PRINT February 1969

Expressionism, Eccentric and Concentric

WE GENERALLY FEEL THAT WE can recognize an Expressionist painting no matter when or where it was produced. In Expressionist paintings we expect the subject matter, whether perceived or imagined, to be reformed by the intense emotion of the painter, communicated through his distortions of form and color and dislocations of space. These should lay bare the emotional excesses and even pathological morbidities of the artist’s mind. Historically the word has been used most in describing European paintings done between Impressionism and Surrealism. Munch and Hodler, who might otherwise be called Art Nouveau artists, seem more at home as Expressionists, as do most of the members of the Brucke, the Blaue Reiter and the Fauves. The exemplary Expressionists show morbid eroticism (Schiele, Klimt), close association between sex and death (Munch, Hodler, Beckmann, Nolde), violent dislocation of forms observed (Van Gogh, Soutine, the Fauves, early Kandinsky), images which approach the art of the insane, the child, the savage (Ensor, Klee, Nolde, Dubuffet).

Read this way, granted the immediate historical and artistic matrix of the late 19th and early 20th century, the Expressionist becomes a man outside of history, who, because of personal necessity, produces objects almost as a psychotic does, products of his delusion which are necessary to him in order to ward off some impending catastrophe which threatens to engulf and destroy him. This ambergris theory of art makes the aficionado a connoisseur of aberrant morphology and reduces the artist to the role of producer of sick curiosa to adorn the walls of otherwise healthy homes. Thus, the best eccentric Expressionist painting is the most disturbed and disturbing, the least conventional and the most objectionable, the ugliest and the most questionable, the most violent and cathartic and therefore the most worthwhile.

Concentric Expressionism on the other hand is based on reading the traditional pictorial subjects (still life, portrait, nude, figure composition, landscape) through the compositional and stylistic models of past artists. These models are renewed through the new artist’s enthusiasm, personal calligraphy and the simplifications and reconstructions he achieves in his drive toward normative clarity. This impulse became conscious in Western art with difficulty and only in the work of a few 20th-century artists.

Some 20th-century artists who worked as eccentric Expressionists earlier in their careers produced work later on which, while it could still be called Expressionist, was increasingly concentric. While their work continued to be freely brushed and intuitively composed, the less eccentric it became the more it was overlooked or disparaged by serious critical opinion and, more important, by younger artists. These artists were Raoul Dufy, Albert Marquet, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Vlaminck, Segonzac, Chaim Soutine, Andre Derain and perhaps some of the Italians of the Valori Plastici and Novecento groups such as Arturo Tosi, Filippo di Pisis, and Ugo Bernasconi. The work of Matisse in the ’20s which surprised his friends for its apparent conservatism, also represents a concentric phase in his development.

It is widely believed that these painters suffered a failure of nerve and quality and that their later work tended towards picture making for the bourgeoisie. There is still a general tendency nowadays to dismiss most of this work produced between the two world wars since it does not fit into our current vanguard-oriented reading of history. Although this view is simplistic and false, the problem is complicated by the fact that several of these artists did in fact produce some work showing a decline in quality during part of this period. Some of the later paintings of Vlaminck and Dufy do indeed seem routine and have less quality than before, but many fewer than current taste rejects, and their late work has many high spots.

While it is possible for an artist’s inspiration, his gut impulse, his eccentricity, to fail him, in the case of the artists in question a gradual shift is evident away from eccentric violence towards concentric but still intense expression. Their earlier work was in fact not so much outside history as eccentrically and violently opposed to current routine pictorial convention. Their later development towards chosen masters whose work, within tradition, struck a chord within them was a mature consequence and not a rejection of their earlier positions. This new direction was one less characteristic of European than of oriental art.

Characteristically, Chinese and Japanese artists copied the work of acknowledged masters of the past. Copying was a recognized branch of the artist’s practice, but a good copy, passing through the mind and hand of a new artist, must change, even if only subtly, in order to preserve the living quality of the painting. The picture thus was based on the pictorial vocabulary of the original artist rather than a close transcription of his work. Japanese art since the time of Sesshu was both dependent on Chinese models and aware that its character was distinct from contemporaneous Chinese painting. Whatever qualities were searched out eventually became submerged within Japanese styles. Rediscovery and eclectic blending occurred more than once in the history of Japanese painting.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, Japanese artists became increasingly interested in the art of southern Sung painters. They were influenced as well by the Bunjingwa of Ming and Ching times, artists who were anti-professional in life style and in art and who valued spontaneity and cogency of expression above technical proficiency, but the Japanese made no distinction between them and the southern Sung, feeling that the Bunjingwa continued the traditions in which they were most interested. Japanese elements were influential too: the Japanese had developed an independent school of caricature called Tobaye in which gesture and expression were exaggerated while the figure itself was increasingly stereotyped.

The Nangwa (southern Sung-influenced) painters admired the Zen Buddhist painters, Mu-Chi and Liang Kai inordinately. Many of the Japanese artists were influenced not only by Zen Buddhist art but also by Zen doctrine. They were influenced as well by Haiku, poetry which in a synoptic group of words through suggestion and inference expressed complex emotions and reactions to nature and the social setting. Some of the Nangwa masters were at the same time great Haiku masters. These artists, however, were intensely social beings and wished to comment concisely and intensely, not merely on meditating monks, arhats, bodhisattvas, the behavior of animals, landscape and still life, but also on any activity of man in or out of society. To do this they were forced to convert their expressionist vocabulary into a language capable of dealing with the individual man and his character, the social group and their response. Tobaye provided an element of caricature whose calculated distortions, added to the Haiku, Zen and Nangwa elements, gave them sufficient flexibility. The distorted figures, moreover, have the sense of seeming uncalculated and violated just those rules which would emphasize the professional character of the artist. Thus the new work was simultaneously a continuation of both the Bunjingwa and Nangwa traditions, while it intensified their inherent expressionism. It was, however, an expressionism in which the idiosyncratic personality of the artist was used as a vehicle for expressing deeply held reactions to social conditions and plastic sensations as seen through, within and as an extension of the existing plastic tradition.

An expressionist response to Western pictorial traditions can be found in the work of European artists of various generations, for example Tintoretto, Crespi, Strozzi and Magnasco. Most important, however, not only for the quality of their work but as well for the effect which their lives and autodidactic procedures had on succeeding generations of artists were Gericault and Delacroix. They both spent many years preparing for an assault on the grand tradition in painting, studying and making free copies and transcriptions by the gross of works by Titian, Rubens and other Flemish and Venetian painters with the thought of eventually achieving the grand style themselves. They were unconscious of the impetus in their own work away from the grand manner toward a summary, more simplified and personal calligraphy. Artists like Annibale Carracci, Balthus and David do not fit into the scope of this discussion because their work, rather than showing an expressionist response, shows a desire to reconstruct almost in toto the structure and machinery of traditional painting and to recapture the essence of forms in all their detail and complexity. Their work, for all its reliance on and revival of earlier practices, demands a subservience of the artist’s hand and impulse to the forms to be realized and the artist’s understanding of the traditional procedures through which this is to be achieved.

Chaim Soutine, whose life and personality read like those of an exemplary Expressionist, painted at first a tortured and drunken world with extreme idiosyncrasy. His Expressionist image was not, however, that of a complete autodidact. He was academically trained and was influenced by El Greco and Van Gogh. Slowly and almost imperceptibly seeking out and restudying the works of Courbet and Rembrandt, he developed to a point at which he rejected much of his earlier procedure. His later painting, while there is no clear break in its Expressionist character and it suffered no loss in force or imagination, was founded on direct simplification from nature with his hand and eye now subtly guided by his understanding and reformulation of 19th-century pictorial conventions.

Marquet, after his early Fauve episode, restudied at length the works of the great earlier French landscape painters, especially Corot and Claude Lorrain. His later work, despite its simplicity and the directness of his brushing, recalls the clarity and logic of both artists.

Andre Derain treated the whole past as his hunting ground. During his lifetime he produced close copies, in the Chinese sense, of the work of Ghirlandaio and Breughel and glosses on Byzantine icons, Coptic portraits, Corot landscapes, Chardin still lifes, Images Epinals, African sculpture, Near Eastern bronzes, Cézanne’s landscapes, figure paintings of Strozzi, and many more. He started his career, however, as a leader of the Fauve movement and later became a “conservative” Cubist but remained until the 1920s a leader of the Parisian avant-garde. This volte face was clear and, in retrospect, abrupt. Some critics still cannot forgive him for having deserted the avant-garde, and are unable to recognize in his later work a new position of the greatest interest to the future of painting, rather than a conservative capitulation to bourgeois standards. In the two close copies, the Ghirlandaio made near the beginning of his career and the Breughel Massacre of the Innocents near the end, he located himself in the stroke of his brush which inescapably but subtly altered the forms as he copied them, much as a Chinese copyist might. Derain felt no embarrassment in painting a version of an earlier painting or in an earlier style. He felt that enthusiasm was a sufficient reason, and that merely to look enthusiastically at some masterwork and not to paint from it was insufficient. The great bulk of his work is not so much copied from earlier work or even painted in an earlier style so much as it is experiencing nature or a subject, and a simultaneous re-experiencing of an earlier pictorial convention. The two, subject and convention, are blended by his brush and through his stroke and the simplifying logic of his sensibility emerge as the abstracted essence of both the subject and the style within which it was portrayed. This procedure corresponds very closely to that traditional to Chinese and Japanese painting. It is of historic importance for us because it points to a way out of the philosophy of vanguardism. It is extreme and pessimistic to say with the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity . . . and that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” But so much has been done and we accept so much of that as great and abiding art that it seems a shame to have it all closed to us except as historians and connoisseurs. Derain’s introduction of the pictorial process typical of oriental painting comes at a time when it may provide an alternative artistic attitude.

While it is true that the most eccentric Expressionists still have their reputations intact, since the fall of Abstract Expressionism the entire Expressionist movement is almost universally considered a dead issue, as dead as Impressionism or Analytic Cubism. There is some justice in this, for eccentricity presupposes a body of accepted pictorial practices and assumptions from which it deviates. The production of queer objects is necessarily followed by the production of less-queer objects and finally by banality. The expressionist impulse, though, has been a valid one in different cultures for many centuries. Seeing it as Marquet, Derain and Soutine eventually came to see it, as a concentric activity, makes possible a tradition of expressionism and the continued production of valid expressionist work.

Gabriel Laderman


I would like to express my appreciation for numerous informative conversations, which have helped immeasurably in the writing of this article, to the painters Leland Bell and Al Kresch.