What is Expressionism?
Expressionism is a modernist movement that first developed around 1905 and continued until around the end of World War II. Expressionist artists sought to represent the world from a subjective perspective by using color and distortion of the subject to evoke moods and achieve an emotional effect. Expressionism was initially very popular as an avant-garde style of painting and expanded to other art forms including poetry, architecture, dance and music, with influences intermingling at various points in history.
Notable Expressionism Artwork
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, National Gallery, Oslo.
Wassily Kandinsky, Cossacks, 1910-1, Tate, London.
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Woman with a Bag, 1915, Tate, London.
Paul Klee, They’re Biting, 1920, Tate, London.
History of Expressionism
Expressionism originated in northern Europe, namely Germany, Austria, France and Russia, in the years before the First World War. Expressionist art coexisted with other early twentieth century art movements that also worked to challenge the modern world such as Dadaism, Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism.
The origin of the term Expressionism is often debated by art historians, though it was likely coined between 1901 and 1910. Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh are widely regarded as being highly influential on the Expressionist movement. Regarded for their work in the 1880s and 1890s, during post-Impressionist period, van Gogh and Munch’s unique and expressive painting styles used color and line to explore dramatic themes, intense emotions and various states of mind from a more subjective perspective than the artists and movements that came before them.
Expressionism distanced itself from art historical tradition by rejecting the reverence for history painting, genre painting and portraiture held by European art academies. Expressionism did not idealize its subjects, nor did it place them in a hierarchy. All subjects were simply subjects, meant to be reinterpreted through the artist’s subjective perspective. Expressionist artists saw academic art movements as superficial and lacking in spiritual connection.
Expressionism embraced subjective interpretations of modern life, with little regard for the aesthetically pleasing impressions left by artistic subjects that Impressionism embraced. Expressionism also rejected the portrayal of fleeting scenes and much of the focus on optics that Impressionism valued.
Instead, Expressionist painters conveyed powerful emotions, often relying on complementary colors to create vivid, dramatic and dynamic compositions. This style of artistic expression was more spontaneous than previous movements, lending itself well to conveying feelings of frustration, disillusionment and cynicism that many felt following World War I. This postwar period led to many artists straying from representations of physical reality, where subsequent Expressionist works foregrounded a more instinctive form of expression.
Expressionist Style and Popular Themes
Similar to the intense emotional scenes and subject matter typical of Romanticism, Expressionism depicted its subject matter with emotional intensity. Expressionist art made use of bright, unnatural colors and highly textured brushwork to achieve depictions of subject matter varying from still life, to portraiture, to scenes of modern city life. No matter the subject, Expressionism focused on the emotional impact of the finished piece rather than its historical accuracy or technical precision.
Expressionist artists wanted to evoke powerful emotions in their artwork in order to elicit the same emotions from the viewer. Expressionists wanted their art to be felt rather than admired for its aesthetically pleasing qualities. For this reason, scenes that reflect the realities of war and the impact of war on European societies were commonly depicted in the Expressionist style.
Artwork such as Edvard Munch’s The Scream, from 1893, is often regarded as an inspiration for the style and subject matter of the Expressionist movement. The Norwegian artist’s famous work represents a transition from post-Impressionism to Expressionism, as it hosts a greater sense of abstraction, more generous brushwork and complementary colors than the movements that preceded it.
Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, from 1889, is another example of Expressionism’s use of bold color and rough brushwork to depict a scene from nature in a highly subjective manner. The Dutch painter uses the impasto technique to create a swirling sky and lush looking greenery that seem to engulf a tiny town. While many consider Starry Night to belong to the post-Impressionist period, its introspective quality, treatment of paint and color have a clear influence on the Expressionist artwork that came afterward. Impasto also became a popular Expressionist painting technique.
Expressionist art offered an emotional experience, as works like Munch and van Gogh’s demonstrated, and often explored themes of loneliness, love, excitement and death and the emotions associated with them such as anxiety, sadness and anger. Many works apply the same emotional intensity to scenes of nature, hence the link to Romanticism and its sublime landscapes.
While Expressionism saw many paintings that are still significant within the realm of modern art, Expressionism developed an element of social critique that was well suited to the medium of printmaking. Expressionist artists embraced the ability to mass produce artistic content through printmaking, where quick production was a desired and inherent outcome of the printmaking process. This break from academic reverence further illustrated the significant psychic and intellectual unrest that characterized much of the early twentieth century.
Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke
Der Blaue Reiter (meaning The Blue Rider) and Die Brücke (meaning The Bridge) were branches of Expressionism that pertained to groups of painters working in Germany and Austria in the first decade of the twentieth century. While short lived, Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke played an important role in the development of Expressionism throughout the rest of Europe.
Four German artists are commonly credited with founding the Die Brücke collective. Expressionist artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was among the founding members of Die Brücke, along with Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Fritz Bleyl and Erich Heckel. Simultaneously, Der Blaue Reiter focused on exploring spirituality and was founded by Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter.
German Expressionists belonging to Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter were influenced by African art, especially traditional African wood carvings and masks, and the Fauvist movement, which emerged around the same time in Paris. Expressionist artists
Die Brücke’s use of non-naturalistic color and simplified style intended to break from art historical tradition. The vibrance and energy conveyed in the works of the German artistic movement initially aligned with the turbulent and ever-changing state of modern society. These changes were largely imparted by the First and Second World Wars along with the industrial revolution. Much like the more general movement of Expressionism, the work of Die Brücke did not favor a specific type of subject matter. Rather, the art of Die Brücke valued the depiction of landscapes, nude figures, and still lives as much as they did scenes of city life.
Named after a painting by Wassily Kandinsky of the same name, Der Blaue Reiter is similar to Die Brücke for its connection to daily life and overwhelming emotion. German painter and printmaker Franz Marc was one of the founding members of Der Blaue Reiter and, along with Wassily Kandinsky, were key figures in German Expressionism.
The Der Blaue Reiter painting by the Expressionist painter Franz Marc, Die Groben Blauen (The Large Blue Horses), from 1911, is a testament to the Expressive possibilities of color juxtaposition. The fervor of wild horses is captured using mostly blues and reds, a color contrast whose vividness references the dynamism of nature. Blue horses and red hills occupy most of Marc’s composition and communicate the overall vision of Expressionism as a movement that abstracts its subjects to evoke emotion rather than physical reality.
Both groups lasted only a few years before dissolving, but their influence on German Expressionism and modern art extended to many artists working in other artistic styles and media, including printmaking, design and sculpture.
Influence of Expressionism on Other Art Movements
The Expressionist emphasis on vivid, even jarring, colors, and powerful emotions continued to lend itself well to the expression of a wide range of emotional subject matter. Expressionism had a lasting influence on modern art and art history, with its style often attributed to art that distorts reality in order to achieve an intense and emotional scene using bright color and thick, heavy brushstrokes. Branches of Expressionism emerged all over the world, with Expressionist artists forming groups across Europe, in the United States, Canada and Japan throughout the twentieth century.
During this time, Expressionism saw many sub-genres and influenced other artistic styles that invoked the original tenets of Expressionism. Later movements such as Neo-Expressionism and New Objectivity were directly influenced by Expressionist conventions. Significant Expressionist artworks and their stylistic conventions also influenced many avant-garde movements to follow, including Surrealism and Futurism.
These same conventions eventually influenced, in part, the development of Abstract Expressionism in America after World War II. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Louise Bourgeois and Willem de Kooning were among the many artists, American and otherwise, that brought the emotional intensity characteristic of the original style of Expressionism further into the realm of abstraction. By the 1940s and 1950s, Abstract Expressionism had taken the thick brushstrokes of Expressionist painting, and the heavily psychological exploration of movements like Surrealism and Futurism, and turned them into compositions that make use of large blocks of color on even larger canvases.
Beyond the realm of visual arts, the Expressionist style extended to Expressionist architecture, Expressionist music and Expressionist literature.
Notable Expressionism Artists
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880-1938, German
- Edvard Munch, 1863-1944, Norwegian
- Egon Schiele, 1890-1918, Austrian
- Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890, Dutch
- Francisco Goya y Lucientes, 1746-1848, Spanish
- Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944, Russian
- Paul Klee, 1879-1940, German
- Francis Bacon, 1909-1992, English
- Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966, Swiss
- Anselm Kiefer, b. 1945, German
- Emil Nolde, 1867-1966, German
- Käthe Kollwitz, 1867-1945, German
- Franz Marc, 1880-1916, German
- Otto Dix, 1891-1969, German
- Oskar Kokoschka, 1886-1980, Austrian