Expressionism Movement and Chronology

"Everyone who renders directly and honestly whatever drives him to create is one of us."

Synopsis

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 nineteenth-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.

Key Ideas

The arrival of Expressionism announced new standards in the creation and judgment of art. Art was now meant to come forth from within the artist, rather than from a depiction of the external visual world, and the standard for assessing the quality of a work of art became the character of the artist's feelings rather than an analysis of the composition.
Expressionist artists often employed swirling, swaying, and exaggeratedly executed brushstrokes in the depiction of their subjects. These techniques were meant to convey the turgid emotional state of the artist reacting to the anxieties of the modern world.
Through their confrontation with the urban world of the early twentieth century, Expressionist artists developed a powerful mode of social criticism in their serpentine figural renderings and bold colors. Their representations of the modern city included alienated individuals - a psychological by-product of recent urbanization - as well as prostitutes, who were used to comment on capitalism's role in the emotional distancing of individuals within cities.

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MOST IMPORTANT ART

TITLE: The Scream (1893)
The Scream(1893)
Artist: Edvard Munch
Artwork Description & Analysis: Throughout his artistic career, Munch focused on scenes of death, agony, and anxiety in distorted and emotionally charged portraits, all themes and styles that would be adopted by the Expressionists. Here, in Munch's most famous painting, he depicts the battle between the individual and society. The setting of The Scream was suggested to the artist while walking along a bridge overlooking Oslo; as Munch recalls, "the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence...shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature." Although Munch did not observe the scene as rendered in his painting, The Scream evokes the jolting emotion of the encounter and exhibits a general anxiety toward the tangible world. The representation of the artist's emotional response to a scene would form the basis of the Expressionists' artistic interpretations. The theme of individual alienation, as represented in this image would persist throughout the twentieth century, captivating Expressionist artists as a central feature of modern life.

Tempera and crayon on cardboard - National Museum, Oslo

  • The Scream(1893)
  • Der Blaue Reiter(1903)
  • Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat(1909)
  • Large Blue Horses(1911)
  • Houses at Night(1912)
  • Street, Berlin(1913)
  • Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up(1917)
  • Portrait of a Man(1919)
  • Mad Woman(1920)
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Expressionism Beginnings

With the turn of the century in Europe, shifts in artistic styles and vision erupted as a response to the major changes in the atmosphere of society. New technologies and massive urbanization efforts altered the individual's worldview, and artists reflected the psychological impact of these developments by moving away from a realistic representation of what they saw toward an emotional and psychological rendering of how the world affected them. The roots of Expressionism can be traced to certain Post-Impressionist artists like Edvard Munch in Norway, as well as Gustav Klimt in the Vienna Secession, and finally emerged in Germany in 1905.

Edvard Munch in Norway

The late nineteenth-century Norwegian Post-Impressionist painter Edvard Munch emerged as an important source of inspiration for the Expressionists. His vibrant and emotionally charged works opened up new possibilities for introspective expression. In particular, Munch's frenetic canvases expressed the anxiety of the individual within the newly modernized European society; his famous painting The Scream (1893) evidenced the conflict between spirituality and modernity as a central theme of his work. By 1905 Munch's work was well known within Germany and he was spending much of his time there as well, putting him in direct contact with the Expressionists.

Gustav Klimt in Austria

Another figure in the late nineteenth century that had an impact upon the development of Expressionism was Gustav Klimt, who worked in the Austrian Art Nouveau style of the Vienna Secession. Klimt's lavish mode of rendering his subjects in a bright palette, elaborately patterned surfaces, and elongated bodies was a step toward the exotic colors, gestural brushwork, and jagged forms of the later Expressionists. Klimt was a mentor to painter Egon Schiele, and introduced him to the works of Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh, among others, at an exhibition of their work in 1909.

The Advent of Expressionism in Germany

Although it included various artists and styles, Expressionism first emerged in 1905, when a group of four German architecture students who desired to become painters - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Erich Heckel - formed the group Die Brücke (the Bridge) in the city of Dresden. A few years later, in 1911, a like-minded group of young artists formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich, after the rejection of Wassily Kandinsky's painting The Last Judgment (1910) from a local exhibition. In addition to Kandinsky, the group included Franz Marc, Paul Klee, and August Macke, among others, all of whom made up the loosely associated group.

The Term "Expressionism"

The term "Expressionism" is thought to have been coined in 1910 by Czech art historian Antonin Matejcek, who intended it to denote the opposite of Impressionism. Whereas the Impressionists sought to express the majesty of nature and the human form through paint, the Expressionists, according to Matejcek, sought only to express inner life, often via the painting of harsh and realistic subject matter. It should be noted, however, that neither Die Brücke, nor similar sub-movements, ever referred to themselves as Expressionist, and, in the early years of the century, the term was widely used to apply to a variety of styles, including Post-Impressionism.

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Concepts and Styles

Die Brücke: Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel, and Bleyl

Influenced by artists such as Munch, van Gogh, and Ensor, the members of the Dresden-based Die Brücke group sought to convey raw emotion through provocative images of modern society. They depicted scenes of city dwellers, prostitutes, and dancers in the city's streets and nightclubs, presenting the decadent underbelly of German society. In works such as Kirchner's Street, Berlin (1913), they emphasized the alienation inherent to modern society and the loss of spiritual communion between individuals in urban culture; fellow city dwellers are distanced from one another, acting as mere commodities, as in the prostitutes at the forefront of Kirchner's composition.

Unlike the pastoral scenes of Impressionism and the academic drawings of Neoclassicism, Die Brücke artists used distorted forms and jarring, unnatural pigments to elicit the viewer's emotional response. The group was similarly united by a reductive and primitive aesthetic, a revival of older media and medieval German art, in which they used graphic techniques such as woodblock printing to create crude, jagged forms.

The group published a woodcut broadsheet in 1906, called Programme, to accompany their first exhibition. It summarized their break with prevailing academic traditions calling for a freer, youth-oriented aesthetic. Although mostly written by Kirchner, this poster served as manifesto stating the ideals of Die Brücke. The members of Die Brücke drew largely from the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in terms of both their artistic project and their philosophical grounding. Their name came from a quote from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85) that states, "What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end." The group exhibited and collaborated through 1913, when Kirchner penned Chronik der Brücke (Brücke Chronicle) and the collective effectively dissolved.

Der Blaue Reiter: Kandinsky, Macke, Klee, and Marc

The artists of Der Blaue Reiter group shared an inclination towards abstraction, symbolic content, and spiritual allusion. They sought to express the emotional aspects of being through highly symbolic and brightly colored renderings. Their name emerged from the symbol of the horse and rider, derived from one of Wassily Kandinsky's paintings; for Kandinsky, the rider symbolized the transition from the tangible world into the spiritual realm and thus acted as a metaphor for artistic practice. For other members such as Franz Marc, Paul, Klee, and Auguste Macke, this notion became a central principle for transcending realistic depiction and delving into abstraction.

Although Der Blaue Reiter never published a manifesto, its members were united by their aesthetic innovations, which were influenced by medieval and primitivist art forms, Cubism, and Fauvism. However, the group itself was short-lived; with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Franz Marc and Auguste Macke were drafted into German military service and were killed soon after. The Russian members of the group - Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky, and others - were all forced to return home. Der Blaue Reiter dissolved immediately thereafter.

French Expressionism: Rouault, Soutine, and Chagall

Expressionism's elasticity has meant that many artists beyond Germany's borders have been identified with the style. Georges Rouault, the French artist sometimes described as an Expressionist, may have influenced the Germans, rather than the other way around. He learned his vivid use of color and distortion of form from Fauvism, and, unlike his German Expressionist counterparts, Rouault expressed an affinity for his Impressionist predecessors, particularly for the work of Edgar Degas. He is well known for his devotion to religious subjects, and particularly for his many depictions of the crucifixion, rendered in rich color and heavy layers of paint.

The Russian-French Jewish artist Marc Chagall drew upon currents from Cubism, Fauvism, and Symbolism to create his own brand of Expressionism in which he often depicted dreamy scenes of his Belarusian hometown, Vitebsk. While in Paris during the height of the modernist avant-garde, Chagall developed a visual language of eccentric motifs: "ghostly figures floating in the sky, the gigantic fiddler dancing on miniature dollhouses, the livestock and transparent wombs and, within them, tiny offspring sleeping upside down." In 1914, his work was exhibited in Berlin, and had an impact on the German Expressionists extending beyond World War I. He never associated his work with a specific movement, and considered his repertoire to be a vocabulary of images meaningful to himself, but they inspired many, including the Surrealists. Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, "When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is."

Chaim Soutine, the Russian-Jewish, Paris-based painter, was a major proponent of the development of Parisian Expressionism. He synthesized elements from Impressionism, the French Academic tradition, and his own personal vision into an individualized technique and version of the style. The artist's expressive style has proved highly influential on subsequent generations.

Austrian Expressionism: Kokoschka and Schiele

Austrian artists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, were inspired by German Expressionism, but interpreted the style in their individual and personalized manners never forming an official association like the Germans. Kokoschka and Schiele sought to express the decadence of modern Austria through similarly expressive representations of the human body; by sinuous lines, garish colors, and distorted figures, both artists imbued their subjects with highly sexual and psychological themes. Although Kokschka and Schiele were the central proponents of the movement in Austria, Kokoschka became increasingly involved in German Expressionist circles; he left Austria and moved to Germany in 1910. Initially Kokoschka worked in a Viennese Art Nouveau style, but starting in 1908 he instinctively worked as an Expressionist, passionately seeking to expose an inner sensibility of the sitter in his early portraits. Schiele left Vienna in 1912 but remained in Austria, where he worked and exhibited until his death in the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918.

Further Developments and Legacy

While certain artists rejected Expressionism, others would continue to expand upon its innovations as a style. For example, in the 1920s, Kandinsky transitioned to completely non-objective paintings and watercolors, which emphasized color balance and archetypal forms, rather than figurative representation. However, Expressionism would have its most direct impact in Germany and would continue to shape its art for decades afterwards. After World War I, Expressionism began to lose impetus and fragment. The Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement developed as a direct response to the highly emotional tenets of Expressionism, while the Neo-Expressionists emerged in Germany and then in the United States much later in the twentieth century, reprising the earlier Expressionist style.

New Objectivity: Dix, Grosz and Beckmann

Already by 1918, the Dada manifesto claimed, "Expressionism...no longer has anything to do with the efforts made by active people." But its ethos would have a vivid afterlife; it was crucial in the early formation of artists Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Max Beckmann, who together formed the movement known as the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). These artists sought, as the name suggests, an unsentimental and objective approach to artistic production. Their naturalistic renderings of individuals and urban scenes highlighted this new aesthetic and paralleled the general attitude of practicality that characterized Weimar culture.

Neo-Expressionism: Baselitz, Kiefer, and Schnabel

The emergence of Georg Baselitz's paintings of layered, vibrant colors and distorted figures in the 1960s, and of Anselm Kiefer's images buried amidst thick impasto built up from a variety of materials on the canvas in the 1970s, signaled an important and influential revival of the style within Germany, which would eventually culminate in a global Neo-Expressionist movement in the 1980s. Artists in New York City, like Julian Schnabel, also employed thick layers of paint, unnatural color palettes and gestural brushwork to hearken back to the Expressionist movement earlier in the twentieth century.

The original Expressionist movement's ideas about spirituality, primitivism, and the value of abstract art would also be hugely influential on an array of unrelated movements, including Abstract Expressionism. The Expressionists' metaphysical outlook and instinctive discomfort with the modern world impelled them to antagonistic attitudes that would continue to be characteristic of various avant-garde movements throughout the century.



comment to editor

QUOTES

"With faith in progress and in a new generation of creators and spectators we call together all youth. As youth, we carry the future and want to create for ourselves freedom of life and of movement against the long-established older forces. Everyone who reproduces that which drives him to creation with directness and authenticity belongs to us."
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, from a woodcut broadsheet that accompanied the Die Brücke exhibition at the Seifert factory, Dresden, 1906

"The German artist creates out of his imagination, inner vision, the forms of visible nature are to him only a symbol."
- Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

"Art is nothing but the expression of our dream; the more we surrender to it the closer we get to the inner truth of things, our dream-life, the true life that scorns questions and does not see them."
- Franz Marc

"I really feel a pressure to create something that is as strong as possible. The war has really swept away everything form the past. Everything seems weak to me and I suddenly see things in their terrible power. I never liked the type of art that was simply appealing to the eye, and I have the fundamental feeling that we need still stronger forms, so strong, that they can withstand the force of the crazed masses."
- Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

"True dreams and visions should be as visible to the artist as the phenomena of the objective."
- Oskar Kokoschka

"Incomprehensible ideas express themselves in comprehensible forms...Form is a mystery to us for it is the expression of mysterious powers...Our senses are our bridge between the incomprehensible and the comprehensible."
- August Macke



Original content written by Justin Wolf
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Impressionism
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The Scream
The Scream

Title: The Scream (1893)

Artist: Edvard Munch

Artwork Description & Analysis: Throughout his artistic career, Munch focused on scenes of death, agony, and anxiety in distorted and emotionally charged portraits, all themes and styles that would be adopted by the Expressionists. Here, in Munch's most famous painting, he depicts the battle between the individual and society. The setting of The Scream was suggested to the artist while walking along a bridge overlooking Oslo; as Munch recalls, "the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence...shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature." Although Munch did not observe the scene as rendered in his painting, The Scream evokes the jolting emotion of the encounter and exhibits a general anxiety toward the tangible world. The representation of the artist's emotional response to a scene would form the basis of the Expressionists' artistic interpretations. The theme of individual alienation, as represented in this image would persist throughout the twentieth century, captivating Expressionist artists as a central feature of modern life.


Tempera and crayon on cardboard - National Museum, Oslo

Der Blaue Reiter
Der Blaue Reiter

Title: Der Blaue Reiter (1903)

Artist: Wassily Kandinsky

Artwork Description & Analysis: This breakthrough canvas is a deceptively simple image — a lone rider racing across a landscape — yet it represents a decisive moment in Kandinsky's developing pictorial language. Here, the sun-dappled hillside reveals a keen interest in contrasts of light and dark as well as movement and stillness, all major themes throughout his oeuvre. Constituting a link between Post-Impressionism and the burgeoning Expressionist movements, Kandinsky's canvas became the emblem of the expressive possibilities embraced by the Munich avant-garde. This is the eponymous work from which the collective derived its name in 1911.


Oil on canvas - Private collection

Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat
Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat

Title: Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat (1909)

Artist: Oskar Kokoschka

Artwork Description & Analysis: The esteemed art historians Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat commissioned this portrait by Kokoschka for their art collection. The colorful background and concentrated gestures of the figures represent the couple as "closed personalities so full of tension," as the artist once called them. As in many of his portraits, Kokoschka focuses on the inner drama of his subjects, here, using the couple's nervous hands as a focal point of their anxiety. His rendering depicts the way the artist perceived the couple's psyche, not necessarily their physical, naturalistic appearances. Kokoschka's emotional representation is emblematic of the Expressionist style. The swirling, abstract colors that obscure the background and emerge around them are characteristic of Kokoschka's frenetic, depthless renderings of space throughout his oeuvre.


Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Large Blue Horses
Large Blue Horses

Title: Large Blue Horses (1911)

Artist: Franz Marc

Artwork Description & Analysis: The painter, printmaker, and watercolorist Marc was a key member of Der Blaue Reiter, and is known for his use of animal symbolism. This canvas belonged to a series of works that centered on the theme of horses, which he regarded as emblems of spiritual renewal. The lush colors, fracturing of space, and geometric forms show the influence of Cubism and Robert Delaunay's Orphism. However, while Marc was influenced by his contemporaries, his emphasis on fantastic subjects derived from the material world, such as the blue horses from this 1911 painting, is unique to his practice. For the artist, the movement away from realistic depiction represented a turn towards the spiritual, the emotional, and the authentic. As with many Expressionists, color was symbolic rather than descriptive for Marc. He drew upon the emotive qualities of his palette to convey his vision of the spiritual blue beasts.


Oil on canvas - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Houses at Night
Houses at Night

Title: Houses at Night (1912)

Artist: Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Artwork Description & Analysis: After co-founding Die Brücke in Dresden, Schmidt-Rottluff moved to the booming city of Berlin, where he painted this abstracted rendering of a city block. The buildings stagger apart from each other at odd angles over an eerily empty street, evoking the alienation of modern urban society. Even though Schmidt-Rottluff painted Houses at Night, the influence of woodblock printing is clear; the abstracted, minimalist shapes have a stark and graphic quality similar to the artist's many woodblock works. Here, the bright colors add to the primitive shapes of the canvas, imbuing the scene with an underlying sense of unease and estrangement. The pervasive disquiet was the essence of the modern, urban realm for Expressionists. The turn toward jagged forms and a bright, acidic palette emphasized the artist's individual, avant-garde interpretation of the street scene.


Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Street, Berlin
Street, Berlin

Title: Street, Berlin (1913)

Artist: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Artwork Description & Analysis: Kirchner is renowned for his many Berlin street scenes, and this particular work is perhaps his most well known from that category, if not his entire catalog. His jagged, angular brushstrokes, acidic colors, and elongated forms all charge the street atmosphere on the canvas and achieve something very rebellious for its time and exemplify the stylistic break with tradition that the members of Die Brücke sought. As a founding member of the group, Kirchner set out to establish a new order of painting, one that visibly renounced Impressionistic tendencies and the need to accurately portray figurative forms. In Street, Berlin, Kirchner created a stunningly askew rendition of an alienated, urban street procession. Without regard for realistic depiction of form, he bent and contorted his narrow figures like they were blades of grass in a meadow. Another uniquely modern feature of Street, Berlin was Kirchner's choice to position two prostitutes (identifiable by their signature plumed hats) as the painting's (somewhat off-center) focal point.


Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up
Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up

Title: Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up (1917)

Artist: Egon Schiele

Artwork Description & Analysis: Schiele, one of the central figures of Austrian Expressionism, is known for his jarring and oftentimes grotesque renderings of overt sexuality. Here, Schiele draws his wife, Edith Schiele, partially dressed, her body contorted in an unnatural position. Her bold and intense expression assertively confronts the viewer and directly contradicts the artistic standards of passive feminine beauty. Although unabashedly controversial throughout his lifetime, Schiele was recognized for his skilled draftsmanship and his use of sinewy lines to evoke the decadence and debauchery of modern Austria. The emotive quality of Schiele's line-work and color firmly places him in the Expressionist movement. He rendered images as he interpreted them, not as they appeared to the outside world.


Oil on canvas - National Gallery, Prague

Portrait of a Man
Portrait of a Man

Title: Portrait of a Man (1919)

Artist: Erich Heckel

Artwork Description & Analysis: A founding member of Die Brücke, Heckel experimented widely with woodblock printing, a favorite medium of many Expressionists, and was originally attracted to the technique for its raw emotionalism and stark aesthetic, as well as its traditional German heritage. While many of his works depict nudes and scenes of city life, Heckel takes up a more introspective subject in this somber self-portrait from 1919. The figure's drawn face, distorted jaw, and weary eyes, which seem to gaze distractedly into the distance, highlight the individual's spiritual, psychological, and physical fatigue. Rather than create a naturalistic self-portrait, Heckel indicates the general spirit of his time and the national weariness of his age, common themes in Expressionist art.


Woodcut - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Mad Woman
Mad Woman

Title: Mad Woman (1920)

Artist: Chaim Soutine

Artwork Description & Analysis: Soutine painted two known versions of Mad Woman (using a different woman for each), and this was unquestionably the darkest of the pair. His violent brushstrokes and contorted lines communicate an almost unnerving tension, but nevertheless do not deny his subject a rich depth of character. Soutine invited viewers to observe the subject closely, to gaze into her eyes and study her asymmetrical face and form. In many ways, this painting embodies the essence of the Expressionist style; Mad Woman visibly vibrates, contorts, shifts, pushes, and pulls, providing the viewer with Soutine's vision of the inner torment of his sitter. In part, it redefined the genre of portrait painting. Simply by painting this mysterious (and possibly dangerous) woman up close rather than from a distance, Soutine established himself as an empathetic figure, but also as a daring visionary.


Oil on canvas - National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.