PRINT February 1966

Jugendstile Expressionism in German Posters

DR. HERSCHEL B. CHIPP, WHO ORGANIZED the University of California’s 1963 exhibition of works by Schiele, Klimt and Kokoschka under the title “Viennese Expressionism, 1910–1924,” has come up with another outstanding success in “Jugendstil and Expressionism,” an exhibition of the poster art of Germany and Austria from 1893 to 1934.

Flyers, placards and playbills, in which small illustrative vignettes, trade symbols or monograms serve as subordinate embellishments to printed or lettered announcements and advertising tracts, were already commonplace by the last quarter of the 16th century. However, the art poster in the modern sense, a sheet or placard which either features pictorial subject matter as the dominant message-conveying element, or impresses us with an overall artistic design in which the lettering itself is subjected to highly individualized stylistic-decorative invention, is a by-product of the development of color lithography and the economics (competitive mass advertising) of the late 19th century.

The first color-lithographed art posters were executed in France by Eugène Grasset and Jules Chéret, while the original Morrisonian philosophic rationale (the consolidation of beauty and utility), as well as the characteristic mannerisms of the Art Nouveau style, of which posters were to become a popular vehicle, had their origins in England.

It was in England, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Austria, roughly in the forty years between 1880 and 1920 that the color lithograph poster enjoyed its earliest and greatest proliferation as a graphic art form, which, in spite of its commercial motivation, attracted the interest and talents of many of the best artists and craftsmen of the time. It seems unfortunate that the scope of the present exhibition was not expanded to represent the rise of poster art as an international phenomenon. Even if Dr. Chipp had wished the core of the exhibition to emphasize German and middle European developments, a panel or two of antecedent and contemporaneous international context would hardly have strained the gallery’s facilities and would have increased the educational value of the exhibition in permitting us to observe, at first hand, affinities as well as contrasts between different national “schools” applying related compositional principles to a common medium.

To understand not only the tremendous emotional investment of this period in a style change, but also the symbols and content that came to dominate the new work as leitmotifs, one must consider the Industrial Revolution and its effect upon the cultural climate of Europe, in literature, philosophy and the arts, at the turn of the century. This was a Europe faced with the task of assessing and assimilating the popular civil emancipation, the rise of republics and constitutional monarchies, the revolutions in the physical and social sciences and technology, and even the objective rediscovery of the past in archaeology, which had characterized the post-Napoleonic 19th century. These phenomena, taken collectively, were seen as comprising a cumulatively accelerating progress toward an inevitable rational Utopia. The cynicism and satire of intellectuals and artists concerning the present was but a goading of sleepers, replete with optimism for the future. Everywhere the Stolzes were haranguing the Oblomovs.

Even the apparent determinism of then-emerging philosophies of economics and psychology was but ephemeral. The exponents of these philosophies paradoxically exhibited an unrelinquishable faith in man’s ultimate self-determination: in substance they proclaimed “understand the works and you can juggle the machinery, internal or external, that juggles you, and become truly captains of your individual and collective fate.” If the universe was a mechanism, man was still an “evolving intelligence” (whether the evolution was mechanistic or not) whose imagination and rational operations seemed destined to become the control circuit of nature in himself and in the universe.

This was a Europe undergoing a spontaneous middle-class cultural revolution. Many voices in many tongues mouthed the phrase “20th Century” with all of the awed self-congratulation of a youth having passed his teens and standing on the brink of majority. Emphasis was indeed on youth. Why should it not be so? Were not the young, with their revolutionary ideas and their “secessions” from the old, inevitably the latest legion of runners and torchbearers in a sure and ceaseless course of human progress? There was even a place for intuition and inspiration as modalities of unconscious perception and reasoning. Eros could be unshackled from ancient taboos to be enshrined as an intrinsic value, for if man could accommodate the world to himself, why need there be prohibitions other than those dictated by the great Utopian vision? Hitherto-conflicting claims of romanticism and classicism, of logic and mysticism, of hedonism and discipline could all be reconciled in such an exotic and heady “super-Humanism.” Self-conscious anthropocentricism was enthroned and became at once the new morality, the new art and even the new mystique. It is only against the background of such an atmosphere that the artistic movements of 1880 to 1914 can be comprehended, and only against such optimistic premises that the extreme bitterness of disillusion, the pessimism, anti-rationalism and anti-Humanism (Dada) which appeared spasmodically in European artistic and literary movements after the outbreak of World War I, can be understood.

Art Nouveau was flexible precisely because it was much more than a mere vogue. It was the spontaneous coalescence of many trends in the climate of the time into an esthetic outlook or art idiom in which one could, in fact, be “neo-” almost anything, with the language of the paraphrase, i.e., the “neo,” having an unmistakable contemporaneous character of its own. Thus today we can easily identify such variations in the crafts and architecture of the turn of the century as Art Nouveau Classical, Art Nouveau Gothic, Art Nouveau Oriental (or Ballet Diaghilev exotic) or even Art Nouveau Rococo. As we shall see, a kind of sweeping foliate freeform was to become Art Nouveau Organic.

While the new idiom was inevitably to take a different turn, at once more decadent, sensuous and precocious, in Paris and in Vienna, one of the main reasons for its ready acceptance and proliferation in arts, crafts and fashion throughout England, Germany and the United States (with little more than token resistance from the conservative establishment) was that it essentially gave expression to then-emergent ideals and values of middle-class rational progressivism and cosmopolitanism. It not only reconciled pragmatism with all that was thought worthwhile in historic and aristocratic values, but in a kind of “bureaucratization of the prophetic” it was able to absorb anything really threatening in the foreign, the novel and the exotic (as well as in the cultural implications of new trends in the social and psychological sciences), and to subject them to its rationales. In the sense in which the word is used in today’s communication theory, it was the artistic form of the necessary, and hence spontaneously pervasive, “propaganda” of the time. As a cultural phenomenon Art Nouveau did not arise as a revolution from without or from below the class-economic center of gravity of European society (in the sense that Impressionism had been, and Dada and Expressionism were to be, defiant assertions of an artistic and intellectual avant-garde). Perhaps all this is but to define the phenomenology of the obvious: that Art Nouveau was a period style, not an art movement, and that, like all epochal styles, it could and did create a congenial atmosphere for certain art movements (Cubism, Bauhaus, and various organic freeform abstractionisms) that were compatible with its basic ethos, if not with its specific esthetic formulas, while other art movements (Dada and Expressionism) were utterly alien and antagonistic to it and in part arose as challenges to its fundamental assumptions.

In the decade between 1880 and 1890 the new art style became virtually a universal cult, which like all universal cults soon acquired the character of academicism.While the style had its origin in certain refined compositional mannerisms of pre-Raphaelite idyllism, these mannerisms took on different meanings in the various national cultures adopting them. What in England was regarded as an elegant, quasi-Neo-Classical idiom, with potentialities of bringing a restrained and aristocratic tastefulness to the design of objects either of luxury or common utility, became in the Germanic countries an esthetic mystique, which was in turn fed back as theory and jargon throughout the cult, ultimately dominating the new schools and studios of practically all of the arts. The principal and most obvious formal tenet of the new esthetic was that a non-regular, but dynamically composed curvilinear syntax constituted “organic form”—as exemplified in plants, vines, the course of rivers, the female body and the contours of rolling hills and wavy seas. Plant forms in particular were studied, and in this connection Goethe’s somewhat mystical form theories concerning an archetypal plant, or creatively evolving plant idea, tangibly visible in countless transformations, were readily seized upon as supportive of the new esthetics. It must be noted, however, that the new esthetic was anti-realistic; in other words, the spirit of nature was to be dramatized by a stylistic simplification and exaggeration of broad sweeping curvilinear rhythms. People readily saw “old” applications of the “new” principle in ancient Chinese scroll depictions of mountains and oceans, in the curves of Greek vases, and in the flowing lines of classical drapery. It was in this era that the words “rhythmic” and “flowing” became the ubiquitous cliches of professional estheticians. Beauty was a kind of limpid orderly fluidity.

It was also in this era that there arose a conscious striving for a rationale in which esthetic principles of all of the arts could be formulated as having a common foundation. By an easy verbal analogy, “rhythm” and “flow” in music were equated with “rhythm” and “flow” in graphic design, and these were presumed to be basic organizational principles rooted in man’s continuity with Nature, and therefore intuitive to that true “creative awareness” which could be interchangeably realized in any of the pure or applied arts. Terpsichoreans paced around drapery-laden stages in tunics and togas, improvising “free-form, flowing, expressive gestures” then styled “Modern Dance,” the choreographic form, par excellence, of Art Nouveau.

That the different elements of a graphic composition or of a manufactured object were most economically and beautifully harmonious when their contours flowed into one another with curvilinear sequences and symmetry was practically a dictum. (So taken for granted were such notions at the time, that even when the scholarly Professor Rhys Carpenter wrote his “Esthetic Basis of Greek Art” in 1921, he was in fact merely elaborating another rationale of the formal esthetics of Art Nouveau—somewhat fortuitously applied to Greek antiquities.)

The more extreme Goethean nature-mysticism developments of Jugendstil were to be found in the abstract plant studies of Henri van de Velde (strikingly paralleled in the fantasy landscapes of the American artist, Arthur Dove) and in the astonishing freeform carved wooden columns and branch-like vaulting of the first Goetheanum built in 1913 by the eccentric and versatile Goethean esotericist, Rudolf Steiner, for his art and “anthroposophical” cult center in Dornach, Switzerland, and unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1922.

In much of the German literary art philosophizing of the period all of the currents of fin-de-siecle Europe—health cults, newly imported exotic artistic and mystical concepts from Russia and the Orient, Goethean nature mysticism, Wagnerian unification of the arts, the consolidation of arts and technology, ideas from the then-novel and little understood Viennese depth psychology, “free love,” and the basic ideals (and, therefore, not the formal protocol) of middle-class morality (Ibsen’s thesis)—had to be swept into one all-encompassing world outlook in which the disparate elements flowed into one another with a curvilinear syntax analogous to the compositional procedures of Jugendstil. Such literature was not an avant-garde intellectual criticism (as is today often supposed) but reflected the spontaneously evolving “avant-bourgeois” popular freethinking of the period (often free, one might observe, of even a semblance of logical connection or analytic discrimination among its eclectic ingredients).

That quasi-mystical “plant esthetics” together with much of the Jugendstil spirit lingered on as part of the Germanic artistic climate between the two world wars was evidenced by the appearance in 1929 of Professor Blossfeldt’s elegant and expensive volume of plant photographs, prefaced in Art Nouveau typography, and entitled “Urformen Der Kunst” (Prototypes of Art). The preface to this work proclaims grandiosely that “art and nature,” as the “two major manifestations of the Cosmos” are so integrally reciprocal “that one without the other is unthinkable,” that “ferns and shave grass had their present form incomprehensible eons ago,” and “merely altered their proportions under the evolution of the earth’s atmosphere,” and then, in a grand non sequitur of rhapsodic transition, heralds the emergence of a “new human type, frolicsome, freespirited, suntanned and communing with the elements.” Here are echoes of the pure and wholesome nature idyllism found in the chaste and innocent nudes borrowed from Burne-Jones and placed in arboreal settings on Jugendstil posters.

The now outdated, yet in some circles persistent cult of organic freeform was indeed the child of the formal mannerisms of Jugendstil wedded to Goethean romantic naturism. One can advance the branching lines of descent from these ancestors a generation further by observing that there was here an inherently suggested potentiality of transformation from the organic plant-tree freeform to the organic animal-body freeform of biomorphism, as well as from the irregular curvilinear symmetry of Art Nouveau freeform to the more regularly geometricized and angular convolutions of Cubism, Simultaneisme and the Bauhaus idioms. (These latter idioms were therefore in a sense “contrasting analogous derivatives” of, rather than basic innovative heresies against, the spirit of Jugendstil esthetics.) Biomorphism could be said to be a child of the wedding of organic freeform to the new Freudian mystique of the unconscious with its corporocentric erotic symbols. In fact, those compositions of Gorky’s in which vine-like tentacles sprout phallic “orchids” and vaginomorphic leaves and petals, perfectly embody the transition.

However, not only departing radically from earlier European expressive art, but born as a revolt against the new, all-pervasive Jugendstil esthetic was the non-organic, non-geometric, in short, non-lyrical and non-formalistically oriented expressionism of Kokoschka, from which it was but a step to the pure painterly (i.e., non-lineographic, non-“composed”) idiom of Hans Hofmann and the American Abstract Expressionists. In the Kokoschka “Kunstschau” poster of 1908 one still finds traces of organic form, whereas in the “Der Sturm” (1911) and “Galerie Wolfsberg” (1923) portrait posters there begins to appear the impetuous scribbly line, an evocation of the awkward, untutored spontaneity of child-art caricature, and even a prophecy of that concept of Action Painting, the impulsive, unpremeditated thrust onto paper or canvas.

It may be said that the Jugendstil posters and the work of the American painterly Abstract Expressionists stand at opposite nodes in a cycle of history. Jugendstil was primarily an idiom rooted in graphic-ism, architecture and artisanship. In the environment of Jugendstil and its offshoots the painter as such was the neglected artist. Those with a predilection for paint, its color, its texture, its unexplored properties of ooze, drip and impasto, and even its tactile qualities, inevitably rebelled against an esthetic world-outlook rooted in the line of the engraver, the stone of the lithographer, the space-form of the architect and the techniques of craftsmen to whom prevailing fashions posed the problem of imparting an elegant and composed formal unity (whether Jugendstil proper or geometric techno functional its Bauhaus analogous derivative) to the linear contours of everything from a cigarette case to an automobile.

––Palmer D. French



The term “Jugendstil” was derived from the weekly periodical “Jugend” (founded in Munich in 1896), which together with “Simplicissimus” (Munich 1896), “Ver Sacrum” (Vienna 1898) and “Pan” (Berlin 1895) were the principal exponents in Germanic Europe of the new style, i.e. Art Nouveau, in format and illustrative material.

Actually Art Nouveau reached its apex in America during the early twenties––the decade of its decline in Europe. (This is particularly evident in the style, decoration and ornamentation to be found in Manhattan downtown office buildings of the twenties.) The apparent ten-year lag in transatlantic cultural communication (what was at peak in the Europe of 1910–14 becoming “new” in America only in the early twenties) was a unique interruption caused by World War I. Furthermore, that confident and optimistic middle-class progressivism which the war had shattered in Europe, it amplified in America. Untouched by the war on our own soil, and emerging from it as a prosperous major power having “saved the world for democracy,” the American bourgeois could shamelessly import, wholesale, and strive to imitate, the cultural gestures and attitudes of pre-war European “modernism” and “cosmopolitanism,” saving face, as it were, in being able to patronize Europe economically and politically as one would an impoverished relation.