The Bridge to Utopia: die Brücke’s Wild Expressionism

One of the most organized expressionist groups was “die Brücke” (the bridge), which was established in 1905 in Dresden by 4 young artists – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Max Pechstein. The groups name was most likely inspired by the work of F. Nietzche’s (1844-1900) “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (1882) in which he describes humanity as a bridge, a transition to a higher ideal. As the Brücke members themselves wrote in a letter in which they invited Emile Nolde to join: “One of the main purposes of our group is to gather all the revolutionary and restless elements, as our name suggests”. (continued below)

Above: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, poster, 1910
Below: Erich Heckel, die Brücke, 1910

Die Brücke had little in common with other expressionist groups, both in their work and lifestyle. Their mode of action was alternative, they sought and largely succeeded in completely associating their lives with art – something that many movements like Futurism have pursued, but no one has quite accomplished. They created a utopia in their studio, a different world that had nothing in common with reality. The philosophy of the group did not allow any creative restrictions, and for this reason they had no program, nor did they ever issue an artistic manifesto which defined or described their action. The only exception being “The Chronicles of the Artistic Group Die Brücke” written by Kirchner in 1913, but this is speculated as the pretext for the dissolution of the group. (continued)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Nude Dancers, 1909

African and oceanic art played a defining role in the artistic identity of the group. Besides, primitive elements were already considered as representing something positive from the fauves era. Adopting this way of thinking, the members of the Brücke believed the source of inspiration was the human instinct and impulse, and associated with the needs and circumstances that weren’t tied to society’s rules.

This, if nothing else, was primitive art. The artists wanted the group to reach a mental level where they could freely create motivated by genuine impulses behind the wild – but not aggressive – lines of African sculpture. As they said themselves “all those who directly and honestly reproduce their creative momentum, are with us.” (continued)

Erich Heckel, Masks, 1907

Emil Nolde, Masks (still life III), 1911

Action Outside Procurement

Nietzche’s work was for Die Brücke the means to create the bohemian way of life they dreamt of. They organized trips to the lakes of Moritzburg where they and their friends tried to make direct contact with nature through nudism and also created their works. They formed an isolated community between people and environment where they were not forced to pretend to be somebody else. In primitive art and the naturalist lifestyle they found the perfect way to practice criticism in the Western world. A silent protest against what was happening outside their studio: an estranged capitalist reality which they felt had occurred all too quickly. (continued)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Bathers at Mortizburg, 1909

Max Pechstein, Killing of the Banquet Roast, 1912

Knowing all this, their initial refusal to exhibit their work in a gallery is not particularly surprising. They preferred to organize their own traveling exhibitions in unusual locations and invited the public to pay a fee in order to become “passive members”. These donors would then receive an annual report and a portfolio of the group’s work. The group operated along the lines of great musicians who pre-sold their manuscripts to a number of subscribers.

All members of Die Brücke operated independently as well. What they discovered through their independent studies, their visits mainly to ethnographic museums, and their exploratory trips, became incorporated elements which contributed to the success of the group. (continued)

Emil Nolde, Dancers with Candles, 1912

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Bathers Throwing Reeds, 1910

One rule…. There are no rules.

A movement so open and receptive to many trends is difficult to be characterized in any other way than by their refusal of the status quo and previously stable values of society as a whole. Die Brücke espoused new ideas and new members with almost the sole criterion for the existence of radical elements in their works. After an exhibition in Dresden, Cuno Amiet became a member as well, but is known along with Finn Axeli Gallen-Kallela as the less active members of die Brücke.

Emil Nolde followed in 1906 and remained in the group until 1907, when he resigned. In 1910 Otto Müller also became a member.

Two years later, Pechstein was deleted from the group because he exhibited as a member of the Secession, which Die Brücke had promised that they wouldn’t do, if not together.

The contradiction, where radicals end up setting such strict rules, is worth noticing. In 1911 the group moved to Berlin, where they remained until its dissolution. (continued)

Emil Nolde, Dancer, 1913

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Girl with Striped Dress, 1910

The First World War and its effect on die Brücke.

The “Great War” introduced many new warfare methods, all of which were used in inhuman manners and on a large scale unseen up until that time. The preditory manner in which they were used resulted in massive carnage, not only against those involved in the vast fields of battle, but also seemingly against the very human existence. Naturally, the artists of the era could not remain unaffected by such an event. They all were forced by the events into realizing the vanity of their previous occupation compared to the barrage of such cruelty and war. Many of the artists of the group were drafted themselves, ultimately experiencing the horrors of the vigil in the trenches and leading die Brücke into forced dissolution.

One year after the outbreak of war, the leader of the group, Ernst Kirchner, suffered a nervous breakdown and spent the next 4 years in and out of sanatoriums. Indeed, his emotional state suffered such a heavy blow that his work from that period, thematically appears as if it was created by another artist. The carefree mindset and utopian vision of Kirchner was gone for good. (continued)

Max Pechstein, Girl on a Green Sofa with a Cat, 1910

Erich Heckel, Fränzi Liegend, 1910

In 1919, Kirchner, having overcome to a degree the shock he suffered, moved to Switzerland. His work no longer showed the horrors of war, but instead its aftermath. Engaged in manufacturing furniture for his wife, illustrating books and painting the mountains seen from his house window, he attempted to chase away the ghosts of war.

Considering the path of his life from the zenith of his artistic career to the nadir of his suicide in 1938, some have compared Kirchner’s life to that of Germany. (continued)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self Portrait with a Model, 1910

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self Portrait as a Soldier, 1915 (It's worth mentioning that Kirchner's hand wasn't cut in reality. But the fact that it is in this self portrait, serves as a very blunt metaphor for his amputated spirit.)


The expressionistic movement that followed, was “die Neue Sachlichkeit”. Detached from any emotional tendency held by the expressionists of die Brücke, it faced reality mainly by mocking it – something that Dada later embraced and took on to an even higher level. Expressionistic aspects of die Brücke culture are preserved to this day by all means of expression, from poetry to cinema.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Winter Moonlit Night, 1919

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