A style that made an impact in the arts in the 1920s, particularly in Germany. Expressionists abandoned realistic, accurate representations in favour of exaggerations and distortions of line and colour that were intended to carry far greater emotional impact.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Japanisches Theater [Japanese Theatre] 1909

The Origins of Expressionism

The term ‘Expressionism’ was popularised by several writers in 1910 including Czech art historian Antonin Matejcek and German art critic Herwarth Walden, publisher of the Berlin Avant-Garde review Der Sturm, 1910-32. The term defined an art in opposition to Impressionism; where Impressionists looked outwards to the real world, Expressionists searched inwards for deeper meaning. The style is defined by free brushwork, heightened colour and jagged or elongated forms. It was such a ground-breaking notion that in the twentieth century the term ‘Expressionism’ came to describe many styles of modern art.

Influence of Munch, Van Gogh and Klimt

At the turn of the century European cities underwent dramatic periods of change and urbanisation. Within the newly modernised city, many artists felt society had become depersonalised and isolating, with a loss of authenticity and spirituality. Art became a powerful means of expressing the inner turmoil and anxiety brought about by such changes, particularly for those on the margins. The roots of Expressionism can be found in the work of many Post-Impressionist artists including Vincent Van Gogh in France, Edvard Munch in Norway and Gustav Klimt in the Vienna Secession, along with Symbolist currents which had begun in the late nineteenth century, with an emphasis on subjective emotions and symbolic colours.

Edvard Munch,  Das kranke Mädchen [The Sick Girl], 1896
Edvard Munch, Das kranke Mädchen [The Sick Girl], 1896

Kirchner and the Bridge

Munch saw art’s purpose as the expression  of introspective emotion and inner turmoil in an unsympathetic world. His painting and prints became powerful symbols of the time , including Das Kranke Madchen (The Sick Girl), 1896. By 1905 his work was well known in Germany, where Expressionist styles were beginning to emerge. Within Germany, four students – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel - came together to form the painting group Die Brücke (The Bridge) in Dresden. They were particularly drawn to urban life, which they depicted with crude, jagged forms lifted from medieval German art in dissonant, primitive colours. Theatre and cabaret scenes were favoured by the artists, as seen in Kirchner’s Japinisches Theater (Japanese Theatre), 1909, with its flat areas of vibrant colours, strong contours and free application of paint typifying the style. The group name was taken from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883-85, that states, ‘What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.’ In 1906 Emil Nolde joined Die Brücke, bringing with him a fascination in colour, Munch’s Symbolism and African and Pacific masks which feature prominently in his paintings.

Kandinsky, Marc and the Blue Rider

In 1911 a group of Russian and German artists in Munich came together to form Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider). The name was taken from the symbol of a horse and rider in a painting by Wassily Kandinsky, which symbolised the journey from the real world into a spiritual realm. Russian members included Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefskin, joined by German artists Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Auguste Macke and Gabriele Munter, who were among the first artists to explore expressive abstraction. Although the movement was male dominated, many female artist also made important contributions. Russian artist Natalya Goncharova produced vibrant, symbolic paintings influenced by primitive Russian culture and co-founded the art movement Rayonism with Mikhail Larionov in 1911. The Blue Rider was brought to an end by the outbreak of war and the death of Marc and Macke, who were both killed in action, while Kandinsky was forced to return to Russia.

Printmaking

Printmaking was a popular material for many Expressionist artists. Woodcuts suited the bold graphics and raw emotion that typified the Expressionist style, as seen in work by Kirchner, Marc, Nolde, Kathe Kollwitz and many others. Prints also offered artists the means of reproducing and disseminating their ideas more readily, as well as opening up possibilities for exploring or layering different types of mark making, as demonstrated by Kandinsky’s Kleine Welten (small worlds) series from 1922.

Wassily Kandinsky, hree Riders in Red, Blue and Black [Drei Reiter in rot, blau und schwarz], 1913Wassily Kandinsky, Three Riders in Red, Blue and Black [Drei Reiter in rot, blau und schwarz], 1913
 

Expressionism outside Germany

In Austria, Klimt led the way for artists including Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, while in France, Rouault, Soutine, Chagall emerged as leaders of the style. The movement also influenced other media, most notably sculpture and architecture. Much like the Germans, Expressionists in other countries were inevitably affected by the war, with many volunteering for active duty or forced into exile.

The Legacy of Expressionism

Expressionism was revolutionary and far reaching. Although the style fell out of favour in the immediate post war period, it paved the way for later art movements and its influence can still be felt in contemporary practice today. In the 1940s and 50s Abstract Expressionism emerged in the United States, with artists exploring powerful emotion through vivid colours and painterly brushstrokes, as demonstrated by Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock. In the 1970s and 1980s artists in Europe explored a figurative approach to Expressionism which revived many of the earlier German ideas. Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer and Julian Schnabel employed thickly applied paint, gestural brushstrokes and emotive subject matter in a style which would later become known as Neo Expressionism.

Artists

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
1880 - 1938
Emil Nolde
1867 - 1956
Natalya Goncharova
1881 - 1962
Oskar Kokoschka
1886 - 1980
Wassily Kandinsky
1866 - 1944

Glossary terms

  • The term 'Avant-garde' refers to cultural practices that challenge tradition through experimentation and innovation.
  • An art movement of the 1970s and 80s inspired by German Expressionism. Most popular in Germany and America, the style is characterized by large, figurative works, rapidly painted, often with objects, such as broken plates or straw, incorporated into their surfaces.

  • A German art movement of the 1920s and early 1930s. It was partly a response to the experience of the First World War, with images containing elements of satire and social commentary. Stylistically it was sober and restrained, moving away from Expressionism to depictions based on close observation. Major figures associated with this style are George Grosz and Otto Dix.

  • German Expressionist group that was based in Dresden, then Berlin, from 1903 to 1913. The name indicates a forward-looking approach, their art viewed as a bridge to the future. They are noted for their revival of the woodcut.

  • A German Expressionist group founded in Munich in 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Its membership, who shared an interest in expressing a spiritual dimension in painting, featured in an almanac of the same name published in 1912. The group dispersed with the onset of the First World War.