Expressionism

Amid the destruction of World War I, German and Austrian Expressionists responded to the anxiety of modern life.


Expressionism and City Life

Through their art, German and Austrian Expressionists expressed their conflicted views of urban life.


Expressionist Portraits

Expressionist portraits reveal more than just what people look like.


Expressionism and Nature

For the German Expressionists, nature was an arena for healing and freedom.


Expressionist Depictions of War

German Expressionists, many of whom fought in World War I, depicted the shattering experience of war.


Extreme angles, flattened forms, garish colors, and distorted views are distinctive features of 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 revolted against Impressionism, with its faithfulness to rendering nature as it appeared, a view expressed by Austrian writer Hermann Bahr, who stated, “Impressionism is the falling away of man from spirit. Impressionism is man lowered to the position of a gramophone record of the outer world.”1 The Expressionists’ goal was to depict the world as it felt viscerally rather than how it looked on the surface and, by doing so, to reinvigorate art with authenticity and expressive force.

In their quest for authenticity, Expressionists 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, Expressionists perceived non-Western art as “primitive,” unevolved, and therefore closer to the origins of humanity. They borrowed stylistically from what they encountered—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.

Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, eds. "Expressionism, 1916, Munich," in Art in Theory 1900–2000 (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, second edition),116–17  

Characterized by ludicrous, repulsive, or incongruous distortion, as of appearance or manner; ugly, outlandish, or bizarre, as in character or appearance.

The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.

A term initially used to refer to the arts of all of Africa, Asia, and Pre-Columbian America, later used mostly to refer to art from Africa and the Pacific Islands. By the late 20th century the term, with its derogatory connotations, fell out of favor.

A flat or level surface.

A term referring to the islands of the southern, western, and central Pacific Ocean, including Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. The term is sometimes extended to encompass Australia, New Zealand, and the Malay Archipelago.

A 19th-century art movement, associated especially with French artists, whose works are characterized by relatively small, thin, visible brushstrokes that coalesce to form a single scene and emphasize movement and the changing qualities of light. Anti-academic in its formal aspects, Impressionism also involved the establishment of independent exhibitions outside of the established and official venues of the day.

The artists’ group Die Brücke was established in 1905, a moment that is recognized as the birth of Expressionism. The affiliated artists often turned to simplified or distorted forms and unusually strong, unnatural colors to jolt the viewer and provoke an emotional response. Its leading members were Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. The name Brücke (“bridge”) reflects these artists’ youthful eagerness to cross into a new future. The Brücke artists worked together communally until 1913.

Formed in 1911 in Munich as an association of painters and an exhibiting society led by Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Using a visual vocabulary of abstract forms and prismatic colors, Blaue Reiter artists explored the spiritual values of art as a counter to [what they saw as] the corruption and materialism of their age. The name, meaning “blue rider,” refers to a key motif in Kandinsky’s work: the horse and rider. The group, which published an influential almanac by the same name, dissolved with the onset of World War I.

Related Artists: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka, Käthe Kollwitz, Franz Marc, Max Pechstein, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Multimedia

AUDIO: An introduction to the exhibition German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse

AUDIO: Curator Starr Figura moderates a discussion panel on the power of prints as disseminators of art and ideas