German Expressionism and the Role of Printmaking

German Expressionism refers to a particular point in art history just before World War I that culminated in the development of new styles of art across mediums as diverse as film, painting, architecture and cinema throughout the country.

But perhaps the most underappreciated artistic movement was the use of printmaking to develop new artistic forms, respond to the political upheaval at the time, and provide records of violence experienced during World War I.

A Radical New Form

Through a slew of other artistic time periods, Expressionism stands out for a few reasons. First, the movement was developed in ways that broke radically from conventions of portraiture. Up until this point, artists often used a more realistic style to paint things as they are. However, German Expression broke down the notion of objective forms by distorting realistic images, as in the above example of the Prophet by Emil Nolde.

By using heavy lines, bold/flat patterns, or more geometric forms, these pieces not only provided a subjective point of view, but also often caricatured key political events or social policies that emerged in the rapid expansion of European cities during that time period. All of these developments would help spawn other artistic movements, including Neo-expressionism, which emerged in the 1970s in the US and West Germany.

Multiple Techniques & Aesthetics

Another unique aspect of German Expressionism is that while it prominently redefined notions of the body, sexuality, nature, politics and urban life, it also used very different techniques to achieve these goals. Nowhere are these differences more evident than in printmaking, which used three common production methods to create an erray of prints.

The first of these methods, and the oldest, is woodcutting. As the name suggests, by etching into wood, individuals could create heavy lines and very bold, almost geometric forms. This method could be used to create striking posters or other forms of political art.

Intaglio, by contrast, is woodcutting's much more contemporary printing cousin. It uses fine lines and metal plates to force the ink onto the page. The result can be seen in Ludwig Meiner's Self-Portrait with Burin, which shows the ability to create much finer detail, while still exaggerating form.

The last method, lithography, was invented in the late 1700s and used primarily for printing sheet music. Images are set into a limestone slab or aluminum plate. By placing certain chemicals onto the slab, the image can then be printed directly onto paper. The primary advantage of this method is to create interesting lines and a painterly, watercolor effect, as in Emil Nolde's Young Couple.

Shaped By a War

At the same time, World War I (from 1914-18) did not halt the creation of new art for German Expressionists. Though much of Europe was torn apart during the war, many artists, including those who fought on the frontlines, returned pretty quickly to printmaking as a medium. Some of the most memorable work of this period was created during this time, including Otto Dix's 50 intaglio prints of life during the war, which are considered valuable for their unflinching portrayals of violence.

It was after this time that some of the most overt political critiques emerged. With the prospects of rebuilding the entire continent fresh on these artists' minds, the relatively rapid method of reprinting their art allowed them to express bolder visions of how this rebuilding should go. Käthe Kollwitz and George Grosz are notable artists who were particularly political during this time.

Though German Expressionism encompassed so many different approaches and styles, it is clear that printmaking--for its ability to create new human forms, its ease of use, and rapid distribution--was one of the seminal forces that shaped the movement and has informed art to this date. If you like any of the images you've seen, you can print them out by taking advantage of the Museum of Modern Art's digital archive, which showcases all 3,800 plus images online. If you're ever in need of new ink or toner in the process, don't hesitate to visit us on our website and order cartridges today!

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