Discovering a New Identity: Influences of the German Avant-Garde on Transatlantic Modernists from the United States



Sherren, Joseph

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This thesis analyzes the reciprocal influence between German Expressionists and American Modernists who travelled to Germany in the years leading up to World War I. The United States and Germany underwent cultural upheaval after separate wars for unification ending in 1865 and 1871, respectively. Similarly, their national identities faced serious change that was heavily influenced by industrialization and urbanization between the mid-1870s and 1900. On an international level, status and identity was reliant on military might as well as industrial potential, both of which Germany demonstrated in the Franco-Prussian War (1870- 1871) and its Unification. The United States, though recovering from an intense Civil War that weakened its military, exhibited great potential and seemed on the same level as Germany at this time.1 At the turn of the century the visual arts of the United States and Germany faced change as artists struggled to express living in light of the major shift in social life and values initiated by societal upheaval and recovery. This struggle manifested in a variety of distinctive styles and avant-garde groups including the New York Modernists and independent artists in the United States as well as the Secessionist Movements and Expressionist circles of Germany; these groups sought to express the distinctive spirit of living in the modern industrialized world. This paper focuses on three American artists: Oscar Bluemner, Marsden Hartley, and Albert Bloch. They travelled to Germany between 1908 and the early 1920s and experienced both countries’ struggles to establish a new cultural identity. In response to the identity struggle in both countries, their styles shifted from the academicism of their earliest instruction in the schools and academies of the United States to styles reflecting specific developments from their time in Germany where they exhibited with the German avant-garde. This noticeable shift suggests a more direct influence on these American artists by the German avant-garde than most scholars generally recognize and explains why they have often been left unexplored altogether. The social and cultural similarities of the United States and Germany are established first, demonstrating the open lines of communication between the two countries and basing the artists’ experiences on the premise of shared socio-cultural experiences between the United States and Germany. Then a brief analysis of the development of modern art at the turn of the century follows, to further contextualize the environment in which Bluemner, Hartley, and Bloch worked. These sections, combined with personal recollections and letters from the artists that express their perception of Germany and their varying degrees of involvement in the German avant-garde, provide the foundational material for an analysis of the major shift in styles. It is evident that German Expressionist movements clearly influenced their stylistic and aesthetic development based in shared experiences of modernity between the Germans and Americans.



Transatlantic, Germany, German Expressionism, United States, American Modernism