The future of Expressionism


Expressionism does not seek to reveal or prove anything… it just expresses! Its birth in early-20th century Germany reflected the atmosphere that prevailed before WWI. Its visionary artists were sensitive to the brutality of changes affecting society and the hostility of a world they had no choice but to live in. Their ‘expression’ reflects the tension they perceived and their fear of the future.

The term expressionist was coined in 1911 to describe an exaggerated expressiveness at the 22nd Exhibition of the Berliner Secession. The term was initially applied to French artists, including Picasso, but was later extended to include a modern trend that incorporated a broader group of artists: Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (formerly members of the Die Brücke group) and then Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc (memberof Blaue Reiter) and latterly Emil Nolde, George Grosz, Otto Mueller, Max Pechstein and Otto Dix.

Expressive intensity is the basic commonality of these artists who painted the indignation and the vulnerability of their epoch. They depicted frightening visions of a subjectively distorted reality using urgent brush strokes, exacerbated and often aggressive colors, simplified forms, angular stylization… often expressing torment (and a strong desire to break with painterly traditions). As Emil Nolde confided, I drew life’s flipside… make-up, slippery mud, degeneration… This expression of anguish (which also served to exorcise the experience of WWI) represents one of the most valuable and severest movements in 20th century art history and, when they come to auction, works by these artists attract strong bidding from museums and major collectors. Nowadays the overall rarity of major Expressionist works is fuelling a sharp increase in prices. Last year an important canvas by Max Beckmann fetched a new multi-million dollar auction record for German Expressionism.

Beckmann triggers new price standing…

The best Fine Art auction results hammered in Germany last year rewarded works by Max Beckmann. Classified as a degenerate artist, Beckmann left Germany for Amsterdam in 1933 before moving to the United States in 1947. In June 2017, two of hs works fetched well over their high estimates: Tiergarten im Winter sold for $2 million (including fees) at Grisebach on 1 June, and his Château d’If fetched $1.8 million on 10 June at Ketterer Kunst GmbH. From a strictly financial point of view, the bidders for these two works were taking a well calculated gamble… just a few days ahead of the sale of a major work by Max Beckmann. On 27 June 2017, Christie’s in London sold his Birds’ Hell for $45.8 million generating a massive new record for the artist at more than double his previous auction record of $22.5 million in 2001. This spectacular record rewards an exceptional moment in art history: first, because Birds’ Hell is a major and unique work by Max BECKMANN and secondly because it represents a ‘monument against oblivion’. A visceral denunciation of the Third Reich, Birds’ Hell took shape on the canvas in 1937, the year of the Degenerate Art exhibition organized by the Nazis in Munich. According to art historian Jill Lloyd, Birds’ Hell was to Beckmann what Guernica was to Pablo PICASSO. Both works were painted in 1937, but the Beckmann masterpiece received a lot less publicity than the Picasso painting depicting the bombing of Guernica. Last year’s new record for Beckmann somewhat corrects that historical injustice by establishing a new summit for German Expressionist art. The movement’s revaluation was not unexpected, especially as five years earlier a version of Edvard MUNCH’s The Scream fetched $120 million at Sotheby’s (2 May 2012). Munch is considered a forerunner of Expressionism.

Calling all masterpieces…

Last year also saw a new auction record for Emil NOLDE when Christie’s New York sold his flamboyant canvas Indische Tänzerin (1917) for $5.2 million in November. This new summit put Emil Nolde in 127th place in our 2017 world ranking of artists by annual auction turnover. But Nolde’s prices are still lower than Ernst Ludwig KIRCHNER’s who ranked 84th with a total of $23.6 million. Although Kirchner remains one of the highest priced artists of the movement with six of his works crossing the milliondollar threshold last year (in Switzerland, the US and the UK), nothing equivalent to his canvas Berliner Strassenszene/Bäume has appeared on the market for years. Berliner Strassenszene / Bäume was one of the jewels in Christie’s New York sale in 2006. At the time of its sale, it was compared to Picasso’s famous Demoiselles D’Avignon and Christies devoted twelve pages of its catalogue to the work, sensing a potential record for German Expressionism. The price hammered for Berliner Strassenszene / Bäume matched their expectations: $38 million for a decidedly museum-worthy painting.

Each year, several paintings and drawings by these artists fail to sell, either because a fair estimate is difficult to establish, or because the works in question lack ‘Expressionist verve. The quality of a signature is not only the factor in a price and nor does it guarantee the success of a sale. Overly classical subjects elicit little interest and buyers are extremely choosy. However, when the best works come up for sale, many are willing to dig deep to acquire them. With scarcity now a primary driver of auction battles for the ownership of masterpieces, the ability of auction houses to bring to market works of the highest possible quality now represents their biggest challenge for the years ahead.