Expressionist Art (1910-1930)

Expressionism is a modernist movement born in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The image of reality is distorted to make it expressive of the artist’s inner feelings or ideas.

File:Kirchner - Wintermondlandschaft.jpg
Kirchner- Winter Landscape in Moonlight. 1919

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In expressionist art, the color can be very intense and non-naturalistic, the brush stroke is free and the application of paint is generous and highly structured. Expressionist art tends to be emotional and sometimes mystical and can be seen as an extension of Romanticism. The term expressionist is generally applied to a specific artistic production during the early twentieth century.

Why Expressionism?

Zelfportret met portret van Bernard, 'Les Misérables'. Vincent van Gogh (1888)
Zelfportret met portret van Bernard, ‘Les Misérables’. Vincent van Gogh (1888)

Image source: by ronkerkhoven

Expressionism emerged simultaneously in various cities of Germany as a response to anxiety about humanity’s increasingly disharmonious relationship with the world, accompanying lost feelings of authenticity and spirituality. Expressionism was mostly inspired by Symbolist currents in late-19th-century art. Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and James Ensor proved influential to the Expressionists, encouraging distortion of form and the use of strong colors to convey a variety of anxieties and desires. The classic phase of the Expressionist movement lasted from about 1905 to 1920 until it spread throughout Europe, informing Abstract Expressionism and influencing German art, also becoming a critical precursor to the Neo-Expressionist artists of the 1980s.

What is Expressionism?

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Nollendorfplatz, 1912

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Expressionism is considered an international trend rather than a coherent, art movement in the early 20th century. It has embraced various fields: music, literature, theatre, art, and architecture. Rather than physical reality, expressionist artists sought to express emotional experience. The term Expressionism is complex and has meant different things at different times. However, when speaking of Expressionist art, one thinks of either of the artistic trends that followed as a reaction to Impressionism in France or to the movement that emerged in Germany and Austria at the beginning of the 20th century. The term can thus host artists ranging from Vincent van Gogh to Egon Schiele and Wassily Kandinsky.

German Expressionism

In Germany, Expressionism is associated with the Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter groups. The art of German Expressionism was inspired by mysticism, the Middle Ages, primitive times, and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas were very popular and influential at the time.

Wassily Kandinsky, The Blue Rider,1903

Image source:,_1903,_The_Blue_Rider_(Der_Blaue_Reiter),_oil_on_canvas,_52.1_x_54.6_cm,_Stiftung_Sammlung_E.G._B%C3%BChrle,_Zurich.jpg

Brücke was formed in Dresden in 1905 and was a bohemian collective of expressionist artists who opposed Germany’s bourgeois social order. The four founding members were Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, none of whom had received formal art education. The name, Brücke, indicated their desire to unite past and present, and the name was inspired by a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. To escape the confines of modern bourgeois life, the artists have explored an intensified use of color, a straightforward and simplified approach to form, and free sexuality in their work.

French Expressionism

In France, the artists associated with Expressionism were Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse. Although Van Gogh and Gauguin were active in the years slightly before what is considered the main period of Expressionism (1905-1920), they can undoubtedly be considered Expressionist artists, who painted the world around them not simply as it appeared to them but from a deeply subjective, human experience. Matisse, Van Gogh, and Gauguin used expressive colors and brushstroke styles to represent emotions and experiences, moving away from the realistic representation of their subjects to how they felt and perceived them.

Vincent van Gogh - Morning, Going out to Work (after Millet) [1890]
Vincent van Gogh – Morning, Going out to Work (after Millet) [1890]
Image source: by Gandalf’s Gallery

Austrian Expressionism

Egon Schiele, Self-portrait with Chinese Lantern and Fruits, 1912

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An artist who had a great impact on the German and Austrian Expressionist scenes was the Norwegian Edvard Munch, known for his Secession exhibitions and the 1909 Kunstschau in Vienna. Munch is famous for The Scream, which is represented a figure on a bridge with a sunset behind, emitting a desperate scream.

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