Three books to know Expressionist Literature

Or two books and a poet.

Kathe Kollwitz, "The mothers" 1922
Kathe Kollwitz, “The mothers” 1922 / Image: WikiArt

It’s been a while I don’t write about Literature, this is actually, my second post about it.

That’s because I feel there’s so much I need to learn, that sometimes I think it’s better to write about the subject I feel more comfortable with: visual arts and artists. 

But one of the things that makes me excited about Modern Art it’s exactly the fact that it unfolds in many other forms of art.

That’s the case with Expressionism. Although today I will focus on Literature, the movement that started in Germany at the beginning of the XX century had its representation in painting, sculpture, cinema, music, theatre and dance.

Modernity’s ugly side

Expressionism develops from the anguish of the modern man, in a world that is rapidly evolving. The misery of finding yourself as nothing but a cog in the machine of time. It reveals the pessimism, solitude and emptiness of everyday life.

Fuelled by these sentiments, artists start to create pieces that reflect their displeasure of reality. They turn into the inner world – hello Freud! – so their emotions, subjectivities and the psychological aspects of what they are going through becomes material for their creations. 

Many Expressionist works, be it painting, cinema or literature, depict the world with distorted, exaggerated and forceful images that tries to convey what’s inside someone’s head.

In 1910 the literary magazine Der Sturm is published in Berlin by Herwarth Walden and soon becomes the main form of diffusion of the new movement. Among those who contributes with articles, poetry, short stories and illustrations are: Else Lasker-Schüler, Adolf Loos, Heinrich Mann, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter.

The authors of Expressionism address topics that were uncommon for the time like misery, sadness, madness, violence, poverty and their characters struggle to find a way out of this “sordid side” of modern life in a big city like Berlin was in the 1920s. 

These are the common thread in the three suggestions that follow:

  1. Berlin Alexanderplatz – Alfred Döblin

Published in 1929, the book is a classic of modernist literature. Döblin innovates in form and in its broad depiction of the metropolis to tell the story of Franz Biberkopf who lefts the prison and try to make it in the city. He wishes to repair his past, but struggles and we follow his conflict “with something that comes from without, that is unpredictable and looks like a destiny”.

The book was translated into many languages, figures in lists of the best books of all time and received adaptations to TV and cinema.

  1. The Trial and The Castle – Franz Kafka

In both novels, Kafka tells stories about the invisible forces of bureaucracy and inaccessible authorities. The characters are judged and punished for unknown reasons by unnamed people bringing once more to the surface, internal conflicts before external powers.

Although Kafka never considered himself an expressionist, his work deals with the themes and concerns brought up from the movement. His work is immensely influential until today.

  1. Poetry – Georg Trakl

Trakl was clinically depressed and wrote profoundly about darkness, sadness and silence.

He only published one book before dying of a cocaine overdose in 1914. “Grodek” is his best known poem and deals with the horrors of World War I (where he served as a doctor). Despite the fact that most of his work was published after his death, the inventive structure of the poems and relevant themes addressed made him the most important Austrian Expressionist.

I suggest looking at Expressionist works like they complement each other. Think “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” + Kathe Kollwitz lithographs + Kafka. Putting them side by side gives you more opportunities to experience and discover those sentiments that were in the minds of a whole generation in the inter-war period.

To know more: 

What is Expressionism? – The National Gallery of Scotland

The video talks more about visual arts, but gives an overview of the movement and it’s fun and well produced! Yey!

Espresionismo –

This excellent article written by art specialist Andrea Imaginario puts Expressionism in context, explain its characteristics in painting, cinema and music. In Spanish.

Tell me in the comments if you read any expressionist book or what’s your favourite!

Have a great week!


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