Style of painting and sculpture that expresses inner emotions; in particular, a movement in early 20th-century art in northern and central Europe. Expressionist artists tended to distort or exaggerate natural colour and appearance in order to describe an inner vision or emotion; the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch's Skriket/The Scream (1893; National Gallery, Oslo) is perhaps the most celebrated example.
In expressionism, it is considered more important that the work depicts the subjective, personal emotions accurately, than that the subjects drawn are an accurate, external presentation of reality. Despite this one, unifying motivation behind expressionism, there is no single, particular style associated with the movement. Other leading expressionist artists were James Ensor, who employed vivid colours in his images of grotesque masks and skeletons, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and Chaïm Soutine. The groups die Brücke and der Blaue Reiter were associated with this movement, and the expressionist trend in German art emerged even more strongly after World War I in the work of Max Beckmann and George Grosz.
Origins of expressionism The post-Impressionist painters Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, with their intense and emotive use of colour, are seen as the forerunners of expressionism, although the term is only usually applied to artists of the 20th-century movement. Munch used even more violent colours and simplification of form than van Gogh and Gauguin to evoke intense, often anguished, feelings.
The word expressionism was first used in 1901 by the French painter Julien-August Hervé. In his book Expressionismus in 1914, the critic Paul Fechter drew a distinction between ‘intensive expressionism’, which is shaped by the artist's inner world; and ‘extensive expressionism’, in which the inner life engages with external reality. Other writers who had a considerable influence on German expressionism included the philosophers Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and the novelist Dostoevsky.
The movement can be seen to some extent as a reaction against the bourgeois and increasingly mechanized pre-World War I European society. Artists wanted to subvert the external social order by expressing the unrecognized or subconscious forces of the inner life.
Pre-World War I expressionist groups The most conscious expressionist movements in the visual arts were the German groups, die Brücke and der Blaue Reiter. Die Brücke group, in keeping with the reaction against the bourgeois, shared a common studio and followed the medieval guild idea of working as a brotherhood rather than being in commercial competition with each other. This German group was formally set up in Dresden in 1905 by four architectural students, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Fritz Bleyl. The original group later increased in numbers with the addition of Max Pechstein, the Swiss artist Cuno Amiet, and the Finnish artist Axel Gallen-Kella. The group became interested in primitive art as a model for the direct expression of emotions and sexual imagery. In 1911 the group moved to Berlin, and the following year participated in the second Blaue Reiter exhibition. Der Blaue Reiter group had only formed in 1911, although both groups disbanded at similar times just before World War I.
In contrast to die Brücke, der Blaue Reiter painted in a more abstract style, closer to Fechter's ‘intensive Expressionism’. Led by Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, der Blaue Reiter represented the high point of German Expressionism. According to Kandinsky, their name came from Marc's love of horses, his own love of riders, and a shared passion for the colour blue. The group was never formally an organized society, but the name was used as the title for two exhibitions and a calendar published in 1912.
Meanwhile in France, 1905 saw the establishment of a group of Expressionist painters called the Fauves (see fauvism). The Fauves, including Derain, van Dongen, Dufy, Friesz, Marquet, and Vlaminck, were a group of friends centred around Henri Matisse, who met informally over a period of approximately three years. Their work provoked severe criticism, especially for its use of non-naturalistic colour.
Other developments in expressionism prior to World War I were the merging of expressionist and cubist approaches by some artists, and the absorption of influences from theosophy and Indian mysticism.
The impact of war The horrors of the war resulted in the development of political consciousness in the work of painters such as Ernst Barlach, Käthe Kollwitz, and Max Beckmann, for example, in Beckmann's painting The Night of 1918–19. The expressionist artists August Macke and Franz Marc were killed in the war. In the years after World War I, Soutine emerged as the greatest of the French expressionists. Expressionism became the dominant movement in Germany, but in 1933 it was suppressed by the Nazis as Degenerate Art.
With reference to the years since World War II the term expressionist is not applied to a group or movement of artists, but is used generally to describe the work of a number of artists, notably Georg Baselitz, Marc Chagall, and Francis Bacon. See also tachisme and abstract expressionism.
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