Research: German Expressionism

Max Pechstein “Das Vater Unser” series

Pechstein was one of the more “technical” of the Brücke group that emerged in Weimar Germany, a knowledgable printmaker amongst the other self-taught members, who were nevertheless united in their belief in a spontaneous and expressive, yet graphic style of printmaking.

This series, Das Vater Unser, was created after the First World War, in which Pechstein served, and marked his return to art making. Reinhold Heller (Milwaukee Art Museum, 2004) questions the sincerity of this particular series, implying that the addition of colour was commercially-minded, with an eye to investment potential, yet acknowledges it as a kind of primer for the ‘Expressionist vocabulary’.

What is this vocabulary?

Woodcut: the preferred medium of the German Expressionists, valued for its grain, and its splintering effect in response to chisels and tools of less precision than those used in traditional illustrative engraving.

Materiality: the artist, his materials and his handwork is visible in the print, whether in lithograph or woodblock. For example, the cut shapes in woodblocks, the white shapes, being cut with relatively flat tools, typically pick up the ink when rolled, and draw attention to process. We can see this effect quite clearly in Das Vater Unser VIII, below, where it creates flesh-like texture on the bodies of Adam and Eve.


Materiality also describes how the style is a response to the material. Unlike Cubist works in paint, the Expressionist angular style of woodcut is also a response to the texture of the wood and how it handles. In Das Vater Unser I, below, we can visualise very easily the process of how the marks have been made, sense the speed of the cut, the effort of stopping, the weight of the hand on the tool, the way the wood hasn’t always obeyed the strict geometry sought by the blade, for example in the ‘U’ of ‘Unser’.


Monotone: the prints are typically black on white or black on colour ground. This is very stark and emotive, used to powerful effect by Kathe Kollwitz.  The contrast between the black and the White in Pechstein’s series is achieved through solid blocks, inscribed line and hatching, as well as the “accidental” pick up of ink mentioned above. (I would agree with Heller that the addition of hand-painted colour to these prints is reductive.)

Stylisation: Form may be suggested by rough hatching. But this is often highly patterned in repetitive lines, and thus highlights the graphic style. In “Das Vater Unser X” below, the solid block that the figures are seated in is given solidity by the hatched lines around its edges, but these are also stylised and rhythmic. Thus the shape dissolves easily into flatness and morphs into a boundary between land and sea, changing the 3-D effect of the foreground into a completely graphical representation in the upper part of the image.


Angularity: related to how blocks are cut, the resulting angular representations of humans is also linked to influences of the primitive. This makes the images abstract, somewhat akin to Cubist works of the same era, and also elemental. In Das Vater Unser VI, below, some of the faces could be African masks, like those used in Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon.


Flatness: modernism tended to eschew the illusion of depth, instead constructing intersections of planes in a sculptural manner. Expressionist woodcuts use cut lines to suggest the direction of planes, again making a perfect marriage of medium and message. On the other hand, repeated lines create pleasing rhythms on the page and accentuate the flatness of the image despite the trompe l’oeil effect of receding lines.
Symbolism: Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian woodcuts used inscribed line and roughly cut shapes, often with text, to evoke a sense of the primitive/didactic/shamanistic. In the same way, Expressionist woodcuts use graphic shapes as context and story-telling devices, much as graphic artists (like Marjane Satrape) do today. Das Vater Unser VIII (Adam and Eve, above) includes a devil figure that could have come straight from a Gauguin woodcut, here accentuating the eclecticism of traditions within an avowedly Christian image.

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Author: chrisocaprintingblog

Studying visual arts part-time with the Open College of the Arts

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