Extreme angles, flattened forms, garish colors, and distorted views distinguish Expressionism, an international movement in art, architecture, literature, and performance that flourished between 1905 and 1920, especially in Germany and Austria. Starting in 1905, as industry grew in Europe, the Expressionists migrated to cities. There they formed groups such as Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), shared studios, exhibited together, and published their work and writing.

The Expressionists sought to depict the world as it felt rather than how it looked, and, by doing so, to reinvigorate art with authenticity and expressive force. They rejected the dominant stylistic conventions and subject matter of German visual culture at the turn of the 20th century, instead looking to the boldly colorful, introspective paintings of the Post-Impressionists and to fellow German and Austrian artists who explored the darker side of life and the artistic imagination in their work. Many Expressionists also found early inspiration in the flat patterning and bold forms of The New Art movement.

In their quest for authenticity, the Expressionists also looked for inspiration beyond European art and culture to native folk traditions and tribal art. They frequented ethnographic museums and world’s fairs, where they encountered collections of African and Oceanic art. Reflecting a common attitude of the time, the Expressionists perceived non-Western art as “primitive,” unevolved, and therefore closer to the origins of humanity. They borrowed stylistically from what they saw—including geometric ornamentation, decorative patterning, and flattened planes. As Germany neared the onset of World War I, more elements of the grotesque appeared in Expressionist work. Expressionists embraced printmaking as a way to quickly distribute work to a larger audience and as a means of promoting or criticizing social or political causes.

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