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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.


When making portraits and self-portraits, Expressionist artists sought to communicate meaning or emotional experience more than to create a faithful likeness of themselves or their sitters. Primarily working in Germany and Austria during the 1910s and 1920s, and still reeling from the carnage of World War I, they were interested in capturing their subjects’ psychological states. They used formal methods such as distortion, non-naturalistic 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 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 context or environment in which a situation occurs.

A representation of oneself made by oneself.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

Relating to the shape or structure of an object.

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.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

Questions & Activities

  1. Self-Portraits

    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.

  2. Hand Signals

    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.

  3. Talk Time

    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?

  4. Degenerate Art

    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.

  5. Picturing People

    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?