick, nervous, ecstatic, with sombre earthen colours, and he chose for his subjects those emotion-laden themes - prostitutes, circus people, peasants - which had come to be accepted as the accredited icons of twentieth-century romanticism. After flirting for a while with the structural dynamics of Cubism, he reverted in the 1930s to paintings in which the sonorous play of light and colour within a clearly defined outline evokes a sense of passionate sensuality.

Rik Wouters
Nel Wouters

Gust de Smet
The Striped Skirt


If Bruegel was Flemish, so too was Rubens, and the particular brand of Expressionism which dominated Flanders for the first quarter of this century was on the whole humane rather than violent, lyrical rather than vehement; an Expressionism of the brush rather than of the heart. This was as true of De Smet as it was of his friend and contemporary Constant Permeke, who also started off his artistic career in the Impressionist-inclined artists' colony of Sint-Matens-Latem, and then developed an emotive monumentality which retained Ensor's sense of near-abstraction and visual violence. Objects ceased to be clearly visible, and were discernible rather than apparent; there was a largeness of treatment, an air of the cosmic about both his figures and his landscapes. Wounded in the war, Permeke lived for five years in considerable poverty among the farmers of Devonshire, an experience which confirmed in him that penchant for a kind of rural mysticism which was one of the minor strands in the Expressionist tradition, deriving its sanction from both Van Gogh and the Pont Aven school. The sense of lyrical rapture infuses his paintings with a Turneresque quality which may have been consciously acquired in England, but more directly it permits the unification of a whole variety of disparate objects - trees, houses, windmills - which assume a limpid plasticity within an all-embracing light.

Leon Spilliaert, although self-taught, was formally more sophisticated, his art more elusive. Untouched by
Ensor, but owing much to Munch, his earliest works have strong Symbolist characteristics, the linear arabesques which dominate them suggesting an impassioned Art Nouveau with emotional undercurrents alien to that more purely decorative style. But from the very beginning, his paintings had an unreal, hallucinatory quality, and certain images obsessed him girls by the seaside, human beings confronting and being absorbed by nature. Trees came to play an increasingly dominant role in his imagery, and he observed them with a frenzied intensity which converts them from inanimate phenomena into brooding totems, transforming their surroundings into landscapes of the mind heavy with hidden significances. More clearly than any of his contemporaries, he shows the intricacy of the network which linked Symbolism, Expressionism and Surrealism.


Leon Spilliaert
Tall Trees



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy