Art teacher Lucy Nelson introduced French V and German V students to the Die Brücke and Les Nabis art movements from around the turn of the 20th century. Each movement sought to free the artist from the constraints of traditional academic artmaking, though they went about it in very different ways by looking to non-Western cultures. In Germany, the artists looked to Africa and Oceania, and in France, they looked to the ukiyo-e woodcuts of Japan. In both movements, artists used woodcuts as a medium to depict “ordinary life” and sought to create a personalized style. Concerned with what they perceived as the dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution, these artists heralded a movement that led to greater abstraction in the art world and the eventual birth of Modernism.
In Germany, Die Brücke is considered the birth of Expressionism, and it portrayed true raw emotion, often depicting anxiety and alienation. Using bold colors and abstract forms, artists portrayed their inner world. The popularity of psychoanalysis also greatly influenced the form’s focus on the self and subjective way of thinking about the world. Around the art table, Nelson explained that Die Brücke meant bridge, and the movement founders, Karl Schmidt Ruttloff, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner saw it as a path between the artist and the viewer by emphasizing intense personal expression. The movement began in 1905 and took its name from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote “what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” The woodcut, with its simplistic form, bold lines, and flattened aesthetic, became a popular Expressionist medium as printmaking allowed for greater ease of distribution.
In France in the late 1880s, a group of artists from the Academie Julian united around a new aesthetic and created a secret art society with mythical tendencies, called Les Nabis. They believed that the artist revealed the invisible through communion with a high power as a type of seer. Taken from the Hebrew word for prophet, members of Les Nabis would meet in Paul Ransom’s studio, which they called “the Temple.” Each artist had their own nickname and used a coded shorthand when communicating with each other. Pierre Bonnard was “the Very Japanese Nabi,” Paul Sérusier was the “Nabi with the Very Shiny Beard,” Maurice Denis was “Nabi of the Beautiful Icons,” Édouard Vuillard was “Zouave Nabi,” and Felix Valloton was “the Foreign Nabi.” The art had a flat and decorative quality and was characterized by its lack of linear perspective, large planes of color, simplified forms, and use of pattern.
Thus inspired, the German V and French V students were tasked with creating a woodcut print in the style of their culture. The German students looked to the expressive and moody atmosphere of the Die Brücke artists, while the French students emulated the decorative and intimate woodcuts characteristic of Nabis artist Felix Vallotton.