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.
Encompasses varying stylistic approaches that emphasize intense personal expression. Renouncing the stiff bourgeois social values that prevailed at the turn of the 20th century, and rejecting the traditions of the state-sponsored art academies, Expressionist artists turned to boldly simplified or distorted forms and exaggerated, sometimes clashing colors. As Expressionism evolved from the beginning of the 20th century through the early 1920s, its crucial themes and genres reflected deeply humanistic concerns and an ambivalent attitude toward modernity, eventually confronting the devastating experience of World War I and its aftermath.
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?
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.