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Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Seeds of Expressionism

Although the romantic tendencies in us all sometimes causes us to think so, seldom does an artist's idea for a painting spring full-blown from his mind in some miraculous flash of God-given spiritual brilliance. If that is true of the individual artist and the individual painting, it also holds true in terms of art movements as well. Take Expressionism, for example. With its deepest roots in Germany with Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter, the tendrils splayed out in several different directions, to France and le Fauves even extending to Russia, Austria, England, and Norway, which each had a branch of the movement. It doesn't take an art history genius to recognize the seed that started it all--Vincent van Gogh. But Van Gogh alone cannot account for the broad diversity sprouting from this stalk. Van Gogh was luscious, sweet, and despite his background, optimistic. Expressionism also had a dour, sad, bitter, pessimistic flavor as well. Where did this element come from?

Two Skeletons Fighting over a Dead Man, 1891, James Ensor
He was a little younger than Van Gogh--born in 1860. He was from Belgium. His name was James Ensor, and he was as unknown, even today, as Vincent is famous. But unlike Vincent, he lived long enough (89 years) to see his influence felt in Expressionism, even though he was never really a part of the movement. An 1891 painting is typical. Wildly colorful and overtly humorous, it's entitled, Two Skeletons Fighting over a Dead Man (even the title is funny). The influence of Hieronymous Bosch is obvious. The painting is set on a sort of stage with various masked figures peering in from the wings and the audience while a grotesque man hangs suspended by his neck in the center (presumably the dead man). On either sides, two skeletal figures dressed in ragged women's clothes threaten one another with a broom, fishing pole, and umbrella. On the floor lying between them is another foppishly dressed skeleton. (What? Another dead man? Or is it a dead woman?). The painting is a riot!

The Skate, 1892, James Ensor
But there was another side of Ensor. A still-life painted the following year, while no less gruesome and only slightly less grotesque, bares the marks of a distinct Chardin influence (an 18th century French painter). The painting is titled The Skate. (Skate being a kind of fish.) The colors are more expressive, brighter, higher in contrast than anything Chardin ever did, but the work is no less realistic. And it is all the more powerful in its impact because of this realism. It is raw. Dominating the composition is the underside of a horrendously ugly stingray with a face like a monkey and a tail section to make one shudder. To the left are added the fresh Skate from whence comes the title and the raw redness of a freshly caught Conch (and I don't mean just the shell). Nothing from this period compares with this abrasive strain of expressionism except perhaps the work of Edvard Munch, who was an almost exact contemporary of Ensor. Munch is the third spiritual icon of early Expressionism. But unlike Ensor, he was more than just an early influence, he became an Expressionist, seeing the movement through to the end.

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