You may already be familiar with expressionism artworks and not know it. Some of the world’s most famous paintings were created by expressionist masters.
Some of the most characteristic aspects of visual art today, from the color palette and loose brush work found in contemporary figurative painting to the intuitive marks of abstract expressionism, can be traced back to a group of painters and printmakers in Central Europe, particularly Germany, in the early 20th century. They came to be known as expressionists, and their use of color, mark-making, and choice of subject matter paved the way for some of the most well-loved painters of the last 100 years. Here, we’ll explore the birth and development of expressionism, as well as the famous and lesser-known expressionism artworks that exemplify this movement.
Expressionism is an avant-garde movement that emerged in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, found resonance across the whole of Europe, and became one of the most influential movements in modern art.
Pre-dating to around 1890 but commonly dated between 1905-1920, expressionism is considered an international tendency rather than a specific visual style. However, all expressionist art has a common emphasis on individual perspective and the subjectivity of experience. Artists from all sorts of backgrounds attempted to create a new form of artistic expression where the artist’s personal view of the world—the “expression,” as opposed to the “impression” of reality—came to the forefront.
Expressionists were inspired by and shared many traits with Fauvism: spontaneous brush work, vivid mark-making, new forms and color combinations, and an influence of “primitive art.” However, expressionism veers away from the joyful Fauves through its pessimistic approach to reality; the Germans had a preference for the ugly, the forbidden, and the obscene.
Expressionist artists found ways to distort reality for emotional effect or to evoke moods or ideas, as they were interested in conveying psychological states of isolation and alienation. This was partly a reaction to the bucolic nature of earlier art movements such as impressionism, as well as a reflection of the existential anguish of post-industrial, pre-war Europe at the turn of the century.
Goya, van Gogh, and El Greco were some of the most iconic precursors of this distorted and stark view of reality. However, as a concrete art movement of the 20th century, expressionism first emerged in Norway and Belgium and made its way to Germany, where it developed through the work of artists who tapped into a collective feeling and expressed it in their art.
Perhaps the best way to understand this style is to explore it visually. Let’s take a journey down the history of expressionism through some of its most representative paintings.
“The Scream” is perhaps the most iconic expressionist painting, even though it is actually considered a precursor of expressionism artworks. Munch, a Danish artist, recalls walking over a bridge in Oslo when suddenly “the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence…shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”
His painting, autobiographical but representative of a collective feeling at the turn of the century, depicts the angst of the individual and his battle with nature and existence.
James Ensor was another one of the great precursors of expressionism. His colorful paintings of slightly deformed masked figures were the perfect vehicle for his critical commentary on modern society and the inner turmoil of the human condition.
It might not be one of his most representative, but this almost-impressionist painting of a lone rider in a field by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky represents a turning point in his oeuvre. With its heavy brush work and bold tonal palette, it is perceived by art historians as a stylistic bridge between post-impressionism and expressionism.
To Kandinsky, the color blue was associated with heaven, supernaturalness, infinity, and silence. The title of this painting would also give name to the seminal expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, founded by Kandinsky and Franz Marc in Munich a few years later.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was one of the founding members of the seminal expressionist group Die Brücke (“The Bridge”), formed in Dresden in 1905. Its members sought to find a new mode of artistic expression and create a bridge between the past and the present. In one of their manifestos, Kirchner wrote: “Everyone who reproduces, directly and without illusion, whatever he senses the urge to create, belongs to us.”
In this colorful portrait of a young girl, Kirchner concentrates on feeling and emotion rather than directly reproducing reality, one of the paramount ambitions of expressionism.
Expressionist artists were deeply influenced by Fauvism and its wild use of color and form. Like the Fauves, the artists in this group expressed an interest in primitivist art and the emotionality achieved via strong brush work, both of which are highly present in this joyous painting by German expressionist Emil Nolde. In it, the artist depicts a group of people dancing in ecstasy, inspired by a passage of the Book of Exodus.
Nolde was a member of Die Brücke and would later be considered one of Germany’s “degenerate artists,” forcing him to go into exile.
Franz Marc was a German expressionist painter who became known for his vividly colored paintings of animals, especially horses, which to him were symbols of the natural world and its connection to spirit. He also shared an interest in the symbolism of colors with Kandinsky, with whom he created the expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter in 1911.
To him, blue symbolized masculinity and the spiritual world, and in his paintings he explored abstraction, organic shapes, and vivid colors to explore ideas of harmony and transcendence.
Egon Schiele’s self portraits need almost no introduction. His piercing gaze, ghastly figure, and expressive brush strokes are immediately recognizable by art lovers around the world. Schiele, initially influenced by Art Nouveau and mentored by Gustav Klimt, became an early proponent of expressionism with his highly psychological paintings and twisted body shapes.
Heckel, another one of the founding members of Die Brücke, is best known for his striking woodcuts and printmaking work. Reviving the woodcut tradition was a way for the artists in this group to bring the past to the present and become the metaphorical bridge they wanted to bring to life as a collective.
In this gaunt self-portrait, made one year after Germany was defeated in World War I, Heckel conveys the weariness and disillusionment of a country in the aftermath of war.
20th Century Modern Art Movements: From Impressionism to Cubism
Traditionally, art history tends to repeat itself and cement a version of history that becomes set in stone through repetition. Thus, we learn about art movements in a linear way that’s forever attached to a list of names that hardly ever seem to change.
Thankfully, a more contemporary take on art history allows us to discover some of the names that were not included the first time around, be it because they were women or because they didn’t fit into a tight geographical or chronological category. Here are some of those not-so-famous expressionism paintings.
German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker was one of the most representative painters of early expressionism. Even though her career was cut short at only 31 years of age, Modersohn-Becker produced an impressive body of work that includes some of the first nude self-portraits made by a woman to be in the public eye.
Despite being commonly associated with the modernist movement, Modersohn-Becker was an important precursor of expressionism. This painting, from the year of her death, shows signs of her interest in the Fauvists’ use of color and line and foreshadows what would later become the expressionist movement.
Perhaps better known for the gaitly figures and elongated faces of the characters in his later paintings, Modigliani is not frequently associated with the expressionist movement. However, in earlier works such as this evocative portrait of a woman, one can see a stylistic approach that mirrors that of the expressionist painters of his time.
Gabriele Münter was one of the founding members of the Der Blaue Reiter group alongside Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. Sometimes wrongly demoted to “Kandinsky’s partner” in art history retellings, Münter played a major role in the birth of the expressionism movement, sharing her contemporaries’ interest in creating a new form of artistic language that drew from post-impressionism and Fauvism and moved toward abstraction and emotional expression.
In this painting, she uses flat areas of color, strong outlines, and unusually faceless figures to give new life to an otherwise traditional scene of two people lying on a meadow.
Russian-German artist Marianne von Werefkin is, in fact, one of the figures depicted by Münter in her painting alongside her companion artist Alexej von Jawlensky. Werefkin never achieved the level of recognition some of her male counterparts did, abandoning her practice for many years to support that of her partner as well as allegedly influencing some of Kandinsky’s ideas for his book Concerning the Spiritual on Art without ever being credited for them.
This intriguing self-portrait was painted during her time with the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM), a group she co-founded with Kandinsky and others in 1909 and a precursor of Der Blaue Reiter in pushing forward the ideas of expressionism.
Also known as “The Tempest,” this painting is one of Austrian artist Oscar Kokoschka’s better-known paintings. In it, he appears embracing Alma Mahler, the love of his life and widow of the famous composer Gustav Mahler. With swirling brush strokes surrounding the lovers inside what looks like a stormy ocean, the painter captures the tumultuous energy of a great, ill-fated love story.
Käthe Kollwitz was a German painter, printmaker, and sculptor who shared many of the stylistic and conceptual interests of the expressionists of her time. Made in 1922, “The Survivors” is a testament to the horrors of World War I and the social unrest of the beginning of the century in Europe.
The stark, monochromatic figures depict the pain and disenfranchisement felt by people across the continent, and the motherly figure in the center of the image becomes a symbol of resilience and protection. Motherhood was a recurring theme for Kollwitz, as were the effects of poverty, hunger, and war on the working class.
As you can see from these paintings—both the famous works you may be familiar with as well as those that don’t often make it into the art history books—expressionist art can take many forms. But after this visual walk through the paintings of the masters, you’ll likely know it when you see it.
Modern Abstract Expressionism: A Journey in Brush Strokes, Texture, and All the Feels
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