Modern Art - Expressionism

Movement: Modern Art - Expressionism
Dates: c. 1905 - c. 1930

Expressionism (fine arts) is a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists have sought to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality.

Expressionism developed as an avant-garde style before the First World War. It remained popular during the Weimar Republic, particularly in Berlin. The style extended to a wide range of the arts, including expressionist architecture, painting, literature, theatre, dance, film and music.

The term is sometimes suggestive of angst. In a historical sense, much older painters such as Matthias Grnewald and El Greco are sometimes termed expressionist, though the term is applied mainly to 20th-century works. The Expressionist emphasis on individual and subjective perspective has been characterized as a reaction to positivism and other artistic styles such as Naturalism and Impressionism.

Origin of the term

While the word expressionist was used in the modern sense as early as 1850, its origin is sometimes traced to paintings exhibited in 1901 in Paris by obscure artist Julien-Auguste Herv, which he called Expressionismes. An alternative view is that the term was coined by the Czech art historian Antonin Matjek in 1910 as the opposite of impressionism: "An Expressionist wishes, above all, to express himself... (an Expressionist rejects) immediate perception and builds on more complex psychic structures... Impressions and mental images that pass through ... people's soul as through a filter which rids them of all substantial accretions to produce their clear essence [...and] are assimilated and condense into more general forms, into types, which he transcribes through simple short-hand formulae and symbols."

Important precursors of Expressionism were the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), especially his philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1892); the later plays of the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg (1849-1912), including the trilogy To Damascus 18981901, A Dream Play (1902), The Ghost Sonata (1907); Frank Wedekind (1864-1918), especially the "Lulu" plays Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) (1895) and Die Bchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box) (1904); the American poet Walt Whitman's (1819-1892) Leaves of Grass (1855-1891); the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881); Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944); Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890); Belgian painter James Ensor (18601949); and pioneering Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

In 1905, a group of four German artists, led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, formed Die Brcke (the Bridge) in the city of Dresden. This was arguably the founding organization for the German Expressionist movement, though they did not use the word itself. A few years later, in 1911, a like-minded group of young artists formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich. The name came from Wassily Kandinsky's Der Blaue Reiter painting of 1903. Among their members were Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, and Auguste Macke. However, the term Expressionism did not firmly establish itself until 1913. Though mainly a German artistic movement initially and most predominant in painting, poetry and the theatre between 1910 and 1930, most precursors of the movement were not German. Furthermore, there have been expressionist writers of prose fiction, as well as non-German-speaking expressionist writers, and, while the movement had declined in Germany with the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, there were subsequent expressionist works.

Expressionism is notoriously difficult to define, in part because it "overlapped with other major 'isms' of the modernist period: with Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism, Surrealism and Dadaism." Richard Murphy also comments, the search for an all-inclusive definition is problematic to the extent that the most challenging expressionists such as Kafka, Gottfried Benn and Dblin were simultaneously the most vociferous `anti-expressionists.'

What can be said, however, is that it was a movement that developed in the early twentieth century, mainly in Germany, in reaction to the dehumanizing effect of industrialization and the growth of cities, and that "one of the central means by which expressionism identifies itself as an avant-garde movement, and by which it marks its distance to traditions and the cultural institution as a whole is through its relationship to realism and the dominant conventions of representation." More explicitly, that the expressionists rejected the ideology of realism.

The term refers to an "artistic style in which the artist seeks to depict not objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse within a person." It is arguable that all artists are expressive but there are many examples of art production in Europe from the 15th century onward which emphasize extreme emotion. Such art often occurs during times of social upheaval and war, such as the Protestant Reformation, German Peasants' War, and Eighty Years' War between the Spanish and the Netherlands, when extreme violence, much directed at civilians, was represented in propagandist popular prints. These were often unimpressive aesthetically but had the capacity to arouse extreme emotions in the viewer.

Expressionism has been likened to Baroque by critics such as art historian Michel Ragon and German philosopher Walter Benjamin. According to Alberto Arbasino, a difference between the two is that "Expressionism doesn't shun the violently unpleasant effect, while Baroque does. Expressionism throws some terrific 'fuck yous', Baroque doesn't. Baroque is well-mannered."

Visual artists (worldwide)

Some of the style's main visual artists of the early 20th century were:

  • Armenia: Martiros Saryan
  • Australia: Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman, John Perceval, Albert Tucker, and Joy Hester
  • Austria: Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Josef Gassler and Alfred Kubin
  • Belgium: Marcel Caron, Anto Carte, Auguste Mambour, - Flemish Expressionism: Constant Permeke, Gustave De Smet, Frits Van den Berghe, James Ensor, Albert Servaes, Floris Jespers and Gustave Van de Woestijne.
  • Brazil: Anita Malfatti, Cndido Portinari, Di Cavalcanti, Iber Camargo and Lasar Segall.
  • Denmark: Einer Johansen
  • Estonia: Konrad Mgi, Eduard Wiiralt, Kuno Veeber
  • Finland: Tyko Sallinen, Alvar Cawn, and Win Aaltonen.
  • France: Frdric Fiebig, Georges Rouault, Georges Gimel, Gen Paul, Chaim Soutine, Marie-Thrse Auffray and Bernard Buffet.
  • Germany: Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, Fritz Bleyl, Heinrich Campendonk, Otto Dix, Conrad Felixmller, George Grosz, Erich Heckel, Carl Hofer, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Kthe Kollwitz, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Elfriede Lohse-Wchtler, August Macke, Franz Marc, Ludwig Meidner, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Otto Mueller, Gabriele Mnter, Rolf Nesch, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
  • Greece: George Bouzianis
  • Hungary: Tivadar Kosztka Csontvry
  • Iceland: Einar Hkonarson
  • Ireland: Jack B. Yeats
  • Indonesia: Affandi
  • Italy: Emilio Giuseppe Dossena
  • Japan: Kshir Onchi
  • Mexico: Mathias Goeritz (German migr to Mexico), Rufino Tamayo
  • Netherlands: Willem Hofhuizen, Herman Kruyder, Jan Sluyters, Vincent van Gogh, Jan Wiegers and Hendrik Werkman
  • Norway: Edvard Munch, Kai Fjell
  • Poland: Henryk Gotlib
  • Portugal: Mrio Eloy, Amadeo de Souza Cardoso
  • Russia: Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Alexej von Jawlensky, Natalia Goncharova, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin (Russian-born, later active in Germany and Switzerland).
  • Romania:Horia Bernea
  • South Africa: Maggie Laubser, Irma Stern
  • Sweden: Leander Engstrm, Isaac Grnewald, Axel Trneman
  • Switzerland: Carl Eugen Keel, Cuno Amiet, Paul Klee
  • Ukraine: Alexis Gritchenko (Ukraine-born, most active in France), Vadim Meller
  • United Kingdom: Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud, Patrick Heron, John Hoyland, Howard Hodgkin, John Walker
  • United States: Ivan Albright, David Aronson, Milton Avery, Leonard Baskin, George Biddle, Hyman Bloom, Peter Blume, Charles Burchfield, David Burliuk, Stuart Davis, Lyonel Feininger, Wilhelmina Weber Furlong, Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, Beauford Delaney, Arthur G. Dove, Norris Embry, Philip Evergood, Kahlil Gibran, William Gropper, Philip Guston, Marsden Hartley, Albert Kotin, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Rico Lebrun, Jack Levine, Alfred Henry Maurer, Robert Motherwell, Alice Neel, Abraham Rattner, Esther Rolick, Ben Shahn, Harry Shoulberg, Joseph Stella, Harry Sternberg, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Dorothea Tanning, Wilhelmina Weber, Max Weber, Hale Woodruff, Karl Zerbe.

Groups of painters

The style originated principally in Germany and Austria. There were a number of groups of expressionist painters, including Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brcke. Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider, named for a painting) was based in Munich and Die Brcke was originally based in Dresden (although some members later relocated to Berlin). Die Brcke was active for a longer period than Der Blaue Reiter, which was only together for a year (1912). The Expressionists were influenced by various artists and sources including Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh, and African art. They were also aware of the work being done by the Fauves in Paris, who influenced Expressionism's tendency toward arbitrary colours and jarring compositions. In reaction and opposition to French Impressionism, which emphasized the rendering of the visual appearance of objects, Expressionist artists sought to portray emotions and subjective interpretations. It was not important to reproduce an aesthetically pleasing impression of the artistic subject matter, they felt, but rather to represent vivid emotional reactions by powerful colours and dynamic compositions. Kandinsky, the main artist of Der Blaue Reiter group, believed that with simple colours and shapes the spectator could perceive the moods and feelings in the paintings, a theory that encouraged him towards increased abstraction.

The ideas of German expressionism influenced the work of American artist Marsden Hartley, who met Kandinsky in Germany in 1913. In late 1939, at the beginning of World War II, New York City received a great number of major European artists. After the war, Expressionism influenced many young American artists. Norris Embry (19211981) studied with Oskar Kokoschka in 1947 and during the next 43 years produced a large body of work in the Expressionist tradition. Norris Embry has been termed "the first American German Expressionist". Other American artists of the late 20th and early 21st century have developed distinct styles that may be considered part of Expressionism. Another prominent artist who came from the German Expressionist "school" was Bremen-born Wolfgang Degenhardt. After working as a commercial artist in Bremen, he migrated to Australia in 1954 and became quite well known in the Hunter Valley region.

After World War II, figurative expressionism influenced worldwide a large number of artists and styles. In the U.S., American Expressionism and American Figurative Expressionism, particularly Boston figurative expressionism, were an integral part of American modernism around the Second World War. Thomas B. Hess wrote that "the New figurative painting which some have been expecting as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism was implicit in it at the start, and is one of its most lineal continuities."

In other arts

The Expressionist movement included other types of culture, including dance, sculpture, cinema and theatre.


Exponents of expressionist dance included Mary Wigman, Rudolf von Laban, and Pina Bausch.


Some sculptors used the Expressionist style, as for example Ernst Barlach. Other expressionist artists known mainly as painters, such as Erich Heckel, also worked with sculpture.


There was an Expressionist style in German cinema, important examples of which are Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920), Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924). The term "expressionist" is also sometimes used to refer to stylistic devices thought to resemble those of German Expressionism, such as film noir cinematography or the style of several of the films of Ingmar Bergman. More generally, the term expressionism can be used to describe cinematic styles of great artifice, such as the technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk or the sound and visual design of David Lynch's films.


In architecture, two specific buildings are identified as Expressionist: Bruno Taut's Glass Pavilion of the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition (1914), and Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany completed in 1921. The interior of Hans Poelzig's Berlin theatre (the Grosse Schauspielhaus), designed for the director Max Reinhardt, is also cited sometimes. The influential architectural critic and historian Sigfried Giedion, in his book Space, Time and Architecture (1941), dismissed Expressionist architecture as a part of the development of functionalism. In Mexico, in 1953, German migr Mathias Goeritz published the Arquitectura Emocional ("Emotional Architecture") manifesto with which he declared that "architecture's principal function is emotion". Modern Mexican architect Luis Barragn adopted the term that influenced his work. The two of them collaborated in the project Torres de Satlite (195758) guided by Goeritz's principles of Arquitectura Emocional. It was only during the 1970s that Expressionism in architecture came to be re-evaluated more positively.


Further reading

  • Antonn Matjek cited in Gordon, Donald E. (1987). Expressionism: Art and Idea, p.175. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN9780300033106
  • Jonah F. Mitchell (Berlin, 2003). Doctoral thesis Expressionism between Western modernism and Teutonic Sonderweg. Courtesy of the author.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche (1872). The Birth of Tragedy Out of The Spirit of Music. Trans. Clifton P. Fadiman. New York: Dover, 1995. ISBN0-486-28515-4.
  • Judith Bookbinder, Boston modern: figurative expressionism as alternative modernism, (Durham, N.H.: University of New Hampshire Press; Hanover: University Press of New England, 2005.) ISBN1-58465-488-0, ISBN978-1-58465-488-9
  • Bram Dijkstra, American expressionism: art and social change, 19201950, (New York: H.N. Abrams, in association with the Columbus Museum of Art, 2003.) ISBN0-8109-4231-3, ISBN978-0-8109-4231-8
  • Ditmar Elger Expressionism-A Revolution in German Art ISBN978-3-8228-3194-6
  • Paul Schimmel and Judith E Stein, The Figurative fifties: New York figurative expressionism, The Other Tradition (Newport Beach, California: Newport Harbor Art Museum: New York: Rizzoli, 1988.) ISBN978-0-8478-0942-4 ISBN978-0-91749312-6
  • Marika Herskovic, American Abstract and Figurative Expressionism: Style Is Timely Art Is Timeless (New York School Press, 2009.) ISBN978-0-9677994-2-1.
  • Lakatos Gabriela Luciana, Expressionism Today, University of Art and Design Cluj Napoca, 2011

External links

  • Hottentots in tails A turbulent history of the group by Christian Saehrendt at
  • German Expressionism A free resource with paintings from German expressionists (high-quality).

Content provided by Wikipedia

Our Mission

The History of Creativity is a visual encyclopaedia that allows you to time travel to any time and place in the past or present.