Expressionism as rite and transfer.
aesthetics; expressionism; rite; transfer; poetics; function
The ambiguity of expressionism is a constant in the related field of exegesis. Defining the concept thus poses various problems, even if some constants do exist, such as: rapture, pathos, the utopic, the tragic, nihilism, the grotesque, the caricature--excess and irregularity. Works of exegesis dedicated to expressionism operate close to romanticism and neo-romanticism, and the aesthetic expressionist programmes remain confusing, pathetic, vague.
While Ernst Ludwig Kirchner stated to a critic in 1924 that "it seemed more degrading than anything [...] to be identified with Munich and expressionism" (Will Grohmann, apud Grigorescu 1980: 9), Gottfried Benn "was shocked, in 1955, when he found out that his work was presented as being expressionist and he expressed his doubts concerning the criterion which determined such a definition" (Hans Mayer, apud Grigorescu 1980: 9). On the other hand, not even the analytical distance of eminent critics of the movement could lead to precise conceptual depictions. The dense rhetoric and the versatile properties of this movement did not help either. Its mobility and opposing views, its poetics of distortion and of paroxysm proved to be the main problem. (cf. Gliksohn 1990) The current's main features were its riotous instability of vision, of emotion and of means of artistic creation, all having a tendency to pessimism, anguish and violence (cf. Palmier 1980)
Expressionism in sum reiterates the modernist or avant-garde discourses, centred on retrieving human sensitivity, insisting on remembering these discourses until acquiring the expression of the scream, of the yell, aimed at liberating experience and emotion through persistent repetition. The whole production of expressionist aesthetics (plastic and literary) is a rite of passage towards authenticity.
Expressionism as function rather than programme
Consisting of consecutive configurations, the expressionist aesthetics is more likely to be depicted as a reservoir of vital energies, which succumbed to sleep by the action of the positivisms of the era. It was resuscitated in a historical, anthropological and epistemical context of great importance, related to the anthropocentric project, which expressionism appropriated. The expressionist aesthetics was misunderstood in its profound dynamics when regarded outside of the historical context in which it was developed, i.e. the general crisis of the Western world from the beginning of the 20th century. The movement proved to be evanescent and rhetorical in nature, having only a programmatic facade--truly, it was only an inconsistent programme amongst the modern and avant-garde movements. It was thus more of a function than anything else. It is endowed with a much too diluted, heterogeneous, dazzling conceptual field, recycled from its interaction with countless doctrines, aesthetics, philosophies and languages applied to a large humanistic project. Expressionism lacks a conceptual critical corpus, and this is why it is essential to resort to the historical context in which it developed, by displaying its avatars and its aesthetic forms, if we are to understand its nebulous form.
Expressionism was defined by various experts as a Janus bifrons, having two sides: one dark and precipitous and another confident and beaming. Apocalyptic and prophetic and revolutionary, expressionism eludes an omniscient descriptive precision because it supposes, above all, an attitude, a twitch, a gesture. With a heightened polemical and debunking buoyancy, with an unequivocal reforming rhetorical drive, expressionism is outlined on the cultural scene as an outstandingly effervescent and restless artistic movement, as an inconsistent, steamy project, much as an atmosphere or a ghostly apparition. Thus, hallucination, ghostly apparitions, delirium and a phantasmagorical corpus of ideas and images become expressionistic trademarks.
The mise-en-scene of expressionism is created by "the phantasm of the soul," the phantasm of "the man of man," or that of the inner truth of man, which had been culturally and aesthetically annihilated. Now "man asks, howling, for his soul" (Hermann Bahr), as if through a magical calling: "Even the art howls in the dark, requires help, invokes the spirit: it is expressionism" (De Micheli 1989: 70). Expressionism is this re-emergence of the culturally repressed, of the diffuse entity of the soul/spirit, muffled by the progress of Enlightenment thinking. It is discursive hallucination, phantasm; the stationary expressionist drama is the perfect aesthetic mechanism of ritualized dressing of the phantasmagorical content. The reforming attitudes and the experimental combination of the most varied discourses are the most accurate and fantastic profile of expressionism. In Kandinsky's metaphor of the "blue knight," expressionism initiates a symbolic quest to rejuvenate the human being both emotionally and spiritually. The key of this aesthetics was "the large measure of the feeling" (Kasimir Edschmidt's formula; cf. De Micheli 1994: 85). Its fate and mission was the awakening of conscience / spirit, in a complex modern context of the rise of neoromanticism, empirio-criticism, Husserl's phenomenology, Bergson's vitality, Dilthey's poetic intuitionism, Nietzsche's volitional spiritualism, and Rudolf Steiner's theosophical movements.
Such complexity could only add to the confusion concerning what expressionism truly was. In the absence of an "expressionist manifesto," and given the vague nature of the "partial programmes" of expressionism, the only possible conclusion was that "expressionism is not a well-defined movement." (cf. Grigorescu 1980)
A corpus of doctrine is difficult to pinpoint in expressionism, as it recycles and synthetizes the entire discursive commotion of the era. However, on the obscure cultural scene of the beginning of the 20th century, beyond the evanescent and dazzling corpus of expressionistic ideas, an aesthetic modus operandi seems to have developed which helped the confused discourses to interact in the purpose of profound spiritual reform. Thus, the survival of expressionism beyond its own age is due to a strategic plan to bear the crisis and to transgress it. In the saturated ensemble of innumerable aesthetic and extra-aesthetic discourses, of countless programmes and theories, expressionism fulfils an effective function of a rite of passage from a cultural, historical, epistemical situation, towards an emergent and vital liberation. Expressionism is thus an aesthetic rite of passage which the poetics of the stationary drama correctly illustrates, through imagery, as a recondite radiograph.
Discursive review and interrogation in expressionism
Without providing an explicit particular representation, expressionism is carnivalesque in essence, for it is the "shriek" which gathers ideologies, values and codes in a discursive square, it tests their humanistic consistency, it transgresses them as in a symbolical resuscitation quest and it sets them free through the "shriek." Should there be a formal structure of this aesthetics--one which could be pinpointed and applied to expressionist writings, beyond their original context--this is transgression itself.
In the hectic cultural atmosphere of the beginning and the proper development of expressionism (1905-1920), shaken by successive secessions as gestures meant to border and protest towards official art, the voices which anticipate this movement are highlighted beneath the borrowed facades of translations. The latter become anchoring points of a discursive field within which the selections operated by the poet-translator are utterly eloquent for the subliminal orientation of this aesthetics. The generation of poets preceding the generation of expressionists had been gifted with strong imaginative personalities and illustrious translators (cf. Grigorescu 1980). German expressionist magazines, Die Aktion and Die Weissen Blatter, published translations from modernist writers such as Rimbaud, Verlaine (both mentioned in translations by Theodor Daubler), Verhaeren, Mallarme, Francis Jammes, Baudelaire, etc. The mythical image the expressionists embroider around Whitman and his humanitarian enthusiasm stands for a perfectly adequate discursive mask, suitable for expressionist pursuits, weakly conceptualized and intensely asserted. This poet's anthropocentrism (the belief in the human being, in human solidarity, in profound empathy and in love for the human being) indicates that expressionists and Whitman "were talking about the same thing, by placing themselves at the same level or at the same distance, by deploying the same conceptual field." (Foucault 1972: 126)
The latter is to be considered representative for the expressionist discourse, which is more likely bound to select and borrow, to respect the discursive sequences, instead of suggesting a conceptual repertoire. In fact, it intensifies through reactions, it ritualizes already existing discourses and suggests a passage towards an unaltered sensitive background. Attempting to set the conceptual profile of this movement, Amelia Pavel undertakes a rigorous coding and a minute trial to specify the main aesthetic concepts which support the expressionist project: they are detailed, through subtle divisions of the active, semantic lines in the fields of other aesthetics, such as "the concept of experience and the concept of energy; then the concepts of action, force, tension, expression, construction, with different deviations arisen and developed within various movements which have points of interference with expressionism" (Pavel 1978: 14). Nevertheless, what this conceptual sketch reveals is indeed expressionism's lack of a corpus of doctrine. Therefore, mapping expressionism's traits one finds out that in it there is no programmatic platform: instead it reveals itself as a strategy to recycle, borrow and use a repertoire; as a way of sensing and living it, of endowing it with a specific sensibility. Expressionism repeats, insists on and ritualizes those semantic or conceptual lines which enable a spiritual disentanglement or liberation. Beneath the formula of intensity, spontaneity, of thoroughly creative liberty, expressionism enacts a philosophy of the sensitive difference of the emotion which is theorized as pathos.
The cabaret, at the level of non-discursive actions, of the social events, confers an exceptional translation of this heteroglossia, the carnivalesque hybridity of genres, discourses and shapes, the mixing of languages, of attitudes, the fundamental contamination. A substantial study is devoted to this phenomenon in which expressionism is formulated:
The cabarets of the Weimar Republic--especially those in Berlin constitute one of the strangest sociological, aesthetic and ideological phenomena of the 1920s. Between the two World Wars, nearly all artistic movements manage to express themselves through the stage of the cabaret, where expressionism, with its Neo-pathetic Cabaret, is born, or the songs composed by the old Dadaists. As it moves forward towards the 1930s, the most divergent styles alternate each other and the Berlin cabaret becomes more and more political, until it catalyses a sanguinary battle for the removal of these "cultural Jewish-Bolshevik cauldrons" from Berlin. Undoubtedly, the cabaret played an essential part in the Berliner mythology, up to the point where political figures emerged into the stage, the cabaret songs and the popular ones, descended onto the streets. Far from being a faded show, the cabaret attracted most artists: poets, composers, playwrights, directors and writers, from Hans Heinz to Max Ewers Reinhardt. Brecht was a frequent visitor, as all the poets of his generation. Bewildering atmospheres were full of sorrow and irony, of tasting the pleasures, in dreams and oblivion. A phantasmagorical world where the last gunshots of the expressionist poetry are still shining, Maluese's magnetic sight occurs through smoke, transvestites, artistocrats, courtesans, the bourgeoisie and the players. (cf. Palmier 1980)
In such a troubled and marginal climate, cabaret-wise, the first expressionist literary manifestations take place, in The new club (1909) and The neo-pathetic cabaret (1910), recurrent titles in the literature of the time, as well as Elevations of feeling, peaks of feeling (cf. Grigorescu 1980). They are relevant for such a confused climate, filled with carnivalesque exaggerations. The cabaret, a real literary-artistic and carnivalesque market, is the appropriate medium to launch expressionism as aesthetics of paroxysm, of the psychic and ontological limit, of violent transgressions.
"New expressionist pathos" and the re-emergence of the repressed
The emerging of expressionist lyric poetry amongst the experiments of retrieving, remembering, reactivating some major modernist ideals, such as Whitman's model, conveys a radiograph of the birth of this discourse through its intensity and pathos. The specificity element which expressionism infuses to the admitted modernist, fervently arrayed models, is, essentially, the new blast or the new pathos, a terrible stressing of feeling, of emotion, of lyricism. Not by chance, among the magazines in whose spatiality expressionism is emphasized, Der Sturm and Die Aktion (which appeared in 1910 in Berlin), Die Revolution (in Munich in 1913), Die weissen Blatter (in Zurich), one of them is called Das neue Pathos (1913), pointing out the genesis of this aesthetics, its production mechanisms in relation to the new associated models. "New," in the context in which this discourse does not necessarily display a new formal structure (new concepts, techniques, and procedures), actually refers to increased intensity rather than form, to a subjective repetition (bolding the outline in plastic, according to the model of wood; crafting until reaching deformity, caricature, excess, emphasizes this technique renewal through intensification and repetition).
The expressionist novelty (attached to the titles of various magazines or literary circles, as Neuer Club) and the pathos, which invested this aesthetics with a denominative defining force, truly contain the cipher of genesis and the function that expressionism has in the ensemble of modern and avant-garde mutations in art: the new expressionist pathos as a nucleus which is impossible to conceptualize, phantasmagorical apparitions brought on the European stage (filled with creative formulae, languages and techniques), a ritualized aesthetic exercise (through intensification and repetition) of encapsulating the "difference as a reason of the sensitive" included in this intensity ("Intensity is the form of difference in so far as this is the reason of the sensible. Every intensity is differential, by itself a difference" Deleuze 1994: 222). It stands for the source of the sprawl as an effect of intensity/ of pathos, visible at the level of the spread expressionist poem, which is blown away by an intensive breath, beyond which there is chaos and nothingness. One of the most explicit marks of the expressionist poem, according to its modernist perviousness, the sprawl of the images within the vacuum, of the new pathos, translates the differential opening of the representations of the world and of the self at the same time, the differential ratio itself, the unequivocal, "the sprawl as it is understood and determined in the difference of intensity, in the intensity as a difference." The difficulty of capturing a clear concept of this aesthetics, beyond the typical marks (exacerbation, deformation, fragmentariness, etc.), derives from the much too abstract character of this concept, which is thoroughly phantasmagorical; the ethereal corpus of the difference actually is a ratio, a reflex, an echo, a crossing of projections.
From a functional perspective, expressionism is the cultural and aesthetic equivalent of the differential agon from the topos of the Greek tragedy, with which it has programmatically been identified and from which it arrogates the concept of over-drama (in Ivan Goll, for example). The tragic debate seems to be perceived as the reflex of a deeper agon, that of the cultural difference mentioned by Rene Girard in his works related to "the violence and the sacred." In a similar manner, the expressionist poems, but, more likely, the drama, are the stage of the re-emergence of the same tragic agon in the context of the anti-metaphysical labour, systematically developed by Nietzsche (who patronizes the whole expressionist sensitivity). The category of the tragic as a profound concept of this aesthetics comprises much more than the structure of distorting contents and paroxistic tensions, in the sense that it is a Nietzschean tragicalness of the cultural withdrawal and of unveiling the difference as a phantasmagoric control, as a game of reflexions or simulacrum. The expressionist game belonging to phantasms, hallucinations, delirium, madness and prophetic phenomena (visible especially within the dramatical space) is endowed with rationales and functions which go beyond these aesthetic transformations. They translate the vision (another concept formally associated with the romantic visionariness) of this abysmal withdrawal of Western culture. The expressionists are, indeed, visionaries (as they claim themselves to be), but the reverse of the romantic visionariness; prophets of the void as a lower hierarchical stage of culture, as a pre-cultural chasm, as an agon and agony of the difference. Mystical in form, their statements comprise sensitivity, feelings:
Endowed with an extremely unmeasured sensitivity, they could no longer see, but contemplate; they did not photograph: they had revelations [...]. Only the force of one's feelings governs and leads, not a contaminated thought: that is why it can reach exaltation, it can bear great visions within the spirit. (De Micheli 1989: 82)
It is precisely this which denunciates the expressionist cast of visionariness: the revelation of the difference through the intensification of the sensitive as a perceptible, intuitive aspect. That is why, opposing the sentimental, romantic vision, the expressionist visionariness is unsettling, blurred, bluntly crossing aspects, by setting them in their own center. The expressionist vision, apparently comprehensive, even cosmic, as they call it, does not unify, but rather rends, deepens, breaks the entire halo of representations and their palimpsestic stratification. Totalizing is a false discursive effect (the usage of romantic concepts for a different semantic cast) derived from the desire of penetration/ tearing apart this whole (of the mythical project of the world).
The ambivalence of the expressionist conceptual language induces false lines in understanding the phenomenon: expressionism operates within these concepts, which have been absorbed and intensified until their explosion in the other direction. That is why, under an improvised discursive corpus, borrowed from the preexisting aesthetics, expressionism is a function more than a discourse involving a doctrine. Radicalizing the withdrawal of the representations found in the Western culture (through the aesthetic exercise of dislocation and suspension), expressionism fulfills a function of rite and transfer, a purgative function of the collective and individual unconscious (being the place of origin for the ratio between the individual and mass collectivism). If it is visionary, according to its own voice, then expressionism beholds, as if through a profound radiograph, the entire differential game of the withdrawing representations and their chaotic hierarchy. The expressionist expression translates, far from any romantic expressiveness, the paroxysmic development of the differential intensity which expressionism mainly accounts for. The entire literary and artistic expressionism is conveyed through an unfolding and withdrawal of the difference within typical or formal generic terms: the emotion in lyric within the seeming shape of the over-stratified poem, the system of social relationships and parts (social drama) in the concept of over drama, the break through an imaginary of doubling and the double (of neo-gothic extraction) of the narrative unit of the individual itself. By intensifying, unfolding, imagining all these contents and cultural representations, expressionism achieves an aesthetic act of exorcism (otherwise, intensification acquires the status of an aesthetic concept in art).
The birth of the expressionist poem in the background of the modernist poem, through various translations and assimilations, is meant to clarify the expressionist poetic labour, that of withdrawal through repetition, intensification, excess, and finally, through blasting as an effect of this labour. In the context of analysing poetic expressionism, the influence of the modernist poem, especially Baudelaire's and Rimbaud's lyrical borrowings, in the genesis of the modernist poem, known as a hectic translation and interpretation of these figures, the following aspects have been pointed out:
This inheritance, Baudelaire, and even more, Rimbaud, constitute an essential aspect. A vast majority of the expressionist poets discover their works through translations. Stefan George, in 1901, provided a German version of extended excerpts of Fleur du mal. Baudelaire's influence on the expressionist lyricism is, as will be mentioned, at the same time, subtle and substantial. That of Rimbaud is widely certified and more profound. His call to "etre absolument moderne" is, unmistakably, the one which the expressionists were willing to answer. K.L. Ammer, starting from 1906, began the translation of Rimbaud's poems, while Stefan Zweig was publishing a vibrant essay on the French poet. New translations are to appear during the following years, especially those of the sonnet Rage de Cesar and Bateau ivre. The latter, at this time, is likely to become, among expressionists, the most known French poem. Undoubtedly, the expressionists also translate and publish other French poets as well. We quote, with the exception of their contemporaries, Mallarme, Maeterlinck, Verhaeren, but also Villon Jehan Bodel, the hero of a beautiful short-story by Kasimir Edschmid. But Baudelaire's and Rimbaud's influence is dominant. (Gliksohn 1990: 59)
Not only is this influence wide, as far as the atmosphere and the cultural context are concerned, but "it is recognizable, however, in the personal creations of almost all the poets" (Gliksohn 1990: 59). This is how Georg Trakl begins, namely under Baudelaire's and Rimbaud's influence, to acquire a profoundly original poetics: the poem conceived as a retort, having a title identical to Baudelaire's A une passante, contains the closing and opening points towards Baudelaire's model, an essential argument in finding a genetically expressionist mechanism. Keeping the formal and imaginary pattern becomes, in Trakl's text, an intense breath, an act of sacralizing the love, doubled by a profound nostalgia, "a communication of the souls, a sacralization marked through a gentler nostalgia than the tragic 'jamais, peut-etreT of the French poet" (Gliksohn 1990: 60). Therefore, what Trakl introduces in this formal frame is a new, sensitive intensity, a new breath or a new pathos, an intensification of the pre-existing text:
To repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent. And perhaps this repetition at the level of external conduct echoes, for its own part, a more secret vibration which animates it, a more profound, internal repetition within the singular. This is the apparent paradox of festivals: they repeat an 'unrepeatable.' They do not add a second and a third time to the first, but carry the first time to the 'nth' power. With respect to this power, repetition interiorizes and thereby reverses itself. (Deleuze 1994: 1)
As the Nietzschean will for power, expressionist poems start by carrying a power, through intensification (to sprawl as an excess), through the repetition of the unrepeated, of the concealed, interiorized poems, which bring repetition itself to life. The Traklean labour of creation connected to this model represents the purely intensive labour of emphasizing a singular sensibility, of an emotion, of a feeling, of the difference in modern sensitivity which interferes in the text, gradually slithing it. Another Traklean text, which appeared a couple of months later, Birth (November 1913), seems to be further and further from the assimilated French model, and more personally nuanced. The visionary imagination is being built through a progression of intensification which allows the poem to explode in small, separated visions, in constellations of images tied in visions through intensity. If the modernist poem plays a part in dividing, reasoning, suggesting and echoing in the background of meaningless transcendence, the expressionist poem repeats by intensifying this vision, by radicalizing the poetic gesture by transforming the symbolist, modernist, poetic game in a definitely tragic report. Much as the Greek tragedy, the expressionist poem withdraws the sensitive difference (that of the emotions), it rips it from its roots and it exposes it to intensive micro-visions. That is why expressionism comes to be delineated as pure action, as ritual experiment, as energy of transformation and transfer of generally modernist contents; it is a mere act of exile, purgation, exorcism.
A poetic route similar to Trakl's, related to Rimbaud's and Baudelaire's modernist models, is evoked by Jean Michel Gliksohn on early poetic expressionists such as Jacob van Hoddis and Ernst Stadler. Van Hoddis's poem, End of the world, published in January 1911, in a Berlin journal, provides a clear picture of genetic transformations undergone by the expressionist poem, to its standardized shape of the sprawling vacuum that invades the discursive area: the absence of the lyrical ego from the text, the conscience of the transcripts, saturated by exteriority, the present tense as blockage of conscience attempting to take refuge in the past or to escape in the future, separate images and their juxtaposition--all these important aspects of expressionist poetics are, in fact, the effect of the extreme intensification of modernist poetics. Thematically, technically, and formally, expressionist poetry intensifies Baudelaire's poetic experiments (his poetics of the city and its streets). Precisely because it radicalizes the modernist vision of the world (fragmenting the world, disconnecting it from the transcendence and the exteriority of the consciousness), expressionism achieves a cultural phantasmagorical archi-structure. The expressionist revelation is the very revelation of the core, phantasmagorically or Dionysianically differentiated in Nietzsche's approach, which brings a change in the cultural function of this aesthetics, by comparing it to the modernist models. To the extent that it does not just describe and improvise the landscape of a stripped and decadently simulated world, but it despairs before the abyss opened by radicalization, seeking solutions for surmounting the crisis, expressionism takes over the function of a rite of passage, or, psychically, of a labour of transforming and overcoming, of a transfer. Stating that "a motive wanders the entire poem under different aspects," Gliksohn (1990: 65) offered us an important observation applicable to all expressionist poetics. Its function is no longer that of the modernist-symbolist chorus (recovering resonances and echoes of the world's destroyed unity, as a simulacrum), but it reflects exactly the exhumation labour of the phantasmagorical body of the difference through displacement and disguise--"the eternal displacement, the eternal disguise of the prisoner, which thereby indicates the point at which the series coexist in the intersubjective unconscious" (Deleuze 1994: 125). Also, the effect of the dramatic ambiguity of the internal and external perspective in a poem published by Stadler in 1913, in The departure, indicates the same expressionist revelation of the phantasmagorical ambiguity of the ego, as well as the phantasmagorical ambiguity of the difference: "When, finally, the ego appears, and when, simultaneously, an event is announced, the internal and external emotions seem to be reversed" (Gliksohn 1990: 71). That is why expressionism is difficult to be described as a concept, as it is pure and phantasmagorical action (an ambiguous game of projections). It is difficult, because it borrows facades from so many aesthetic systems and conspecifics, and it resembles all and none.
The expressionist stationary drama is the most explicit aesthetic achievement in this regard. Genealogically built by recovering some naturalistic, neo-romantic, symbolist compositional elements, but also opposed to their fundamental message, the expressionist drama transgresses the whole history of the main dramatic models, releasing the obscure core and the therapeutically dramatic ritual functions of the machine in general (recalling the origin of the religious drama). Folded on the regenerating transformation scheme of the protagonist, the expressionist new-drama (over-drama) brings to stage, instead of the characters and the real action, imaginary Symbols and an emotional unleashing, offering a valid picture of the unconscious. Therefore, the chaos of the Symbols is liberated from the syntax of any language (Symbols and Ideas incarnated as characters); on the other hand, disjointed feelings, the entanglements of emotions themselves are deconstructed to pure shriek. Among those signs and dismantled ideas (scattered carnivals), the hero's vacant ego engages in a feverish search of oneself, in a symbolic quest. Introduced in this initiative scenario, the viewer is subjected to a transferential sequence of purification and healing which expressionists called the historic human disease. The expressionist stationary drama is an ego's rite of passage, issued by symbolic masks, beyond the social difference. Most often a youngster still socially unincorporated, alone facing the world, war, society, or parental authority, the hero of this symbolic quest opposes his pathos to a repertoire of fixed roles embodied in characters. Stripped of the clothes of a homo sociologicus (player of predetermined social roles), the expressionist hero exposes the nudity of his own psyche, pure emotion, experience on stage.
Enhancement and release of the sensitive difference
Similar to the literary space in which the genesis of expressionist poetics occurs, not so much through a platform of new concepts, ideas, theories, but especially through a new pathos, the development and the evolution of plastic expressionism knows a similar path. Both in a pre-expressionist, fauvist variant, and also in formulas created within the expressionistic groups, The deck and The blue knight, the aesthetic begins by intensifying emotion (against all rules and techniques), by asserting the emotion to dislodge or explode the shape (in the abstractionist perspective). The deforming, the masquerading, the disfigurement, all these unmistakable marks of the plastic expressionism, are also the effects of intensifying a sensitive labour. The lesson, given to the fauvists by Gauguin and recorded in an article of 1903, Paul Gauguin's influence, is genetically relevant:
'How do you regard this tree?' Gaguin had asked at the edge of Amour Forest. 'Green? Then seek the green, the most beautiful green from your palette; and this shadow? Rather blue. Then, do not be afraid to paint it with the most intense blue.' This is how we found out that any work is a transposition, a caricature, the passional equivalent of a received sensation [...]. He used to set us free from any restraint which was awakened in our instincts as painters [...] if we were allowed to paint that tree which had appeared with crimson, which at that moment seemed to be bright red, then why not translate, through exaggerations, the impressions that justify the metaphors of the poets: to state the curve of a magnificent shoulder until it reaches deformation, to intensify the nacreous candour of a complexion, to stiffen a geometry of unmoved branches? (De Micheli 1989: 72)
The affirmation until deformation, the intensification, therefore, to the end of nothingness, this is the very genetic principle of expressionism, disregarding the aesthetic formula it may have, a principle which is, in fact, Dionysian. Plastic expressionism is the abysmal labour of the sensitive, placed through successive sublimation (the sublimation itself being the sign of this deep labour) from the very poetic fauvist of the pure sensation. The intensive and transgressive effort also designed as a battle between colour and shape (as a deformation under the intensity of colour and a continuous transfiguration), as a symbolic quest really held between the poles of the psyche (the instinctual-temperamental and spiritual one), also justifies the dimension of the rite and the transfer as active parts of the expressionist creativity. Stating the singularity of emotion (against all forms and conventions), the intensity of the difference, is the real expressionist project that renders plastic the programmatic details of the creative strategies.
In this regard, fauvism starts deepening the work in a raw physical matter (by internalizing the aspirations of naturalism in "subjective naturalism"):
For them, the painting needs not to be decorum, composition, order, but only expression. Along with Gaguin, they mainly refer to Van Gogh and, particularly, to Vlaminck. Hence, the painting becomes a way to unleash the violence of their own emotions on the cloth. Fauvism, therefore, stands for the total liberation of the personality, of the instinct. The true fauvist should have been merely an animalpainter. That is why we stand in front of a poetics which could be called subjective naturalism. 'Colours'--Derain mentions--'were dynamite cartridges for us.' (De Micheli 1989: 73)
Exploring the sensation, the instinct through intensification and excess *, is the fauvist quest of the psyche. [* Vlaminck--1989: 74 states in this sense the following: "There was no other purpose but to unveil, through new means, the deep bonds which tied me to the ancient ground. I was a candid barbarian, full of violence. I would instinctually translate, without any method, a truth which was not artistic, but humanistic."]
The German expressionist group organized in 1905 in Dresden, called Die Brucke (The bridge), develops a pictorial poetics equivalent to the fauvist one (to which it is contemporary and has close ties), based on the mental and physiological force of the act of creation, the recording of the psychic wave, of the spontaneous emotion, of the artist's temperament. Perhaps more focused, more coagulated in the pictorial expression, the artists from The bridge imagine the psycho-energetic reality as a hieroglyphic land, the only one which deserves to be deciphered:
If they look at a drawing by Kirchner, as one would read a letter or a cherished book, one would presently get to the key of that hieroglyphic writing. He draws as others write. Hieroglyphs, as expressive signs of an experienced reality, deciphered until its point of explosion, have nothing to do with the stylization, they are anything to us, and anything is each time slightly different, any time it would appear in more images. (De Micheli 1989: 90)
This is how Kirchner describes his own poetic pictorial pseudonymously. Deciphering the psyche trough its energetic waves, the abysmal plunge in the psychic matter is actually a form of painting action more than a platform of concepts and clear terms, a rite of exhumation of the emotional difference. The insistence is on the poetic ritual formula:
It was about insisting upon reality to make the latent secret emerge. In this insistence lies the typical source of expressionist deformation, which originates mainly from Van Gogh and Munch. (De Micheli 1989: 87)
And just because the abysmal exhumation of the difference of emotion was brought by the very tragic revelation of nothingness, many of the expressionist artists ended in suicide, like Kirchner. After the group called Die Brucke squanders in 1913, the expressionist project of psychic quest is continued in a more spiritualist and abstract formula by the group founded in 1911 in Munich by Kandinsky and Franz Marc, denominated Der blaue Reiter (The blue knight), as a symbol of the idea of search and inner transformation.
If the predecessors of The bridge operated their artistic experiment at a physiological, instinctual, temperamental level, as evolution of the singularity of emotion by intensifying it, The blue knight group transfers the experiment to a spiritual level, as a sublimation of the gross psychic matter in mental, ideational register:
The instinct, the personality, the physiological root of inspiration does not persuade them. They had several common points with the militants from Die Brucke, but they were rather denial points than anything else: against impressionism, against positivism, against the society of their time. In other words, they were aiming towards a purification of their instincts, to a damming up of their unleashing on the cloth; they were not looking for a physiological contact with the primordial, but, rather, a manner of perceiving the spiritual essence of reality. We are still within a mystical conception, but this time it is about an ascetic mysticism than a tormented, physiological mysticism. (De Micheli 1989: 95-96)
A truly alchemical approach leads the artists of this group to the delimitation of the pure and the impure, to the discovery of what Kandinsky called "the inner necessity" or to the extraction of the "essence" beneath the apparent coating, according to Klee's thought:
Consequently, the artist acutely perceives the elements that nature places under his experimented eye. As he looks deeper, the easier yesterday's viewpoints are to be bound with today's, the deeper they are imprinted within him, replacing a definite image of nature, the sole essential image of creation as genesis. (De Micheli 1989: 104)
Therefore, again through an insisting, enhancing, or deepening exercise, the artist gets to the revelation of this "essence," which is understood not in a substantial manner, but in a procedural one, not "as pure Platonic forms, but as formative forces of these very forms":
Now I would like to take into account the dimension of the object from a new, autonomous perspective, and to attempt to show how the artist often reaches such 'deformation,' at first glance arbitrary, of the natural phenomenal forms. He does not endow them with that meaning which is imposed to the realists [...]. He does not feel tied to these realities in the same manner, as he does not see the essence of the natural process of creation in determining such forms. In fact, he is much more interested in the formative forces of these very forms. (De Micheli 1989: 103)
There is just a shift of methodical emphasis from the "deformation" of the artists from The bridge to the redrafting of this artistic principle in Paul Klee's work. It is more rational, more technical, the exercise of intensification exceeds the register of subjective emotions trying to restore the full orbit of the objective-subjective ratio between the emotion of the subject and the shape of the object. The Platonic appearance of Franz Marc's conceptualization must, therefore, be surpassed for the proper understanding of the principles of this aesthetics:
Anything has got a coat and a core, appearance and essence, facade and truth. What if we only touch the coat, instead of the essence of things, what if their facades blind us to such a point that it impedes us from finding the truth--how much does this influence the intrinsic clarity of the things? (De Micheli 1989: 97)
For this (apparent) shape is the static moment of a training process, of networking, of resonances, of interpenetration, a field of individuation (in Deleuze's words). The essence so feverishly sought by Paul Klee or by Franz Marc, Kandinsky's interior necessity principle opens a complex conceptual figuration, in order to avoid the risk of assimilation of these aesthetic experiments with the genesis in romanticism:
The essential process of the intensive quantities is individuation. Intensity is individuating, and intensive quantities are individuating factors. [...] In all these respects, we believe that individuation is essentially intensive, and that the pre-individual field is a virtual-ideal field, made up of differential relations. Individuation is what responds to the question 'Who?,' just as the Idea responds to the questions 'How much?' and 'How?'. 'Who?' is always an intensity. [...] Individuation is the act by which intensity determines differential relations to become actualized, along the lines of differentiation and within the qualities and extensities it creates. (Deleuze 1994: 246)
These lines of differentiation and training, these ideational specifications (distribution of ideas, concepts, shapes as signs of abstract thinking) in the fields of intensive emotions, stand for the expressionist process of essence and deformation. Coupled, the two moments of plastic expressionism, the physiologist from The bridge and the spiritualist from The blue knight, are merely of (genetically speaking) the same intensity which operates the expression between the poles of instinctual emotion and formal thought, the same intensive boost that splits the difference of emotional thought on the orbit of the unconscious. Therefore, expressionism can hardly be explained on its own terms and concepts (except for a repertoire of stylistic effects), because it moves and continuously disguises these differences of the individual or collective unconsciousness, it ritualizes this movement in an attempt to fix what cannot be fixed and projects a large transfer through which release would take place. The very names they attribute to these movements have such symbolic initiatory meanings, of profound aesthetic quest:
The name of the movement comes from the mixture between Kandinsky's love for the fairytale image of the knights, which he had often painted, and the aesthetic tendency which Marc had for the beauty of the horses; they both loved the blue, therefore the name of The blue knight had been found. (De Micheli 1989: 96)
Out of this initiatory dimension of this movement derives the huge transforming potential of expressionism, making it return as post war American abstractionism and open as a great alchemical vessel in merging different formulae of avant-garde aesthetics, resuming their active form of gestural painting (action-painting). Thus, after 1945, painting unfolded in a direction influenced by French surrealism, Marxism and Trotskyism: abstract expressionism (see also
Mondrian's abstract geometry); in this sense, Pollok, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning are the heirs of the avant-garde which had fled from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy; American painting during the 1940s, on the other hand, was a combination of impressionism and cubism, ruled by psychic automatism (Compagnon 1994: 110-111).
However, what is awakened as the core of this aesthetic shape is exactly the active, transforming, energetic character. Annihilating any figurative dimension, including the frame of the painting itself through a continuum of signs distributed on stretched down canvas, the artist pours liquid colour or directs it through a spontaneous movement. This painting technique called spontaneity is truly an alchemical art. Linking the movement and the raw material through the instantaneous fingerprint of the gesture, the artist builds his own maze of signs that he crosses as he builds it and in which he imprints himself by an intense and intimate, carnal ratio (the jets of colour being pure excitement). In this sense, Pollock painted mazes of high complexity, dark entanglements on the whiteness of the canvas, complicated warpings in various colours, spots forming a (fungus-like) network bound with thousands of threads (cf. Compagnon 1994: 115). Being a writing similar to pure surrealist automatism, but within which there is a systematic plan, an orientation, a sense, the gestural abstractionist painting reflects the concept of the rite and of the transfer most clearly. It informs the whole expressionist aesthetics, regardless of its variants: the artist projects himself on cloth and surpasses himself as he builds the thicket of colours and signs in an alchemical, ritual and initiatory manner (the alchemy of emotion and plastic art). Flattening the surface by repeating the same signs opens that mysterious verticality of repetition that transcends all shapes, masks, parts aiming for the ambivalent, phantasmagorical body of the difference (see the paintings with no beginning, no middle part, and no ending; cf. Greenberg; apud Compagnon 1994: 112). For what is flat in rehearsal is only the appearance of a more profound mechanism, more deeply differentiated in essence: the dimension of pure transgression, of freedom and of fantasy. There is no first term to be repeated in a number of masks and shapes; repetition does not lie behind the masks/ identical signs of the gestural painting, but it is formed from one sign to another, revealing the force of the phantasmagorical projection that puts the signs in motion, the difference itself that is contained in repetition:
In short, repetition is in its essence symbolic; symbols or simulacra are the letter of repetition itself. Difference is included in repetition by way of disguise and by the order of the symbol. (Deleuze 1994: 17)
With such a poetic painting, the post-war abstract expressionism (or spontaneity), does not only indicate the real centre of gravity of the whole aesthetic expressionist platform, but it allows the building of clearer configurations of writing of expressionist descent: layered writings, of high psychic density, activated by a transgressive scheme activity, liberating and purifying, also a true aesthetic quest. Testimonies of artists such as Pollok are relevant, showing the intensity of the creative process and the stakes of cathartic gesture-painting. Pollok thus confessed that when he painted, he could not tell what he was doing, but he was not afraid to make changes, to destroy images, because the painting had a life of its own, emerging from within. (cf. Compagnon 1994: 117)
The re-emergence of expressionism as a function, as a version of post-war American spontaneity, rather than as a simple aesthetics platform, on behalf of this mental and ontic revival of the artistic act, confirms its true nature as an aesthetic rite of passage in individual or collective deadlock, in profound cultural crisis. The birth of the expressionist poem by enhancing the features of the modernist poem is clear evidence on the genesis and ritualization and transfer function of this aesthetics. The expressionist drama accurately reflects the initiatory scheme of expressionism, its capacity to be a true rite of passage in the fields of modernist and avant-garde western aesthetics. The intensification technique is relevant for the expressionist aesthetic function, namely the liberating repetition of difference. Intensively repeating and feverishly questioning and searching the same new pathos, the expressionism in western culture stands on symmetrical positions with the uprising of the Greek tragedy in the ancient world. Expressionism means the withdrawal of the cultural difference, the representation of its agon and the suspension in a pre-cultural, anarchic abyss. Therefore, the over-expressionist drama follows the pattern of the Greek tragedy, because expressionism is the tragic game with a once more withdrawn western cultural difference.
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Acknowledgement The text was translated by Irina Simanschi, MA.
Ilona Duta, PhD; Associate Professor of Classics, University of Craiova; Craiova, Romania; email@example.com
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|Publication:||Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2016|
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