The Colour of the Spirit: Der Blaue Reiter and German Expressionism


The Colour of the Spirit: Der Blaue Reiter and German Expressionism

The history of German art and artistic movements is a long, fascinating, and endlessly morphous one, with the leading creative minds of this ancient country consistently laying the foundations for much of the rest of Europe to follow. It isn’t difficult to see why this is the case; Germany is a country in which the romantic rings true - from the dense dark forests to the wind-blasted coastlines, from crag-topped mountains to the vineyards of the south, the spirit can be inspired and the creative impulse electrified from North to South, and from East to West.

It should come as no real surprise that Expressionism - that exploration of the spirit and excavation of the soul made real in paint and on film - had its origins, just like Romanticism, in Germany. Expressionism was to become one of the country’s greatest cultural exports, especially once its homeland shifted across the Atlantic to New York, where it took on thrilling new abstracted forms and embraced the modern in stunning new colours and shapes. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, in the broiling heat of a bold new era awash with bright and fast-moving ideas, Expressionism formed itself around a small group of German artists, determined to recreate the salon in their image, and challenge societal norms via vibrant, broad, and strikingly coloured brush strokes. The name of this movement? Der Blaue Reiter.

Art in Pursuit of the Spiritual

German Expressionism can, according to most art historians, be neatly split into two distinct schools. On the one hand, we have Der Brücke; the elite movement of German Expressionist artists, revelling in urbane sophistication and distorted figurative depictions. On the other, we have Der Blaue Reiter; smaller yet more international, more modest yet more far-reaching, modern yet founded with a spiritual yearning which transcended the centuries.

At the very heart of Der Blaue Reiter, we find some of the intellectual and artistic giants of the 20th century, which suggests just how powerful and far-reaching this short-lived artistic movement actually was. Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky, and Gabriele Münter were the driving forces behind the group, each giants of the avant-garde, and each of whom would go on to reshape the art world as we know it today. Alongside these celebrated individuals, Der Blaue Reiter included several immigrant artists, Jewish painters, and Russian early filmmakers. This truly internationalist foundation gave the group a broad reach across several nations, allowing the avant-garde in painting to travel far beyond the movement’s spiritual home in Munich.

Both Der Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter were formed in reaction to a sense of alienation in turn of the century German society. Both struggled with ideas of identity, of where this brave new age would lead, and of the role of men and women in a changing world. However, while Der Brücke took its cues from the machination and urbanisation of Italian art and Futurism, Der Blaue Reiter had their gaze fixed upon the eternal, the spiritual, and the mysteries of the soul. In this sense above any others, their importance in how art - and especially abstract art - would proceed cannot be understated.

The Essence of Colour

Fitting their short-lived and ephemeral existence, and insistence on expression, Der Blaue Reiter had no official manifesto, and no official set of rules and outlines concerning their objectives and aims. However, if one was to search for something in lieu of a manifesto, Kandinsky’s seminal treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art would fit the bill perfectly. Written at the same time as the formation of Der Blaue Reiter, Kandinsky’s phenomenal exploration of the psychological and spiritual purpose of painting crystallised the abstracted and colour-based intentions of the group’s efforts, and boasted ideas which spread like wildfire among the European avant-garde.

Central to the ideas of Der Blaue Reiter was the notion that colour was, in fact, far more than what merely met the eye. Indeed, Kandinsky and Marc were fixated on the notion that colours featured specific spiritual values and fixed meanings (something which would be cemented further via Kandinsky’s work with Bauhaus), and that these meanings could be used to communicate the spiritual via the medium of paint. For the movement, the colour blue had a powerful and deep significance, and the movement’s name was taken from the title of a painting which symbolised this perfectly: The Blue Rider. With its rich blue hues, used abstractedly to denote the spiritual progression of the figure, and the symbolic progression of the eponymous rider, the painting became, in many ways, the replacement for a manifesto in itself.

The Musicality of Paint

Expressionism in art is, among many other things, a search for a language through which the soul can be communicated. Early 20th century Germany was not just a rich period for painting, it was also an era in which the realm of music was being completely reimagined to reach new heights of expression through art. As such, Der Blaue Reiter sought to draw moving parallels between their canvases and the musical compositions being explored and discovered among artistic circles, and believed that the contemporary music of the age was the only thing which came close to realising their own ideas and concepts.

This drawing of parallels can be seen in the titles of many Der Blaue Reiter paintings; they are commonly referred to as ‘improvisations’, ‘etudes’, and ‘compositions’, and huge swathes of their work deals with the idea of synaethesia, or the blending and ‘crossing over’ of the senses. Indeed, music was seen as the ultimate abstraction by Kandinsky, who adored its intangibility and power to manipulate the emotions and evoke memories.

The Lasting Influence of a Near-Forgotten Movement

Der Blaue Reiter was short-lived, cut off in its prime by the horrors of war, and superseded by the heady heights its founding members would go on to achieve. Kandinsky would later re-form the world in thrilling modernist forms with the Bauhaus, and explore the workings of the soul alongside friend and mentor Carl Jung, and via the medium of his later, truly ground-breaking compositions. Franz Marc had a similar trajectory, finding true fame in the New World via his colourful and eye-opening natural paintings. However, for a few short years in the second decade of the 20th century, this small and intimate group of spirit-searching artists would lay a foundation which so many others would build upon.

Due to its internationalist leanings and multicultural makeup, Der Blaue Reiter would galvanise disparate avant-garde groups across Europe and into Russia. Its ideaology would inspire German Expressionist filmmakers such as Murnau and Lang, whose work would astonish and terrify audiences across the globe. Their travelling exhibitions were open to artists exploring other movements and ideas, and featured works by those who would later spearhead Fauvism, Cubism, and the Russian avant-garde… and in this respect, among many, many others, Der Blaue Reiter deserves our recognition, our respect, and our thanks.

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