When making portraits, Expressionist artists tried to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality. The artists manipulated their subjects’ appearance to express what cannot be easily seen. In other words, Expressionist artists, primarily working in Germany and Austria during the 1910s and 1920s and still reeling from the carnage of World War I, were less interested in accurately depicting their subject’s facial features than in capturing their psychological state. They used formal devices such as distortion, non-realistic colors, and unusual settings to help to achieve this.
To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.
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.
A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.
The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.
A representation of a particular individual.
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Questions & Activities
Consider the self-portraits by Oskar Kokoschka and Käthe Kollwitz. In your view, which artist is portrayed more sympathetically? Why might this be?
Reflect. Summarize your thoughts in a one-paragraph essay.
Many Expressionist portraits featured hands prominently. Käthe Kollwitz was famous for her figures’ large, strong hands, and many of Kokoschka’s figures have their hands in the air. Gestures communicate specific feelings or messages, often with hands. Some gestures can be ambiguous, leading people to interpret them differently.
Create. Working with a partner or alone, come up with gestures that communicate each of the following: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger.
Look closely at Kokoschka’s Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat.
Imagine. With a friend or classmate, role-play a conversation between the two people pictured. What might they say? What do their gestures suggest about their relationship?
During the 1930s, the Nazi party rose to power in Germany. Many artists and intellectuals were affected by the suppression of political, individual, and artistic rights. The Nazis declared the work of many modern artists, including Expressionists like Kokoschka and Grosz, to be “degenerate.” Their work was confiscated from German museums and eventually displayed in the 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich. This exhibition featured a chaotic display of over 650 confiscated paintings, sculptures, publications, and works on paper, all ridiculed in a series of derisive texts. Many works were later sold at auction to private collections or museums; others were burned by Nazi officials. In time, Reich Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels ordered a more thorough scouring of public and private art collections in Germany; an estimated 16,000 artworks were confiscated in this manner. Some artworks were never recovered.
Research the impact of political events in Germany during this period on the artists in this theme. Write a two-paragraph response with your findings.
Create a portrait of someone you know, such as a friend or family member, using any medium: painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, etc.
Reflect. As you make your portrait, consider your artistic choices: What do you want other people to know about this person? How did you choose to represent these details? Are there certain characteristics of this person that you excluded? Did you create your portrait from direct observation, from memory, or from a photograph? Why?