Avant-Garde Artists Form Die Brücke

The artists’ group Die Brücke created a shocking new style, using deliberately distorted images and antinaturalistic, dissonant colors, which became known as expressionism.

Summary of Event

One of Germany’s first avant-garde artists’ groups, Die Brücke (the bridge) was founded in Dresden by a group of young architectural students in the summer of 1905. The group was made up of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Fritz Bleyl, all of whom shared an interest in art. Inspired by the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche, Friedrich who stressed the importance of artistic creativity, Schmidt-Rottluff chose the group’s name as an allusion to a passage from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (1883-1885; Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896): “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and no end.” Art movements;German expressionism
Brücke, Die
German expressionism
[kw]Avant-Garde Artists Form Die Brücke (Summer, 1905)[Avant Garde Artists Form Die Brücke (Summer, 1905)]
[kw]Artists Form Die Brücke, Avant-Garde (Summer, 1905)
[kw]Die Brücke, Avant-Garde Artists Form (Summer, 1905)
Art movements;German expressionism
Brücke, Die
German expressionism
[g]Germany;Summer, 1905: Avant-Garde Artists Form Die Brücke[01310]
[c]Arts;Summer, 1905: Avant-Garde Artists Form Die Brücke[01310]
Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig
Heckel, Erich
Schmidt-Rottluff, Karl
Bleyl, Fritz
Nolde, Emil
Pechstein, Max
Müller, Otto

The Brücke’s members set out to express their creative visions and convictions by using irrational, unrealistic symbolic images in defiance of the principles of idealized, academic German art and Impressionism. Believing that the art of their day lacked a sense of passion and commitment, they rejected rigid and narrow artistic standards. They emphasized spontaneous self-expression in their work and aspired to move German art in a radical new direction. Rather than imposing any restrictions on style, the Brücke embraced a diversity of international sources and influences. The group’s members assimilated the flatness of late medieval German woodcuts, the deliberate coarseness of Paul Gauguin’s woodcuts, the simplified forms of Edvard Munch’s graphics, the subjectively colored and thickly painted canvases of Vincent van Gogh, and the antinaturalistic, brilliantly colored paintings of the French Fauves. They also admired African sculpture and Oceanic art, which they studied at Dresden’s Ethnographic Museum, and incorporated such influences into their own work.

Rejecting middle-class values, the Brücke’s members consciously detached themselves from their own middle-class backgrounds. They settled into a renovated butcher shop in a working-class section of Dresden that became their communal studio. Protesting materialism and mass-produced objects, the group’s members believed that art was too alienated from contemporary life. Wanting to incorporate art with life, they furnished their studio with hand-carved items. In their studio, they employed diverse media—painting, sculpture, lithography, woodcuts, etchings, and furniture—to express their creativity. Initially, they seldom dated their works, freely painted on one another’s canvases, and often shared the same models.

The Brücke’s early works included portraits, cityscapes, mood-evoking landscapes, and nudes. During the summer months, the members painted numerous images of nudes by the lakes surrounding Moritzburg, near Dresden. Their depictions of nudes frolicking in the landscape reflected their generation’s interest in a more simplified life and a return to nature. The Brücke’s pictorial style eliminated all extraneous details and emphasized flatness, the angular use of lines, distortion of form, and clashing, dissonant colors.

Printmaking Printmaking also played an important role in the Brücke’s stylistic development. Jagged patterns, diagonals, and an emphasis on two-dimensional flatness were characteristics of the group’s early graphic works. Each of the Brücke’s artists contributed his knowledge of a particular printmaking technique: Kirchner of wood engraving and etching, Heckel of wood carving, and Schmidt-Rottluff of lithography. Heckel stated that it was “difficult to determine what each of us brought to the others in stimulation, because it was reciprocal and often in common.” The simplified forms of their graphic works were technically innovative and helped to affirm their position at the forefront of the contemporary German avant-garde. The members also used their graphics as a vehicle to reach out to a wider audience. For the nominal fee of twelve marks per year, passive members were allowed to join the Brücke; in return, these paying, nonactive members received a yearly progress report on the group’s activities and a folder of their graphics, which later became quite valuable and highly sought after.

The Brücke also extended membership to other artists who wished to participate in the group’s exhibitions. In 1906, Kirchner executed a woodcut that expressed the group’s desire to attract young, revolutionary artists who shared the members’ beliefs and wished to participate in exhibitions. That year, the Brücke’s members were joined by the established artist Emil Nolde, who remained a member for only eighteen months. The Brücke admired Nolde’s use of brilliant colors and spontaneous brushwork. Although Nolde quickly spurned the Brücke’s communal working method and lifestyle, he learned the printmaking process of etching from the group, a process that remained a staple in his oeuvre. The painter Max Pechstein also became a member in 1906. Trained as a decorator and a painter, Pechstein created work that was more naturalistic and decorative than that of the other Brücke artists. He used large, bold planes of color and did numerous paintings of nudes in the landscape. The Brücke also tried to include foreign artists, and in 1908 the members asked Kees van Dongen to exhibit with them. In 1911, the Prague artist Bohumil Kubista joined the Brücke, but he had little contact with the other members. Cuno Amiet, a Swiss painter, became a corresponding member and contributed works to the Brücke’s early exhibitions. Remaining in Switzerland, Amiet had no direct contact with the Brücke artists until 1912. In 1910, Otto Müller became the last artist to join the group. His paintings of bathers in nature were more tranquil and less vibrantly colored than the works of the other Brücke artists.

When Pechstein moved to Berlin in 1908, he remained an active member of the Brücke. During summers, he continued to paint with the Brücke artists in the Dresden countryside. In 1910, the works of Pechstein, Nolde, Müller, and many other artists were rejected by the jury of the Berlin Secession, Berlin Secession Germany’s most prestigious art association. The jury members rejected the works of the Brücke because they deemed the works too shocking and modern. Angered by the Secession’s rejection, Pechstein founded the New Secession New Secession and became its president. Consequently, the Brücke members agreed never again to exhibit their work individually, because the welfare of the group was always to be put above that of its individual members. The following year, Pechstein ignored the Brücke’s pact and showed his work independently at the Berlin Secession. By shifting his allegiance back to the more prestigious Berlin Secession, Pechstein attempted to advance his career without regard for the other Brücke artists, and Kirchner immediately expelled Pechstein from the group. Shortly after Pechstein’s expulsion, the group began to drift apart. In 1913, the Brücke disbanded and the members went their separate ways.


When the Brücke moved to Berlin in 1911, its members firmly established their reputations as the German avant-garde. Berlin had a wider and more sophisticated audience than Dresden, and the city became a showcase for the group’s work. In Berlin, the Brücke’s thematic interest shifted from the nude in nature to images of emotionally isolated people in a radically changing world. The group’s artists depicted circus and cabaret performers, prostitutes, and tension-charged street scenes teeming with humanity. They participated in numerous Berlin exhibitions, and their woodcuts were used as illustrations for the pages of Herwarth Walden’s influential literary journal Der Sturm, which helped to disseminate the Brücke’s style.

The most obvious confirmation of the group’s achievement came in the summer of 1912, when the Brücke was invited to participate in the large Sonderbund Exhibition Sonderbund Exhibition in Cologne. The Sonderbund was a huge gathering of Europe’s vanguard artists and presented a broad survey of modern art. The critics took notice and began to write positive reviews about the Brücke’s works, dubbing the group’s members “expressionists.”

Expressionism became a major cultural phenomenon, in part as the result of the writings of the art historian Wilhelm Worringer. Worringer, Wilhelm Worringer argued that the expressionists’ tendency toward abstraction, subjectivity, and distortion was a characteristic of all German art, both past and present. He proposed that northern European art was a distinctly unique phenomenon that was conditioned by its particular culture. Worringer suggested that Germanic art had always been antirealistic and anticlassical, unlike the art of Italy and Greece. He argued that alienation from the harsh conditions of the real world was a major characteristic of northern artists, who turned to their inner fantasies and expressive feelings in the creative process. Worringer’s influential writings helped to define and shape the new style called expressionism. The term “expressionism” aptly described the work of the Brücke’s members and of several other German artists, including the members of the Blaue Reiter Blaue Reiter, Der group as well as the work of Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele in Austria. The term became widely used to define northern European art that altered the world of visual appearances.

After World War I, expressionism changed dramatically. Much of postwar German art was concerned with social problems. The November Group November Group was a radical association of intellectuals and artists who joined forces in the utopian belief that art could change society. Pechstein was a member of the November Group, and he designed posters and pamphlet covers urging workers to unite with artists in a joint endeavor to reconstruct Germany after the war.

The long-range effects of the Brücke’s work can be seen in the works of such second-generation German expressionists as George Grosz, Grosz, George Max Beckmann, Beckmann, Max and Otto Dix. Dix, Otto Grosz initially used the same garish colors and emotional intensity in his paintings as the Brücke artists had. He was more interested in social concerns than the Brücke artists had been, however, and he depicted the decadence and corruption of postwar German society. Grosz’s 1916 painting The Big City shows a chaotic German city street filled with wounded beggars, prostitutes, and wealthy capitalists. Beckmann’s grim reaction to war was manifested in his painting The Night (1918-1919). A brutalized depiction of human suffering and torture, it shows the violence inflicted on a family by three cutthroats who have forced their way into the family’s home. Beckmann’s angular use of line, distortion, and exaggeration of detail in the painting anticipated the style known as New Objectivity, New Objectivity which was in theory a reaction against abstraction and expressionism. Dix’s work The Match Seller (1920) shows a blinded and maimed war casualty slumped on a sidewalk. Stripped of his ability to earn a living, the match seller symbolizes the indecencies of postwar life. Dix was a major figure in the New Objectivity, which retained the expressionist characteristic of distortion to emphasize a subjective view of the world.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in the 1930’s, he virtually eradicated expressionism. Despising modern art, especially the works of the Brücke artists, Hitler censored all German expressionist artists, and their works were removed from art galleries and museums. After World War II, however, expressionism gained international acceptance.

In the 1980’s, a new wave of German expressionism, the third generation, was launched. The neoexpressionist artists Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, and Anselm Kiefer were indebted to the Brücke’s expressive, subjective style and determination to change the status quo in art. Although the concerns of the neoexpressionists were different from those of the Brücke’s artists, the influence of the earlier group was visible in the neoexpressionists’ return to figurative painting and shift away from the dominant styles of abstract and minimalist art. Art movements;German expressionism
Brücke, Die
German expressionism

Further Reading

  • Carey, Frances, and Antony Griffiths. The Print in Germany, 1880-1933. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Although limited to the prints in the British Museum, this is a good general study of German expressionist prints. One essay is devoted to the Brücke’s printmaking innovations and techniques. Discusses the Brücke’s graphics in relation to cultural and historical influences. Includes numerous black-and-white reproductions of Brücke graphics.
  • Dube, Wolf-Dieter. The Expressionists. Translated by Mary Whithall. 1972. Reprint. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985. The first half is devoted to the Brücke, both as a group and as individual artists. Provides a general history of the Brücke and the group’s style. An excellent short introductory book on expressionism. Recommended for students of expressionism and for the general reader.
  • Gordon, Donald E. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968. Pioneering major study on Kirchner. Examines Kirchner’s art in the context of the Brücke and of expressionism in general. Filled with biographical information. Includes numerous interesting photographs of the Brücke’s Dresden studio. Good bibliography.
  • _______. “German Expressionism.” In“Primitivism” in Twentieth Century Art. Vol. 2, edited by William Rubin. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984. Gordon’s excellent essay examines some of the non-Western sources that the Brücke’s members incorporated in their work. Includes interesting photographs and good color reproductions of the Brücke’s work. Recommended for students as well as the novice.
  • Herbert, Barry. German Expressionism: Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1983. The first half of this book is devoted to the Brücke. Provides a basic introduction to the Brücke artists and their work and gives a brief overview of the group’s history. Primary emphasis is on the Brücke’s work and stylistic characteristics. Includes many illustrations.
  • Lloyd, Jill. German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Examines the impact of non-Western art on the Brücke’s artists. Not only discusses the Brücke’s assimilation of these images but also examines what prompted the group’s interest in non-Western art. Contains interesting photographs and numerous reproductions of the Brücke’s artwork. Good bibliography.
  • Lloyd, Jill, and Magdalena Moeller. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: 1880-1938. London: Royal Academy Books, 2003. One of very few publications in English devoted to the life and work of Kirchner. Presents almost 150 of Kirchner’s paintings, prints, and sculptures, together with essays by leading art scholars.
  • Selz, Peter Howard. German Expressionist Painting. 1957. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. The first study of German expressionism in English that focused on the Brücke, its impact, and its critical reception. Traces the evolution of the Brücke to its demise in 1913. Important source for students of expressionist art and the Brücke. Excellent bibliography.
  • West, Shearer. The Visual Arts in Germany, 1890-1937: Utopia and Despair. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001. Discusses movements in the visual arts in Germany from the early years of German unification until the beginning of World War I, including Secessionism and expressionism. Relates the movements in art to the wider cultural and social issues specific to German modernism.

Fauves Exhibit at the Salon d’Automne

Artists Find Inspiration in African Tribal Art

Der Blaue Reiter Abandons Representation in Art

New Objectivity Movement Is Introduced