The Problem of Expressionism
The quotation from Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, with which this book opened, ironically described the confusion of different artistic styles which characterised the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. The naturalist-impressionist tendency, which concentrated upon surface realities, or social and political problems, and the aesthetic or neo-romantic attitude, which was one of flight from the world towards the creation of artificial paradises, both failed to satisfy on a profound level. The former tendency remained too close to the surface of things, and, in its emphasis on social amelioration, was felt to be stultifying and drab; the latter tendency, in its emphasis on the rarefied and the refined, became ultra-precious, decadent and jejune. The naturalist’s description of social conditions gave way to the expression of a subjective vision regardless of mimesis, and the concern for human life, for man crushed by pitiless machinery and ruthless cities, became far more intense than mere social reporting; likewise the emphasis upon inner vision, and on the fertile powers of the imagination, would far exceed the symbolist cult of the soul. More vital emotions, more dynamic powers of description were extolled, as was an intense subjectivity which had no reluctance in destroying the conventional picture of reality in order that the expression be more powerful. And if distortion and aggressive expression of emotion were found in earlier works of art, then these were extolled as being forerunners of the new outlook, which was given the name ‘expressionism’.