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Expressionists looked outside mainstream European society for inspiration, from far-flung tribal societies in Africa and the South Pacific to the peasantry and folk art traditions closer to home. Stylistically, they borrowed bold volumetric shapes, geometric ornamentation, decorative patterning, and flattened planes from art and objects encountered in ethnographic museums and commercial galleries, at exhibitions at World’s Fairs and zoos, and in reproductions in books and periodicals.
Walter Jacob The Peasant 1919
<i>The Church</i> from <i>Xylographs (Xylographies)</i>

Vasily Kandinsky

The Church from Xylographs (Xylographies)

1909 (executed 1907)

In this woodcut, Kandinsky evokes a fairytale world of Old Russia, a place filled with onion-domed churches and girls in richly embroidered costumes. As a young ethnography student, Kandinsky had traveled to remote regions of Russia, where he was inspired by the simplified forms and decorative patterning of local folk art.
Drawing for <i>Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen</i> (in-text plate, title page) from the periodical <i>Der Sturm. Wochenschrift für Kultur und Künste</i>, vol. 1, no. 20 (July 14, 1910)

Oskar Kokoschka

Drawing for Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (in-text plate, title page) from the periodical Der Sturm. Wochenschrift für Kultur und Künste, vol. 1, no. 20 (July 14, 1910)


In this illustration to his play Murderer, Hope of Women, Kokoschka emphasizes the violent interactions between the two central figures, whose nude bodies are covered in expressive, netlike patterns of tattoos—at the time, potent signifiers of primitivism, criminality, and degeneracy.
<i>Nude Dancers</i>

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Nude Dancers


Kirchner’s rough style of woodcut and his boldly simplified forms emphasize his rejection of social and artistic conventions. Casual nudity and spontaneous dance were common in his studio at the time, and in this print the nude dancers moving freely and unselfconsciously embody freedom from bourgeois respectability. Their distorted forms also rebuke the idealized approach to the nude that prevailed in the German art academies.
<i>Somali Dance</i>

Max Pechstein

Somali Dance


Dancers move ecstatically to the beat of the drum, with their heads thrown back and feet pounding the earth, completely in touch with nature, while a closed-eyed flutist is totally given over to the raw power of the music. Pechstein’s rough handling and deliberately crude execution heighten the “primitive” feeling of the subject.
<i>Killing of the Banquet Roast</i>

Max Pechstein

Killing of the Banquet Roast

1911 (published 1912)

Pechstein borrowed the composition of this woodcut—a man hunting with a bow around a flattened, stylized tree—from a bronze relief from Benin, which he saw in the Berlin ethnographic museum. The two naked onlookers and bright, crudely applied colors are additional markers of primitivism.
<i>Candle Dancers</i>

Emil Nolde

Candle Dancers


In this imagined scene in an unspecified exotic locale, two women, dressed only in fluttering skirts, dance ecstatically on a stage. Flaming candles add a note of fiery passion and danger to the scene. Nolde's stark, rhythmic approach to black-and-white woodcut further enhances the sense of primal energy and emotion.
<i>Papuan Head</i>

Emil Nolde

Papuan Head


This watercolor captures the immediacy and directness of Nolde’s encounters with the local people he met during his travels with a German colonial expedition to New Guinea in the South Pacific from 1913 to 1914.
<i>Two Russians</i>

Emil Nolde

Two Russians


Nolde traveled to the South Pacific via the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1913. Along the way, he sketched Russians he saw in train station waiting rooms. This painting was made after his return to Germany. As in the watercolor portraits he made of the South Pacific islanders, this work reflects his fascination with the exoticism he perceived in their weathered faces and traditional dress.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff


(1916), published 1919

Influenced by African and Oceanic sculpture as well as the fractured planes of Cubism, Schmidt-Rottluff used bold patterning and volumetric shapes in this masklike portrait. This formal vocabulary borrowing from “primitive” sources suggests a universal or primal being.

Max Pechstein



In this woodcut depicting two stylized nude figures on a beach, Pechstein conflates his travels to Oceania, his repeated stays in Nidden (a remote town on the Baltic Sea), and his interest in African tribal sculpture to create an idyllic vision of a simpler, more “primitive” life in harmony with nature.
<i>The Peasant</i>

Walter Jacob

The Peasant


This woodcut shows a peasant surrounded by animals, in a world untouched by modernization or the tumult of the cities in postwar Germany. Jacob’s deep, rough woodcut gouges and bright watercolor additions underscore the unrefined, almost folkloric nature of his subject.
<i>Two Gypsy Girls in Living Room</i>

Otto Mueller

Two Gypsy Girls in Living Room

(1926–27, published 1927)

In the mid-1920s, Mueller traveled extensively through Hungary, Dalmatia, and Bulgaria, making many depictions of the Roma people. In this lithograph, he shows two bare-breasted women at home, in simple yet comfortable surroundings. Mueller did not discourage the myth that his mother had been a gypsy.
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