At the beginning of the twentieth century, Expressionism began as a movement whose influences lay in the work of the Post-Impressionists. The Expressionists sought to break bonds with the recent past, as they felt inhibited in expressing their emotions with the rigid colour schemes and contours framed by the tradition of reproducing nature. Expressionism was a revolution against the establishment and how art should be executed. The revolution that this movement brought was a new attitude to colour, tone, form and line. Heightened colour contrasts and simplified representational form tried to reconcile instinct with pictorial practice, finding inspiration in primitive art.
It is understandable that the artists of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century were looking for a fresh approach to art. Industrialization was leaping from one invention to the next and some of these artists found this ‘leap’ forward as a threat to humanity and the individual, as industrialists saw man as merely as a cog in the wheels of manufacturing progress. These artists reacted with a search for a new movement and way of expression.
It was around 1905-1906 that the inspirational tool for the artists’ revolt came in the form of African sculptures which were exhibited at the ethnological museums at this time. They saw in the sculptures the aesthetic value of ‘primitivism’ whereas before that time people had not considered such sculptures works of art. The ‘primitive’ sculptures role was as a magic token in ritual ceremonies. However, for the Expressionist artist the most important factor was that the carvings were not concerned with the replication of visual appearance but a way of expressing an idea about it.
In the late nineteenth century Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), a Post-Impressionist, expounded a theory of the ‘noble savage’, for which he wanted to return to ‘the source’, states Julie Sheldon 1996, p.55. His were some of the first European paintings to use colour for purely decorative or emotional purposes. The landscapes and backgrounds were flat, the colours giving the paintings substance and body rather than the tone giving dimension. Alan Bowness 1972 p.57 writes that Gauguin loved Brittany in France because of its wildness and primitiveness. ‘When my wooden shoes ring on the granite, I hear the muffled, dull and powerful tone that I try to achieve with my painting,’ he said in 1888. He was sure that to break with naturalism and find a more abstract art, a primitive environment was necessary. It was this conviction that led him to Tahiti. While living in Tahiti, Gauguin captured the impulsive, reactive, hard-edge of primitive art. To add to his medium of painting Gauguin carved wood and also modelled in clay. One of his ceramic pieces, Oviri, the Savage (1884-85), expresses Gauguin’s aesthetic philosophy as clearly as his paintings do. With his use of pure colour and simplified non-naturalistic style he became one of the most influential European painters to have such a powerful and early effect on the development of Expressionism.
One of the first movements to gather together ideas and philosophies for expression were the Fauves or Wild Beasts as they were called, whose members were led by Henri Matisse (1868-1954). This young group of artists exhibited in Paris in 1905. Their paintings were simplified in design yet garish and full of bright colours. Their style forced Post-Impressionist means and adapted them to a different purpose. As Henri Matisse wrote: “When the means of expression have become so refined, so attenuated that their power to express wears thin, it is necessary to return to the essential principles which made human language. They are, after all, the principles which ‘go back to the source’, which relive, which give us life.” (FLAM. J.D.,1973 p.74) Matisse was obviously influenced by Gauguin’s return to ‘the source’ , where Gauguin had travelled to Tahiti to absorb the ‘primitivism’ of life.
German Expressionism was different to that of the French Fauves. It was the work of Gauguin and another Post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) that fired up the German minds. They seemed to offer the means of achieving the more expressive art to which the Germans aspired. They seized upon these means boldly and used them ‘expressively’. It was the intense expression of Van Gogh that moved Emil Nolde (1867-1956) in 1906 when he encountered that artist’s work in the collection of a friend. Nolde was already familiar with works by the Romantic era artists Francisco Goya (1746-1828) and Honore Daumier (1808-1879) as he had studied these artists to learn how to express his innate feeling for the mythical and legendary forces in nature. Nolde was the eldest of the artists in the German Expressionist group ‘Die Brucke’ (The Bridge), which he joined in 1906. Like Gauguin, who also had tried to depict biblical scenes in a contemporary form, Nolde focused on religious imagery. His work had colours that clashed, with distorted forms and raw heavy brush strokes. He painted peasants and fishermen with rough, hallucinated faces. The faces are imbued with a sense of the primal and universal. Expressing primitive human passions they are archaic masks. Nolde found that the non-realistic, rhythmical and decorative approach in the art of ‘primitive’ peoples confirmed his efforts to approach his work with pure instinctiveness.
We learn from Werner Hoffman (1965 p.53) that in 1908 the methods of the German Expressionists changed, following the lead of the Fauves. The motifs were set out in broad areas of decorative colour and are overlaid with the influences of primitive art and medieval woodcuts, in which the elements of colour and decoration were foremost. However, what raises the ornamental arrangement above the level of decoration is the primitive idiom. These characteristics can be witnessed in the paintings of another member of ‘Die Brucke’, Ernest Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). Julie Sheldon (1996 p.49) tells us that Kirchner’s Bathers at St Moritz (1909-1926) was a statement of the new confidence of the artist as communicator of thoughts and feelings not just visual appearances.
Each of the movements of the early twentieth century such as the Expressionists, the Fauves and the Cubists assimilated primitivism into their own art. These painters having viewed the works, especially sculptures, of Africa and Oceania brought to sculpture through their own small scale works a new way of thinking. Matisse spent much of his early career on sculptures as a three-dimensional extension of his paintings. One of his works, La Serpentine 1909, shows rhythmic minimal lines and a distinct influence of African tribal art. Matisse did not copy these African sculptures but rather let it subtly influence his work through a conceptual approach that gave the artist freedom to improvise and invent. Alan Bowness (1972 p.180) states this ability to simplify was one of Matisse’s great lessons, given equally to sculptors and to painters.
Modern sculpture between 1905 and 1920 was a history of Western assimilation from non-European sources. Archaic Greek and Egyptian, Assyrian and Oriental, Cycladic and Paleolithic, African and Polynesian, Pre-Columbian and Amerindian, were the influences which extended the boundaries of the wests traditional perception of sculpture. Having been exposed to all these influences Expressionist sculptors believed that they could dispense with the tradition of developing formal drawings of the model and the marquet prior to setting about with measurements and then finally proceeding with their material. Julie Sheldon (1996 p.55) tells that the practice of ‘direct carving’ favoured by some of the early twentieth century sculptors was regarded as part of the process of intuition which went into producing an African mask or totemic carving. The artists may have thought that by direct carving they might enhance the power of expression. The belief that ‘primitive’ works were a pure form of expression was a misconception as ‘tribal art’ usually follows strict codes and traditions. However, the influence of primitivism was a rejection of conventional European pictorial traditions and played an important part in the development of expressionism.
Constantin Brancusi (1876-1956) was one of the first of these sculptors to reduce to his work to its most simple form. In Brancusi’s piece The Kiss 1907 the elemental power is expressed by the bulk of the stone from which the forms are only sketchily emerging. His direct carving technique, simplification of form and primitivism influenced early twentieth sculptors such as Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and Henri Gaudier Bzreska (1891-1915). This latter young artist, born in France, worked as a draughtsman. He was competent in his drawing but yearned to do sculpture. It was Jacob Epstein, while Gaudier was living in London, who gave Gaudier the inspiration to work directly in stone.
The ability for direct carving involved confidence in the approach to the medium but more importantly the ability or gift to perceive the subject from concept to three-dimensional form. Gaudier, who in personality was a revolutionary despising the bourgeoise, was searching for new ways to express his perception in stone. According to the artist and critic Roger Fry (1866-1934), Gaudier was “seeking to create a classical art, one of pure expressiveness.” (Gaudier-Bzrescka 1996 p.60). The only art classes Gaudier attended was a twice-weekly drawing class in the autumn of 1912. However, he was already an accomplished draughtsman and not the least reserved about individuality in his approach. His style of drawing had a firm architectural line with a speed of execution resembling graphic reportage. The drawings he did at this time were important for giving him naturalistic roots imbued with expressive energy.
Influenced by the theorist Henri Bergson, Gaudier wrote a letter to his companion Sophie Bzreska: “…in this emotion I see three divisions, linear emotion, produced by the rhythm of outlines and strokes, sculptural emotions, rendered by the balance of masses, such as are revealed by light and shade, and lastly, pictorial emotion, produced by various coloured pigments.” (Silber, Evelyn, 1996 p.81) Evelyn Silber (1996 p.81) goes on to write that Bergson’s effect upon Gaudier as in that of the Fauves and the German Expessionists was to express intuitive and primal behaviour, a return to man’s animal rather than rational nature.
Gaudier met Epstein in June 1912. At this time Epstein was the leading avant-garde sculptor working in London and was carving a monumental sculpture of a winged angel for the Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1911-1912). Epstein had a powerful influence on Gaudier and it was around the time of their meeting that Gaudier began to carve directly into the stone. Gaudier was so moved by his meeting with Epatein that he wrote to his friend Dr. Uhlmeyar: “ The whole work is treated- strongly filled with insuperable movement and delicate feeling, in the expression and the medium…… It’s all carved direct in the stone without models.” (Silber, Evelyn, 1996)
Until late 1913 Gaudier’s carvings were mainly linked between his life and animal drawings and the shape and scale of the available stone. His small-scale densely worked sculptures were closely related to Far-Eastern art forms. Gaudier’s interests align him closely with Gauguin,who was influenced by Javanese Buddhist sculpture as well as European and Oceanic sources. Relief carving also offered a straightforward way into the uncompromising technique of direct carving. Gaudier’s earliest carvings, the tiny white marble Head of a Man (1913) and Religious Head (1914) transpose a type of facial study in the style of his drawings two or three years previously.
In 1913 Gaudier met Ezra Pound, the American poet and entrepreneur. In that year he drew many portraits of Pound and a strong relationship began to develop. In 1914 Pound commissioned Gaudier to sculpt a portrait of Pound’s head. At one metre high it was to be much larger than any previous works. According to Epstein, Pound asked Gaudier to make it ‘virile’. Horace Brodsky (1885-1969), an Australian born painter and critic, who regarded the head and all Gaudier’s more abstract work as ‘unrepresentative’, recalled later, “….its purpose and beginnings were entirely pornographic. Gaudier informed me…. that it was to be ‘phallus’”. (Gaudier-Bzreska 1996 p.130) Pound recalled Gaudier muttering repeatedly,“You understand it will not look like you, it…will..not..look…like you. It will be the expression of various emotions which I get from your character.” (Gaudier-Bzreska 1996 p.130)
In a debate between Gaudier and Pound responding to Richard Aldington’s book The Egoist Gaudier made this statement:
“The modern sculptor is a man who works with instinct as his inspiring force. His work is emotional. The shape of a leg, or the curve of an eyebrow,etc.,etc., have to him no significance whatsoever; light voluptuous modelling is to him insipid- what he feels he does so intensely and his work is nothing more nor less than the abstraction of this intense feeling… This sculpture… is continuing the tradition of the barbaric peoples of the earth (for whom we have sympathy and admiration.” (Gaudier-Bzreska 1996 p.131)
The primitivism of Ezra Pound is obviously striking. The planes that create the face are definite and few. The initial longitudinal impact of the hair, nose and beard produce a potent effect whereas the eyes and brow give strength and balance. This head bears resemblance to the Easter Island heads of Oceania but there is a great difference in that here Gaudier has captured and revealed Pound’s personality.
The Redstone Dancer dates from the autumn and winter of 1913-1914. As one critic put it, ‘….Redstone Dancer is a flame angrily bursting into life to herald the beginning of the new order.’ (Cork, Vorticism,I, p.176) The sculpture shows the connection of volumes and a conceptual approach to the organic form dominating the composition. The figure is one of sinuous motion and intensity. The red Mansfield stone from which the piece is carved glimmers with a satin finish which illuminates the planes of this piece’s ‘primitive’ forms. The arms enveloping the head and the twisted contrapposto stance emanate concentrated energy from within the centre of the piece. Attention is focused on the forms, their arrangement, rhythm and balance and not on the material qualities of the stone. The front view of the piece with its cluster of detailed elements- flipper hands, triangular features, circle and elongated circle of the breasts- contrasts sharply with the smooth convex expanse of the back. Redstone Dancer is recognized as one of Gaudier’s most important works. The characteristic ‘primitive’ intensity of the figure and its bent posture combined with the classicism of it’s contrapposto position are arranged with a manipulation of the anatomy which seem to substantiate its position in the birth of modernism.
As much as the Redstone Dancer is Gaudier’s most well-known work, it can be said that his sculpture Grief ( unknown date ), is almost totally unknown. This stone-carved figure has a rough surface which gives a feeling of someone who is closed off to the outside world. The arms, legs and head of the seated woman are all gathered inwards portraying a silence that follows the primal scream of loss and sorrow, leaving nothing but exhaustion and emptiness. In portraying an expression of sorrow using the round, paleolithic forms, Gaudier has given this piece balance.
Evelyn Silber (1996 p.141) states that from a late twentieth century perspective that mainly uses constructive sculptural techniques, improvised materials and ready-mades, Gaudier can be seen as being part of an anti-industrial rearguard of artists using traditional materials with a combination of archaic and primitive art forms to express their dissidence. However, the force of ‘primitivism’ was less a matter of structure for the Expressionists than of spiritual affinities and mystic union between the artists, their subjects and their materials. Thus these artists, by looking outside the parameters of traditionalist western art, could break the tight bonds of their own visual history and project art into the modernist era.
HOFFMANN, WERNER, Painting in the Twentieth Century Volume 2,1965 Published by Prestel-Verlag, Munich, Germany pp. 53-56
BOWNESS, ALAN, Modern European Art ,1972 ,Thames and Hudson Ltd London ,pp. 98-99
FLAM. J.D., Matisse on Art, Oxford, Phaidon 1973 p.74
SHELDON, JULIE, 1996, Matisse and the problem of expression in early twentieth century art, Chapter 3 in Liz Dawtrey, Toby Jackson, Mary Masterton, Paul Meecham and Paul Woods (eds.) Investigation in Modern Art, Yale University Press in association with the Open University and the Tate Gallery, London, pp 47-59.
SILBER, EVELYN, Finn, David, Gaudier-Bzreska 1996 Thames and Hudson Ltd London pp.73-141
HOFFMANN, WERNER, Painting in the Twentieth Century Volume 2,1965 Published by Prestel-Verlag, Munich, Germany
BOWNESS, ALAN, Modern European Art ,1972 ,Thames and Hudson Ltd London
FLAM. J.D., Matisse on Art, Oxford, Phaidon 1973
SHELDON, JULIE, 1996, Matisse and the problem of expression in early twentieth century art, Chapter 3 in Liz Dawtrey, Toby Jackson, Mary Masterton, Paul Meecham and Paul Woods (eds.) Investigation in Modern Art, Yale University Press in association with the Open University and the Tate Gallery, London,
SILBER, EVELYN, Finn, David, Gaudier-Bzreska 1996 Thames and Hudson Ltd London
BUTLER, ADAM, VAN CLEAVE, CLAIRE, STIRLING, SUSAN, 1996, The Art Book, Phaidon Press Publishing, London
MATISSE, HENRI 1984, ‘Notes of a painter, 1908’ in H.B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A sourcebook by artists and critics, University of California Press, Berkeley
SELZ, PETER 1984, ‘Fauvism and expressionism: the creative intuition’ in H.B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A sourcebook by artists and critics, University of California Press, Berkeley
KLEINER, FRED.S, MAMIYA, CHRISTIN J., 2005, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Twelfth Edition, Wadsworth/Thompson Learning