Expressionist Art (1910-1930)

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

Kirchner Verein, Winter excursion, 1923

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In expressionist art, colour in particular can be highly intense and non-naturalistic, brushwork is typically free and paint application tends to be generous and highly textured. Expressionist art tends to be emotional and sometimes mystical. It can be seen as an extension of Romanticism. Although the term expressionist can be applied to artworks from any era, it is generally applied to a specific art production during the beginning of the twentieth century.

Why Expressionism?

Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait of Doctor Gachet, 1890

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Expressionism emerged simultaneously in various cities across Germany as a response to a widespread anxiety about humanity’s increasingly discordant relationship with the world and accompanying lost feelings of authenticity and spirituality. In part a reaction against Impressionism and academic art, Expressionism was inspired most heavily by the Symbolist currents in late-19th-century art. Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and James Ensor proved particularly influential to the Expressionists, encouraging the distortion of form and the deployment of strong colors to convey a variety of anxieties and yearnings. The classic phase of the Expressionist movement lasted from approximately 1905 to 1920 and spread throughout Europe. Its example would later inform Abstract Expressionism, and its influence would be felt throughout the remainder of the century in German art. It was also a critical precursor to the Neo-Expressionist artists of the 1980s.

What is Expressionism?

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Girl On A Divan,1906

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Expressionism is considered more as an international tendency than a coherent art movement, which was particularly influential at the beginning of the twentieth century. It spanned various fields: art, literature, music, theatre and architecture. Expressionist artists sought to express emotional experience, rather than physical reality. Expressionism is a complex and vast term that has meant different things at different times. However, when we speak of Expressionist art, we tend to think either about the artistic tendency which followed as a reaction to Impressionism in France or about the movement which emerged in Germany and Austria in the early twentieth century. The term is so elastic that it can accommodate artists ranging from Vincent van Gogh to Egon Schiele and Wassily Kandinsky.

German Expressionism

In Germany, Expressionism is particularly associated with the Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter groups. German Expressionism art took inspiration from mysticism, the Middle Ages, primitive times and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas were immensely popular and influential at the time.

Wassily Kandinsky, The Blue Rider,1903

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Brücke was formed in Dresden in 1905 as a bohemian collective of expressionist artists opposing the bourgeois social order of Germany. The four founding members were Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, none of whom had received a formal art education. They chose their name, Brücke, to describe their desire to bridge the past and the present. The name was inspired by a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The artists attempted to escape the confines of modern middle-class life by exploring a heightened use of colour, a direct, simplified approach to form and free sexuality in their work.

French Expressionism

In France, the main artists often associated with Expressionism were Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. Though Van Gogh and Gauguin were active in the years slightly before what is regarded as the main period of Expressionism (1905-1920), they can without a doubt be regarded as Expressionist artists, who were painting 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 colours and styles of brushwork to depict emotions and experiences, moving away from realistic depictions of their subjects to how they felt and perceived them.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889

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Austrian Expressionism

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

Another important artist at the time who made a great impact on the German and Austrian Expressionist scenes was the Norwegian Edvard Munch, who was well known in Vienna from Secession exhibitions and the 1909 Kunstschau. Munch is most famous for The Scream, his painting of a figure on a bridge with a sunset behind him, letting out a hair-raising and desperate scream.

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