Symbolism and Struggle in Expressionism: Corinth, Carr, and Kirchner’s Art

Egon Schiele - Self-Portrait with Physalis (via Wikimedia Commons)


The art style called Expressionism focuses on how artists express their personal feelings rather than showing things accurately. Artists in this style use different methods like twisted shapes, bright colors, strong brushstrokes, symbols, and sharp differences to show their emotions. Famous Expressionist artworks include The Scream by Edvard Munch, The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, and Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Expressionism isn’t limited to one place or culture. It covers a wide range of artists and movements from different times and countries like German Expressionism, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism, and Neo-Expressionism.

Historical Context: Emergence and Evolution

Expressionism started and grew in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a time of major changes in society and culture. Things like the Industrial Revolution, cities growing bigger, the media becoming more powerful, World War I, new ideas in psychology, and changes in science and philosophy all had a big impact on artists and how they saw the world. For artists, Expressionism was a way to deal with feeling isolated, anxious, and hurt by violence and bad experiences. It lets them share their personal ideas, feelings, and thoughts about society. Expressionism was also influenced by other art styles like Romanticism, Symbolism, and Primitivism.

Read also: How Abstract Expressionism Changed the View of Art

Some Examples of Expressionist Artworks

The Blinded Samson by Lovis Corinth

One of the most striking examples of Expressionism is a painting by Lovis Corinth titled: The Blinded Samson, which was painted in 1912. In this painting, Corinth depicts the biblical hero Samson, who was betrayed by his lover Delilah and had his eyes gouged out by the Philistines.

THE BLINDED SAMSON BY LOVIS CORINTH (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
THE BLINDED SAMSON BY LOVIS CORINTH (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The artist portrays Samson as a naked and bloodied figure who rushes towards the viewer with a terrifying force. Moreover, Corinth identifies with Samson’s tragic fate, as he himself suffered a stroke in 1911 that threatened his life and affected his vision. Therefore, the painting is a dramatic expression of Corinth’s personal struggle and his defiance of death.

Lovis Corinth’s Early Life and Influences

Born in Tapiau, a town in East Prussia (now part of Russia), Corinth belonged to a prosperous family of tanners and displayed a keen interest in art from a young age. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Königsberg and later in Munich, where he encountered the works of Old Masters and modern French painters. Corinth extensively traveled across Europe, visiting cities like Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Italy.

In 1891, he settled in Berlin and became a prominent member of the Berlin Secession, a group challenging the conservative art establishment. He established his own art school and mentored budding artists like Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz.

Corinth’s Style and Techniques

Corinth’s artistic style varied over time, influenced by different factors like his interests, surroundings, and influences. Proficient in portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and historical scenes, he employed vivid colors, spontaneous brushwork, and bold contrasts of light and shadow. He experimented with diverse mediums like oil, watercolor, pastel, and printmaking.

His paintings often merged realism and expressionism, capturing both the physical appearance and the emotional state of his subjects. Symbolism and allegory were integral to his work, using colors, objects, and motifs to convey deeper messages. Themes of life and death, love and desire, and beauty and decay intrigued Corinth and found expression in his art.

D’Sonoqua by Emily Carr

Another influential Expressionist artist was Emily Carr, a Canadian painter and writer who was inspired by the indigenous cultures and landscapes of British Columbia and Alaska. Carr traveled extensively throughout these regions and studied the art and traditions of the First Nations people.

D’SONOQUA BY EMILY CARR (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
D’SONOQUA BY EMILY CARR (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

She was especially fascinated by the totem poles and masks that represented ancestral spirits and supernatural beings. For instance, her famous painting Guyasdoms D’Sonoqua depicts a carved wooden figure of a female spirit that was believed to haunt the forests and capture children. Carr uses bright colors and swirling lines to create a sense of movement and mystery around the figure, which contrasts with the dark and static background.

Emily Carr, a Canadian painter and writer, lived from 1871 to 1945. She stands out as one of Canada’s most original and influential artists. Carr drew inspiration from the indigenous cultures and landscapes of British Columbia and Alaska, as well as from Europe and America’s modernist movements. Her style blended realism, expressionism, and abstraction.

Carr’s Background and Inspirations

Born in Victoria, British Columbia, into a wealthy and conservative family, Carr displayed a knack for drawing and painting at an early age. She pursued artistic education in San Francisco, London, and Paris and extensively traveled through British Columbia and Alaska, immersing herself in the art and traditions of the First Nations people.

Totem poles and masks representing ancestral spirits intrigued her, alongside her admiration for the diverse beauty of the Pacific Northwest—its forests, mountains, rivers, and coasts. She felt a profound connection and reverence for the land and its inhabitants, aiming to capture their essence and spirit in her art.

Artistic Approach and Symbolic Representation

Carr’s artistic journey saw evolution as she experimented with diverse styles and techniques. Initially a realist painter, she meticulously depicted indigenous villages and artifacts. Transitioning into an expressionist phase, she employed vibrant colors and swirling lines, infusing a sense of movement and enigma into her subjects. Later, embracing an abstract style, she simplified forms using geometric shapes and patterns, conveying her spiritual and emotional vision.

Her paintings wove in symbolism and allegory, employing colors, objects, and motifs to convey her thoughts and emotions. Animals, plants, and natural occurrences became symbols of life, death, and transformation. Themes of nature and spirituality were central as she explored the connection between the human and the divine, navigating the harmony and tension between the natural and the cultural realms.

Fränzi in Front of Carved Chair by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner emerged as a founding member of Die Brücke (The Bridge), a collective comprising German Expressionist artists. Their objective was to establish an innovative and genuine artistic style that could bridge the divide between historical and contemporary periods. Kirchner and his fellow artists found inspiration in the creative works of Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Paul Gauguin, as well as in the artistry of African and Oceanic cultures.

FRÄNZI IN FRONT OF CARVED CHAIR BY ERNST LUDWIG KIRCHNER (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
FRÄNZI IN FRONT OF CARVED CHAIR BY ERNST LUDWIG KIRCHNER (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

They experimented with bold colors, simplified forms, and distorted perspectives to express their emotions and attitudes toward modern life. For example, Kirchner’s Fränzi in front of Carved Chair portrays a young girl from the working-class district of Dresden who often posed for the artist.

The girl sits on a chair whose back is carved into the shape of a naked woman. The girl’s face is painted in an intense green color, while the carved woman’s body is in a soft pink tone, creating a contrast that emphasizes the girl’s defiant gaze at the viewer.

Kirchner’s Life and Influences

Kirchner was born in Aschaffenburg, a town in Bavaria. He grew up in a cultured and affluent family and showed an early interest in art and literature. He studied architecture in Dresden and Munich, where he met his fellow artists and friends who would later form Die Brücke. He also traveled extensively throughout Germany and Switzerland and visited Paris, where he encountered the works of modern French painters.

In 1911, he moved to Berlin, where he became immersed in the vibrant and chaotic life of the metropolis. He was fascinated by the urban landscape, the social diversity, and the cultural dynamism of the city. He also experienced the horrors and traumas of the First World War, which had a profound impact on his mental and physical health. He eventually settled in Davos, Switzerland, where he spent the last years of his life.

The Urban Landscape in Kirchner’s Art

Kirchner’s art reflects his fascination and frustration with the urban landscape, as he captured the beauty and the ugliness, the excitement and the anxiety, and the pleasure and the pain of the modern city. He used vivid colors, distorted forms, and expressive strokes to create striking and dramatic images that conveyed his impressions and emotions. He also experimented with different media, such as oil, watercolor, woodcut, and lithography.

Kirchner’s paintings often depicted scenes of urban life, such as streets, squares, cafes, theaters, and brothels. He portrayed the people of the city, such as prostitutes, dancers, artists, and soldiers, with a mixture of attraction and repulsion. He also expressed his own feelings and experiences, such as his love affairs, his drug addiction, and his war trauma, through his self-portraits and allegorical figures.

Read also: Emotion in Art

Crossroads of Expressionism: Common Themes

The art of Corinth, Carr, and Kirchner is unique, reflecting their backgrounds, influences, and styles. Yet, united under Expressionism, they share some key themes and qualities. This section delves into these shared elements and differences, examining their relation to Expressionism’s broader context and its impact on modern art.

Exploration of Symbolism Across Artists

Expressionism thrives on symbolism, using colors, objects, and motifs to convey deeper meanings. Symbolism bridges the abstract—emotions, ideas, values—with the concrete—forms, shapes, and materials. It’s a means to express personal experiences and feelings universally.

The three artists use symbolism differently. Corinth channels it to portray his personal struggles and defiance against mortality, drawing from his life and classical references. Carr employs symbolism to express her fascination and apprehension toward the unknown and supernatural, inspired by indigenous cultures and the Pacific Northwest’s landscapes. Kirchner uses symbolism to express his fascination with and critique urban culture, inspired by modern life and other art forms.

Shared Struggles and Challenges Represented

Expressionism commonly portrays struggle and challenge, depicting the complexities and conflicts faced in life and society. It’s a reflection of human reality, showcasing problems and contradictions while highlighting courage and creativity to overcome limitations.

The three artists represent struggle and challenge uniquely. Corinth addresses it as a personal and existential battle against mortality and destiny. Carr delves into cultural and spiritual struggles, exploring the human-divine relationship and the natural cultural harmony and conflicts. Kirchner critiques social and political challenges, highlighting modern society’s impact on the human psyche.

Influence of Expressionism on Contemporary Art

These artists are a testament to Expressionism’s legacy. Corinth influenced German Expressionism, New Objectivity, and Abstract Expressionism. Carr’s impact spans the Canadian Group of Seven, Northwest Coast Art, and Environmental Art. Kirchner’s influence extends to Fauvism, Cubism, and Neo-Expressionism.

Expressionism explored through Lovis Corinth, Emily Carr, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, investigates symbolism and struggle diversely. They express personal, cultural, and societal aspects using distinct styles. While unique, they’re united under Expressionism, influencing numerous art movements and contributing significantly to contemporary art’s development and evolution. Expressionism leaves an enduring impact on contemporary art. It inspires innovation, introducing new perspectives and forms of expression. It challenges norms, fostering diversity, and new artistic possibilities.

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