Book Review: The Expressionists

The Expressionists, by Wolf-Dieter Dube

I read this book, which is definitely out of my usual reading pattern [1], and which I read because it is a work translated by German and I took a challenge to read a certain amount of books that had been written originally in German.  In reading this book I have to admit that I had a strange disconnect with what was being written.  On the one hand, the author clearly has a high opinion of the art and worldview of the Expressionists, but it is an appreciation I generally do not share as I find the progressive politics as well as the decadent art of the Expressionists to be at best problematic.  In addition to this, it is hard to read the author’s attempts to puff up the view of these painters and their works in the eyes of the reader without being aware at the same time in the self-destructive and immoral lives of many of these painters as well as their fate during World War I and the way in which their art was (generally correctly) viewed as decadent by Hitler’s regime in the period before and during World War II.  This made for an interesting reading experience, to say the least.

This book of about two hundred pages or so is divided into several chapters based on the scene where Expressionist painters could be found.  The author begins by discussing the origins of Expressionism as a movement in a combination of political and artistic concerns in the period after Impressionism and post-Impressionism and some of the influences of French and other artists on the artistic community of Germany and Denmark and Russia where Expressionist painters could be found.  After this there are three chapters that focus on the areas where there was an active German expressionistic scene:  Dresden, Munich, and a third chapter on Berlin, Vienna, and the Rhineland.  These chapters are full of the petty feuds between strong-willed leftist painters, their adulteries, as well as examples of their art filled with vivid colors, quite a few nudes and landscape paintings and self-portraits and still-life paintings of varying quality.  The last chapter of the book looks at the lives of the people involved in the Expressionist movement after the war, which caused a great many losses among the artists, not only in dead soldiers but in those whose minds were haunted and tormented by what they saw, and some of whom were driven belatedly into some sort of religious art.

A book like this is difficult to be sympathetic towards.  The author seems to revel in the pugnacity and depravity of the Expressionists and appears to share their leftist political mindset.  As someone who does not share that mindset, there is a great deal I find about this book that is particularly off-putting.  Aside from the casual immorality celebrated here, I take a particularly offense to the continual snobbery shown by the author and by the painters themselves, who revel in the controversy their works cause among more decent folk and who look down on the artistic tastes of the ordinary population.  This book is from a corrupt elitist about corrupt elitists, and as someone who is (God willing) neither corrupt nor an elitist, there is little in this book to appreciate, little to approve of, and not even as much good art as one would hope for from a book like this.  It is perhaps only to be regretted that more of this work ended up surviving the horrors of twentieth century Germany when so many better people and better artwork did not survive those horrors.

[1] But see, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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