Knaths was born in Wisconsin in 1892, and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. "I am an Expressionist," he says. "Expressionism in terms of the materials is my aim. Any connotative content is taken into account in my work as a modification of the form and not as distinct from it." He believes that modern art, from beginnings made by Cézanne, has recovered the key to an understanding of the earth's plastic cultures, primitive, ancient, and "traditional," and that a great, still uncrystallized process is under way, representing the assimilation of what is vital from past periods with contemporary discoveries, and that our hope of a new cultural expression of our own is to be looked for as a result. "Americana looks parochial beside such efforts," he says, "and proletarian art now attempting to find forms beyond those of journalistic use is not very successful, because, after all, the artists have not found themselves as proletarians!"
Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism -- titles adopted by the artists themselves or given them by their opponents -- apply to contemporary and clearly defined groups or movements. Expressionism, on the other hand, denotes a permanent tendency in art, characteristic of the Nordic countries, which becomes accentuated in times of social stress or spiritual disturbance. Expressionism has found particularly fertile soil for expansion in our turbulent age. Although the idea always existed, the term for it is a recent invention of German aesthetics, popularized by Herwarth Walden, publisher of the avant-garde review Der Sturm, in Berlin, who classified under the heading of Expressionism p -- as opposed to Impressionism -- all the revolutionary manifestations between 1910 and 1920, including Cubism and the abstract trends. This broad definition, as confused as it is exaggerated, is to be found in the writings of nearly all those who concerned themselves with Expressionism, prior to Sheldon Cheney, who takes it to signify modern art as a whole and at its best. As against that, a large number of critics, fascinated by the École de Paris and its technical advances, deny, or fail to recognize, the emotional value of Expressionism. There are two conflicting viewpoints -- the one putting the accent on plastic form and its autonomy, the other on psychological force and its impetus -- bringing up again the traditional duality of Classicism and Romanticism, of being and becoming, of the Latin and German temperaments. Expressionism constitutes the present phase of Romanticism, in a tragic mode, bound to the anguish of our times, and to the resurgence of the Slavic and Nordic spirit. Unlike the painters of the École de Paris, who wanted to create an international language, Expressionism favoured individual and the ethnic distinctions. Although every case in Expressionism is a particular one and cannot be covered by any overall formula, it is, nevertheless, possible to indicate briefly the successive phases it has passed through and its areas of expansion.
As a reaction against Impressionism and the objective tendency of Cézanne and Seurat, which Cubism continued, the first Expressionist movement, with Symbolist and Modernstyle influences, came into being in 1885 and lasted until 1900. The leading figures in it were Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Ensor, Munch and Hodler. Their subjectivism expressed itself in obsessional and dramatic themes, and not only through their intensity of colour but also through the monumentality of their forms and the violence and sharpness of their drawing, which explains the return to the expressive line and simplified engraving and illustration techniques. Van Gogh, setting an example with his way of life as well as his work, was the founder and hero of modern Expressionism. Often in his letters, notably on the subject of his portraits, he explains what he is trying to do, afraid all the time lest his deliberate exaggeration be taken for caricature. Caricature is, in fact, a popular and spontaneous form of Expressionism, but with Van Gogh it acquires a very special value, attaining religious grandeur through its style. His essentially Nordic message, in the humanist train of Rembrandt, has hardly been heeded in France. Lautrec created the modern poster, and realized the synthesis of the contrary elements of illustration and decoration. Hodler, Munch and Ensor figured in the second wave of Expressionism, which arose (about 1905) in Germany with the creation of the Brücke, and in France with the decisive contribution of Rouault, of Picasso of the blue and Negro periods and, in some respects, of Matisse and Fauvism ( Derain and Vlaminck). The Belgian Ensor vacillated between Impressionism and a expressive symbolism which he resuscitated from Bosch. The Swiss Hodler often indulged in an allegorical and irritatingly exaggerated realism. Munch, a compatriot of Ibsen, touched by the morbid side of Kierkegaard's philosophy, was the central figure of Nordic Expressionism, and left his mark on it both in Germany and Scandinavia. His influence in those countries is eminently comparable, though in an opposite direction, with that of Cézanne in France. His first exhibition in Berlin in 1892 caused a scandal, but shook Germany out of its academic and non-realist torpor, so out of keeping with its temperament. He brought that country back to its true tradition, that of Grünewald and Gothic Expressionism. The Secession movement reached Munich, Vienna, Berlin (vide Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rouault, Ensor, Hodler, Munch).
Expressionism in its dual aspect -- social and physical -took firm root in the Brücke group, nurtured by Munch, Van Gogh and Negro sculpture (the most Expressionist of all the arts), and in a general way permeated the various currents in Germany on the eve of the war up to the Blaue Reiter of Munich. The creative fever became dramatically intensified, but without being able to assimilate the constructive lesson of Cubism. There are some outstanding names in the movement: Nolde and Kirchner, specifically Germanic temperaments openly at war with the art of Paris; Kokoschka in Vienna, who, at the very moment when Freud, in the same city, was elaborating psychoanalysis, executed a striking series of portraits which resemble flights into the subconscious. Suddenly the Jewish and Slav soul, dormant for centuries, manifested itself in painting, its expressionist tendency bringing a new ferment into art. From far away in distance and in time came men like Soutine, Pascin, Chagall, full of nostalgia and anguish, brimming over with tenderness. They settled in Paris before 1914. Expressionism penetrated to the United States about 1908 through Max Weber, also of Russian origin (vide Nolde, Kirchner, Kokoschka, Soutine, Pascin, Chagall).
After the extraordinary outbreak at the beginning of the century, the interim period between the two wars stabilized itself in a sort of
neo-classicism, interrupted by only one revolutionary movement, Surrealism. But the great masters of Expressionism, Munch, Ensor, Rouault, Nolde, Soutine, Kokoschka and Max Weber, continued on their own, each perfecting his own work, while national forms of Expressionism developed in other countries, notably in Belgium, with the School of Laethem-Saint-Martin ( Permeke, de Smet, Van den Berghe), solidly bound to the Flemish soil; in Latin America, fertilized by the spirit of the old Indian races -- Brazil ( Segall, Portinari) and, particularly, Mexico ( Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, Tamayo) in the monumental and popular form of the fresco. Defeated Germany tried desperately to react against its instinctive Romanticism, but the socalled New Objectivism group (Die Neue Sachlichkeit), graced with the presence of artists like Dix, Grosz and Beckmann, dominated the last phase of Expressionism with its trenchant realism and social violence. Expressionism was expelled by the Nazis. Beckmann took refuge in Holland, where Expressionism evolved in a parallel manner ( Sluyters, Charley, Toorop). Expressionism gave us Gromaire in France, Auberjonois in Switzerland, Solana in Spain, Rossi in Italy, and, after the 1929 crisis, gained many recruits in the United States, notably Rattner and Knaths. The Civil War in Spain, and the Second World War, moved Picasso to a new Expressionist style of hitherto unheard of violence, of which the masterpiece is Guernica. This brought in its wake a general revival of Expressionism, in Europe ( 1935- 1950), in Latin America, and especially in the United States, as a result of the direct influence of Beckmann and the Germanic tendencies (vide Laethem-SaintMartin, Permeke, Smet, Beckmann, Gromaire, Solana, Picasso).