Expressionism is not an art movement unto itself. Rather, it is a style of art that has occurred mainly in the late 19th and 20th centuries and was primarily centered in Germany and Austria.
This style of art is devoted to the distortion of reality for emotional effect. In other words, it is all about pulling feelings out of the very depths of the soul and the emotions conveyed tend to represent, not the outside world, but the depths of the artists own feelings and psyche. It is about depicting the world as the artist sees it through anguish and pain, which shows in the art as the distorted model of the world experienced by the artist himself. Of course, these tendencies made appearances throughout art history, but never did they develop into an art form in its own right until Expressionism came into being.
Expressionism made its way into other art forms such as three dimensional forms (wood carving, sculpture, etc…), dance, cinema, literature, and the theater. However, in paintings it is characterized by vivid colors, strong brush strokes, and an exaggerated reality. It is highly subjective and often jarring and violent.
Just think of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, one of the early influences and examples of Expressionism. The intense colors and torturous lines that he blends into against the straight lines of society that are represented in the bridge and the people approaching him from the far end of the bridge, perhaps to stop him form jumping or perhaps to put him in a straight jacket. Very few Expressionist works are cheerful in nature as they generally have a morose, terrifying, and macabre feel about them. Other Expressionist artists include Franz Marc, Egon Schiele, Rolf Nesch, and Wassily Kandinsky.
While Expressionism is mostly confined to more modern times, the desire to inspire intense emotion through art has been repeated throughout history during times of upheaval. The chaotic history of Europe can been tracked through the artwork that characterizes periods such as the Protestant Reformation, the Peasants’ War, the Spanish Occupation of Netherlands, and many other gruesome and ghastly episodes during European history.
In Germany it was the dominant form of art after the First World War and there were two movements of Expressionism in Germany – one called Die Brücke and the other called Der Blaue Reiter. The former gained its inspiration from the likes of Munch, van Gogh, and Gauguin. Vincent van Gogh was particularly influential as he began painting in his Expressionistic style within the final year and a half of his life. This was an especially emotional period for van Gogh and he wanted to paint that emotion. This was a common desire of the artists in this movement, to paint their own emotion into their paintings. This may have been the original art therapy.
Die Brücke was a sub-movement of Expressionism that was founded in Dresden, Germany. This group of artists isolated themselves in a working class neighborhood in Dresden and created works of high emotional intensity that depicted violent imagery and primitivism, an art form started by Rousseau that was based on the need for society to get back to its roots and reconnect with nature, mysticism, and the primal impulse.
Der Blaue Reiter, centered in Munich, was founded in response to the rejection of one of Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings by Kandinsky’s own group of painters. While there was no one style that defined this sub-movement, it prominently featured horses, which Franz Marc liked, and the color blue, a color that Kandinsky considered spiritual. Their work was primarily an exploration of the spirituality of their art.
In addition to these two German movements, there was one other that existed for a short time yet had a great influence, particularly on Impressionism. These were the Fauvists, a group of artists from France who were under the tutelage of Gustave Moreau. Their work was done in brilliant color and emphasized simplified lines and an ease of viewing. These paintings were about the freshness and spontaneity rather than the perfectly finished product. Art was to decorate and bring joy, opposite to the general goal of Expressionism, that of expressing the artists emotions and being gloomy and somber.
Expressionists acted as a bridge or link between the past and the future. They were very modern in their methods and ideas, but they also had a strong link to the past and gained much inspiration from that as well as their own feelings. Many Expressionist artists lost their lives during the Nazi Regime as the art form was considered to be anti-Aryan and anti-naturalism. Some artists have worked Cubist or Abstract styles into their Expressionism to create truly unique pieces. These are artists such as Franz Marc and Kandinsky. Expressionism is an art form that has continued on throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century.