Art historians today, driven in part by growing public acknowledgment of atrocities committed by European colonial powers and the pervasive effects of occupation and genocide, recognize the need to address the colonial implications of art from earlier periods, as well as our own.
In the first decades of the 20th century, a number of artists known as “expressionists” believed that they could achieve a kind of spiritual reawakening by breaking free of the official, academic traditions and societal conventions of the German Empire (1871–1918). Expressionist painting is synonymous with thick brushstrokes, bold, distorted forms, and especially, with vibrant, non-naturalistic color. Two groups have come to epitomize expressionism: Brücke (Bridge, 1905–13) in Dresden and Berlin and the Munich-based Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider, 1911–13). Though both dissolved before 1914, major representatives continued to work well into the mid-20th century, alongside emerging artists.
Expressionist artists blurred distinctions between fine and decorative arts and drew inspiration from folk and medieval Christian models. They also pursued an interest in African and Oceanic material culture — learning about it from publications, commercial galleries, and ethnographic museums in Dresden, Hamburg, and Berlin, as well as from collecting similar objects for themselves. All of these activities were facilitated by German colonialism. Subscribing to the longstanding European stereotype that non-white peoples and cultures possessed elemental “authentic” qualities, expressionists — like modernist contemporaries elsewhere — paradoxically reaffirmed the values they set out to challenge.