At the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, the bold colors and jagged angles of Expressionism found a new purpose. Many of the Expressionists were initially in favor of the war, believing it would lead to the overthrow of middle-class society and its pervasive materialism and cultural restrictions. As the artists enlisted or were drafted, their firsthand experience of the war shattered this optimism and drove many to mental breakdowns. These artist soldiers began creating works that reflected their battered minds and bodies, and gave viewers insight into the nightmarish world of the front lines.
To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.
A group of people considered as a unit according to economic, occupational, or social status, esp., a social rank or caste: “the working class,” “the middle class.”
A war fought from 1914 to 1918, in which Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Italy, Japan, the United States, and other allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria.
An international artistic movement in art, architecture, literature, and performance that flourished between 1905 and 1920, especially in Germany and Austria, that favored the expression of subjective emotions and experience over depictions of objective reality. Conventions of Expressionist style include distortion, exaggeration, fantasy, and vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of color.
Questions & Activities
In 1937, Nazi officials confiscated art they considered “degenerate,” art that was un-German. Expressionist works were among those seized from museums. Artists were banned from teaching or exhibiting their work. About 16,000 works of art were burned, but about 650 were set aside for an exhibition called Entartete Kunst or “Degenerate Art.” Look for documentation of Nazi activities regarding art, and explore the art world’s reaction to the Nazi seizure. Write an editorial about your reaction to the Nazi seizure.
After the War
What happened to Expressionist artists after the war?
Research. Pick an artist in this theme and investigate his or her career after World War I ended in 1918.
Create. Make a scrapbook exhibition that tells the story of this artist after the war. Include images and text to illustrate the artist’s career.
Living in America
Compare the artistic climate in the United States with the period of German Expressionism (1905–37). Who were some prominent American artists at this time?
Create. Register at MoMA.org and save a collection that compares American work of the time to the work of the Expressionists.
Explore Expressionist connections with other art forms by looking up Expressionist film, music, dance, and theater. Expressionism influenced many of these art forms throughout Europe and the United States.
Write a one-page review of one of the films, music pieces, etc., pointing out its Expressionistic qualities.