Realism and abstraction are frequently cast as opposing forces in modernism’s developmental narrative. For reasons that had to do less with art-historical inevitably than with geopolitics, abstraction was declared victorious in the United States after World War II. Reflecting wartime alliances, American abstraction traced its lineage to France, while the Germanic tradition of figural Expressionism was largely sidelined. To the extent that Germany’s contributions to modernism were acknowledged, Munich’s Blaue Reiter group, which experimented most overtly with abstraction, received greater attention than the comparatively representational work of artists based elsewhere in German-speaking Europe. Wassily Kandinsky’s esoteric theories, endorsed by Galka Scheyer on the West Coast and Hilla Rebay at the fledgling Guggenheim Museum (originally the Museum of Non-Objective Painting) in New York, seemed to affirm the formalist dogma that dominated the American art world in the third quarter of the twentieth century.
However, neither Kandinsky nor his Expressionist colleagues in Germany and Austria believed that art should be free of all extrinsic content, or as the critic Clement Greenberg put it, that an artist should be concerned solely with the “arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.” In the Blaue Reiter Almanac, Kandinsky described two fundamental formal approaches, “the great realism” and “the great abstraction,” both of which, he said, ultimately serve the same end: to express “the inner resonance of the thing.” The German critic Paul Fechter, who authored the first book on the subject in 1914, similarly identified two strands of Expressionism: the “extensive,” which retains ties to recognizable subject matter, and the “intensive,” which entirely renounces such imagery. Whether realist or abstract in their orientation, Expressionists were driven by a need to re-envision the world.
Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig
Pechstein, Hermann Max