The purpose of art is to access the substratum of all the emotional colors of life. Roger Fry
Vincent Van Gogh dragged the world through his psyche and painted it. The Symbolists turned their back on reality and retreated into dreams and myths. Picasso depicted his thoughts about objects, Matisse his feelings. All of the modern artists we’ve talked about so far have filtered the world through themselves. This will be a continual theme throughout modern art. It is one we see again in the Expressionists.
German Expressionism started at the turn of the century and peaked during the 1920s. In 1905 The Bridge (Die Brucke) was formed by four architecture students. They had high hopes that their art would be a bridge to higher consciousness. They believed in the power of primitive art, and in nature, but lived in the city. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is a good example:
There was another mostly German expressionist group called The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter). They believed that colors held deep meanings. Blue, for instance, stood for spirituality. The two most famous members of this group were Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc.
In 1912 Kandinsky wrote in his article Concerning the Spiritual in Art:
If you let your eye stray over a palette of colors, you experience two things. In the first place you receive a purely physical effect, namely the eye itself is enchanted by the beauty and other qualities of color. You experience satisfaction and delight, like a gourmet savoring a delicacy. Or the eye is stimulated as the tongue is titillated by a spicy dish. But then it grows calm and cool like a finger after touching ice. These are the physical sensations, limited in duration. They are superficial, too, and leave no lasting impression behind if the soul remains closed.
And so we come to the second result of looking at colors: their psychological effect. They produce a correspondent spiritual vibration and it is only as a step towards this spiritual vibration that the physical impression is of importance…
Generally speaking, color directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul.
It is evident therefore that color harmony must rest ultimately on purposive playing upon the human soul.
He also believed in the power of basic forms, such as the circle and triangle. If you believe color and basic form convey meaning, then why bother depicting actual objects at all? Kandinsky gradually figured this out and claimed he invented abstract art.
Franz Marc used animals as well as color to express his “spiritual truth.” He was killed in WWI; the last painting is especially poignant.
And then there’s gentle Paul Klee. He doesn’t really belong in any “school” of art, but I love him and had to put him somewhere: