Saturday, June 28, 2014

Expressionism (pt. 7)

German Expressionism would become famous for bellicose intensity in depicting bleak and often violent subject matter.  Alongside Germany's entrance into the First World War, this heightened emotionalism permeates geopolitical meaning, but the style of art continually draws back onto the artist, who is personally expressing him or herself through art.
Käthe Kollwitz painted, illustrated, and sculpted works of art that conveyed profound human emotion.  These works expressed the feelings of much of the population during wartime, but they also communicated subjects which were very personal to the artist.  She lost her son to the war and fell into a deep depression.  Death and the Mother is today considered one of her most famous lithographs conveying her personal sense of loss.
Again very primal, like Munch's The Scream, Death and the Mother is a simple etching of a crude woman, unclothed, holding a baby to her chest.  She is gripping her child tightly and covering its mouth to protect it from an encroaching form coming up from behind her.  A skeleton, ghost, demon, or simply skinny human being—whatever it is coming up behind her (the artist has labeled it Death), Death creeps up with its face pressed against the mother's in ravenous assail, and the mother widens her eyes and gasps in fear.  She is about to be separated from her child, and her muscles flex and tighten around her precious infant; but nothing can stop Death from approaching.  The tone in this Expressionist work conveys overwhelming emotion, but it accomplishes potency and profundity through simplicity.  This is just a simple drawing but no less full of powerful emotion, like the simple telegram which can change a mother's life forever during wartime.
Inasmuch as Death and the Mother was an expression of Kollwitz's own grief over the loss of her son, this was the sentiment of a generation of suffering poor who lost more than their financial stability from the war.  World War I left the entire Western world in devastation.  Chemical warfare, trench warfare, mechanized warfare—this had been a war like none other before in the history of the world.  It had introduced new technology, like the armored tank, submachine gun, and the flamethrower (just to name a few), which promised to make war more humane but delivered quite a different result.  If the artists of the late Victorian Era had found life in the Modern world demoralizing and bleak, then this experience of Modern war did nothing if not solidify their doubts.  International in scale, brutal in execution, and everlasting in aftermath, the First World War was a phenomenon that stayed with its generation long after it was over.  The effects of mustard gas and the diseases contracted as a result of trench conditions led to continuing massacre and decimation.  The influenza pandemic of 1918 alone wiped out approximately 20 to 40 million people (this statistic comes from Stanford University's virology website).  Untold masses of other veterans who were fortunate enough to survive the war without illness nonetheless suffered from severe post-traumatic stress and depression after their time on the battlefield.  The result was total devastation, not just literal or physical but psychological and emotional.
These events had a profound—incalculably profound—effect on artists of this generation.  It's difficult to approach the topic in one or two paragraphs; libraries could be filled with this type of analysis.  Suffice it to say, the war changed everything.  As we saw from late Victorian industrialism, this gloomy outlook on Modern life was already developing prominently among the literary and artistic circles in Europe and America; the "Great War" cemented this growing hopelessness.  An entire group of artists (mostly within the literary world) even gave up, effectively denouncing the world as unsalvageable, and fled to Paris to isolate themselves.  These "Lost Generation" writers (as they later became known) included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot.

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