Art Movement: Expressionism

By Shira Wolfe

Wassily Kandinsky, Der Blaue Reiter, 1910
Wassily Kandinsky, Der Blaue Reiter, 1910

At the start of the twentieth century, an artistic tendency swept through Europe, spurred on by resistance to bourgeois culture and a fervent search for rejuvenated creativity. It came to be known as Expressionism. Words that characterise Expressionist artists and Expressionist art are self, psyche, body, sexuality, nature and spirit. In France, the Dutch artist Van Gogh was digging deep and revealing his unusual, troubled, and colourful psyche; in Germany, the Russian Wassily Kandinsky was exploring spirituality in art as an antidote to alienation in the modern world; in Austria, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka were fighting society’s moral hypocrisy by tackling topics such as sexuality, death and violence; finally, Edvard Munch was making waves in Norway and all over Europe with his wild, intense expressions of the environment and his self and psyche. Together, these artists tapped into very raw, true and eternal questions, topics and struggles that had been stirring beneath the surface and which remain familiar to us even today. Perhaps this is why Expressionism in art continued in many different strands even after these artists and this specific period in time, and why you could argue that Expressionism still lives on today.

What is Expressionism?

Expressionism is considered more as an international tendency than a coherent art movement, which was particularly influential at the beginning of the twentieth century. It spanned various fields: art, literature, music, theatre and architecture. Expressionist artists sought to express emotional experience, rather than physical reality. Famous Expressionist paintings are Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Wassily Kandinsky’s Der Blaue Reiter, and Egon Schiele’s Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up

Expressionism is a complex and vast term that has meant different things at different times. However, when we speak of Expressionist art, we tend to think either about the artistic tendency which followed as a reaction to Impressionism in France or about the movement which emerged in Germany and Austria in the early twentieth century. The term is so elastic that it can accommodate artists ranging from Vincent van Gogh to Egon Schiele and Wassily Kandinsky.

Key dates: 1905-1920
Key regions: Germany, Austria, France
Key words:
 self, psyche, body, sexuality, nature, spirit, emotions, mysticism, distortion of reality, exaggeration, heightened use of colour
Key artists:
 Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

French Expressionism

In France, the main artists often associated with Expressionism were Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. Though Van Gogh and Gauguin were active in the years slightly before what is regarded as the main period of Expressionism (1905-1920), they can without a doubt be regarded as Expressionist artists, who were painting the world around them not simply as it appeared to them, but from a deeply subjective, human experience. Matisse, Van Gogh and Gauguin used expressive colours and styles of brushwork to depict emotions and experiences, moving away from realistic depictions of their subjects to how they felt and perceived them.

Edvard Munch, The Scream. Painting reproduced in "Expressionism" by Ashley Bassie
Edvard Munch, The Scream. Painting reproduced in “Expressionism” by Ashley Bassie

German Expressionism

In Germany, Expressionism is particularly associated with the Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter groups. German Expressionism art took inspiration from mysticism, the Middle Ages, primitive times and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas were immensely popular and influential at the time.

Brücke was formed in Dresden in 1905 as a bohemian collective of expressionist artists opposing the bourgeois social order of Germany. The four founding members were Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, none of whom had received a formal art education. They chose their name, Brücke, to describe their desire to bridge the past and the present. The name was inspired by a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The artists attempted to escape the confines of modern middle-class life by exploring a heightened use of colour, a direct, simplified approach to form and free sexuality in their work.

Der Blaue Reiter was founded in 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. In the face of the increasing alienation they experienced due to the modernizing world, they sought to transcend the mundane by pursuing the spiritual value of art. Moreover, they aimed to break down the boundaries between in their eyes closely related phenomena such as ‘Art’, children’s art, folk art, and ethnography. The name Der Blaue Reiter is related to the recurring rider on horseback theme from Kandinsky’s Munich period, as well as to Kandinsky’s and Marc’s love of the colour blue, which for them held spiritual qualities. The main artists associated with Der Blaue Reiter are Kandinsky, Marc, Klee, Münter, Jawlensky, Werefkin, and Macke.

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation VII. Painting reproduced in "Expressionism" by Ashley Bassie
Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation VII. Painting reproduced in “Expressionism” by Ashley Bassie

Austrian Expressionism

Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka are the two main figures of Austrian Expressionism. They were especially influenced by their predecessor Gustav Klimt, who also had a hand in launching their careers due to exhibitions he created showcasing the best of contemporary Austrian art. Both Expressionist artists lived in the contradictory Vienna of the late 19th, early 20th century, where moral repression and sexual hypocrisy played a part in the development of Expressionism art there. Schiele and Kokoschka eschewed this moral hypocrisy and portrayed topics such as death, violence, longing, and sex. Kokoschka became known for his portraits and his capacity to reveal the inner nature of his sitters, and Schiele for his raw, almost brutally honest portrayals of aloof yet desperate sexuality.

Egon Schiele, Two Girls (lovers). Painting reproduced in "Expressionism" by Ashley Bassie
Egon Schiele, Two Girls (lovers). Painting reproduced in “Expressionism” by Ashley Bassie

Norwegian Expressionism

Another important artist at the time who made a great impact on the German and Austrian Expressionist scenes was the Norwegian Edvard Munch, who was well known in Vienna from Secession exhibitions and the 1909 Kunstschau. Munch is most famous for The Scream, his painting of a figure on a bridge with a sunset behind him, letting out a hair-raising and desperate scream. 

Edvard Munch, The Kiss. Painting reproduced in "Expressionism" by Ashley Bassie
Edvard Munch, The Kiss. Painting reproduced in “Expressionism” by Ashley Bassie

Iconic Expressionist Artworks

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893)

This painting was inspired by a single momentary experience that Munch had while in France: “I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun began to set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became blood red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, dead tired, and I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature.” (“Expressionism”, Ashley Bassie, p.69) The scream is felt by the figure, it engulfs him completely, and pierces both the environment and his psyche.

Wassily Kandinsky’s Der Blaue Reiter (1903)

Der Blaue Reiter is one of Kandinsky’s first Expressionist works. It depicts a horseback rider in blue galloping through the fields. Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) was also used as the name for the Expressionist artist group founded in 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc.

Egon Schiele’s Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up (1917)

Egon Schiele painted his wife Edith Harms in 1917, depicting her sitting on the floor, resting her cheek on her left knee. Her fiery red hair contrast strikingly with the green of her shirt. The portrait is bold and suggestive, with definite erotic undertones – eroticism being one of the main themes in Schiele’s work. 

Franz Marc’s Blue Horses (1911)

Franz Marc was one of the founding members of Der Blaue Reiter. He gave an emotional and psychological meaning to the colours he used in his work, and blue was used to depict masculinity and spirituality. Marc was fascinated by animals and their rich inner worlds, and he portrayed his animal subjects in a deeply emotional way. 

Franz Marc, Blue Horses, 1911
Franz Marc, Blue Horses, 1911

The end of Expressionism, and its continuation

Several expressionist artists lost their lives during World War I, or as a result of the war due to traumas and illness. Franz Marc fell in 1916; Egon Schiele died during the 1918 influenza epidemic, and many others took their own lives after breaking down under the traumas of the war. Finally, the era of German Expressionism was extinguished by the Nazi dictatorship in 1933. Countless artists of the time, among whom were Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, were labelled as “degenerate artists” by the Nazis and their Expressionist artworks were removed from museums and confiscated.

Yet Expressionism continued to inspire and live on in later artists and art movements. For example, Abstract Expressionism developed as an important avant-garde movement in the post-war United States in the 1940s and 1950s. The Abstract Expressionists renounced figuration and instead explored colour fields, gestural brushstrokes and spontaneity in their art. Later, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, Neo-Expressionism started developing as a reaction against the Conceptual art and Minimalist art of the time. Neo-Expressionist artists were greatly inspired by the German Expressionists who came before them, often depicting their subjects in a raw manner with expressive brushstrokes and intense colours. Famous Neo-Expressionist artists include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl and David Salle. 

Anselm Kiefer, The Orders of the Night. Photo courtesy of Seattle Art Museum
Anselm Kiefer, The Orders of the Night. Photo courtesy of Seattle Art Museum