Today, when works of art are called expressionist, it usually means that the image looks warped or distorted, that saturated colours have been used abundantly, lavishly applied in broad brushstrokes, and that they depict strong or excessive emotions. In Germany, the Expressionists did not call themselves Expressionists. The term was coined by journalists and gallery owners. In Dresden, between 1905 and 1913, these artists formed an association known as die Brücke (The Bridge) whilst in Munich, from 1911 until the beginning of the First World War, they were known as the Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).
In Belgium, the movement began later. Paul Van Ostaijen had, however, very clearly expressed what Expressionism was. Just before the end of the First World War,
he summarised the current situation of the avant-garde in Belgium in his series of articles entitled Het Ekspressionisme in Vlaanderen (Expressionism in Flanders), but which failed to mention the later figureheads of Frits Van den Berghe, Constant Permeke and Gustave De Smet. This might have been because these artists were in exile in the Netherlands and England during the war when information was scarce. For his reflective illumination of the artistic spirit of the times, Van Ostaijen referred to his friends Paul Joostens and the brothers Oscar and Floris Jespers. From their work, he inferred that the aesthetic norm was no longer that of the outward beauty of the classical type.
And he clarified that the truth of the spiritual impulse supplanted the beauty of the work of art. Van Ostaijen described the poësis of Expressionism as that “which is extremely simple, stripped of any recognisable beauty but which consciously carries, in its everyday nudity, the beauty of a deep, spiritual life.” Furthermore, Expressionists were aware of the “essential unity between art and life”. This is exactly what Expressionist artists were in pursuit of: not allowing conformity and stylisation to arbitrate between what is expressed (spiritual life) and the way it is expressed (the work of art), nor trimming the edges of direct expression in its final appearance. Expressionism in Belgium, as developed by Permeke, Van den Berghe and De Smet during and after the First World War, was haltingly ‘processed’ into a specific variety of ‘Flemish’ Expressionism that is recognisable by a rather dark,
gloomy use of colour and a deliberately constructed, sometimes almost geometric rendering. They found their subjects in maritime and rural life, but also turned their attention to the domestic environment, religious fervour and urban life. The 1920s was the decade of Flemish Expressionism. Two Brussels galleries in particular, Sélection and Le Centaure, orchestrated a passionate campaign to advance their artists to a prominent place within the art world. And within the thriving art market too, of course. The stock market and banking crisis of 1929, however, drastically curtailed the economy. At that time, people did not realise how long the recovery would take and, in 1932 and 1933, the artworks held as stock by the main galleries and protagonists were sold at public auction.
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