German Expressionism

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While fantasy did not play a large role in most Expressionists' work, there were a few artists associated with the movement who took a lyrical, visionary, or fantastical approach to their subjects. In an age rocked by social upheaval, war, and revolution, such dreamlike, illusory worlds presented a welcome alternative to a disappointing or nightmarish reality. Some artists explored themes of sex and violence in images freed from the usual social taboos; others swept away the old world and rebuilt it anew with imaginary cities and architecture.

Max Klinger


1884 (executed 1883, first published 1884)

Klinger meticulously rendered dreams and fantasies, creating visions as real as the waking world. In the darkness, a young woman is circled by shadowy figures, some peaceful, some menacing.
<i>Fears</i> (plate VII) from <i>A Glove, Opus VI</i>

Max Klinger

Fears (plate VII) from A Glove, Opus VI

1881 (print executed 1880)

At a skating rink, Klinger retrieves the lost glove of the woman he desires. This glove unleashes a series of fantasies. In this etching, he is flooded with terrifying desire as a monstrously sized glove lurks above him and another reaches for a drowning man.
<i>The Hero with the Wing</i>

Paul Klee

The Hero with the Wing


With only one wing, Klee’s hero is a tragicomic figure who has broken his other limbs in a futile attempt to fly. Part man, part bird, and part nature, his left leg is a tree stump, growing into the ground and preventing any future attempts to conquer the air. One of Klee’s earliest works, this bizarre, obsessively detailed image is a parody of the traditional aesthetic ideals and strict social mores of the period.
<i>Polar Bear</i>

Alfred Kubin

Polar Bear


In a peaceful landscape, an impossibly huge polar bear stealthily slides along a cliff above a shore and watches a small cottage. Kubin drew this fantastic image on the back of cartographer’s paper, usually used for making maps, subverting the material’s original purpose of documenting the existing world.
<i>Fantastic Creature</i> (plate preceding page 1) from <i>Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)</i>

Franz Marc

Fantastic Creature (plate preceding page 1) from Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)


Marc created a halcyon world of color populated only by animals. In contrast to the decadence of prewar German society, Marc saw the natural world as a pure, uncorrupted place.
<i>The Fairytale</i>

Heinrich Campendonk

The Fairytale


Like his friend Franz Marc, Campendonk also conjured peaceful visions of idyllic nature. But unlike Marc, Campendonk found a place for human figures in his rejuvenated world.
<i>The Sleepers</i> (in-text plate, folio 8) from <i>Die träumenden Knaben (The Dreaming Boys)</i>

Oskar Kokoschka

The Sleepers (in-text plate, folio 8) from Die träumenden Knaben (The Dreaming Boys)

1917 (executed 1907–08)

This illustration provides a peacefully enchanted interlude within Kokoschka’s haunting book about awakening adolescent sexuality in far-off islands. In this fairy tale for adults, Kokoschka wrote, “I fell asleep and dreamt until morning.”
<i>People on the Jetty</i>

Lyonel Feininger

People on the Jetty


This delightfully wacky image shows rows of top-hatted ghosts on a jetty. Here, Feininger combines two of his favored themes—seaside landscapes and whimsically amusing figures—that hark back to his days as a caricaturist.

Emil Nolde



A man who sees a boy hanging in the air, his legs reflected in the pool below, is befuddled as to whether the vision he sees is really there or exists only in his head. A laughing, devilish figure hovers behind a man, amused by the confusion. Eccentric, phantasmagorical figures such as this recur throughout Nolde’s oeuvre, reflecting his predilection for intuitive, even hallucinatory expression.
<i>Demon above the Ships</i>

Paul Klee

Demon above the Ships


Against the dark blue background of a nighttime sea, Klee constructs a demon from swirling colors that towers above the low-slung ships. Klee’s fantastic use of color was rooted in his real-life travels to Tunisia in 1914.
<i>Flowers in the Wind</i>

Paul Klee

Flowers in the Wind


Klee’s uniquely personal and evocative works often merge his inner visions with his observations of the external world. Here, he creates a dreamlike garden where two of his most prominent themes—the human figure and nature—exist in pure harmony, as fantastical beings grow like flowers from the ground.
<i>The One in Love</i> from <i>Masters' Portfolio of the Staatliches Bauhaus </i>

Paul Klee

The One in Love from Masters' Portfolio of the Staatliches Bauhaus


In this lithograph depicting the act of fantasizing itself, intense, piercing male eyes are conjuring a mechanized female body and the sexual act reduced to its most physical aspects.
<i>Magic Mirror</i> from <i>Day and Dream</i>

Max Beckmann

Magic Mirror from Day and Dream


In this late work, Beckmann mixes the real and the imaginary. This mirror provides a conduit to a fantasy world, while the painting below also creates a new world through art.
<i>Hot Weather!</i>

Lyonel Feininger

Hot Weather!


The sizzling orange of these playful figures evokes the crackling intensity of summertime heat. Beginning in his early days working as a caricaturist, Feininger made watercolors such as this one depicting fantastic figures, which he called “grotesques” and “ghosties,” and which he often gave as gifts to family and friends.
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