A virtual guide to the 20th-century art movement
Expressionism is an art movement originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The term refers to art in which the image of reality has been distorted in order to make it expressive of the artist’s inner feelings or ideas.
An avant-garde style that took off just before World War I, intensely-applied and non-naturalistic color is used as a device to take the viewer away from reality. Similarly, brush work is free and erratic, and paint application is often generous and textured.
Themes within Expressionist paintings are varied but they often have an emotional, sometimes even mystical, edge to them which can be seen as an extension of Romanticism. After World War II an extension of the movement developed in American known as Abstract Expressionism – this was characterized by gestural mark-making, and the impression of spontaneity. Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were advocates of the movement.
Though the term typically represents 20th century German art, it’s possible to see Expressionist paintings all over the world. Here we take a virtual tour of the movement and find out more about the artists who defined it.
The Scream, Edvard MunchThe Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway
Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter whose artworks often explored psychological themes in intensely evocative ways. He was a great influencer of Expressionism and his most famous painting is this one, titled The Scream, created in 1893. The painting is part of a series of four on the same subject and can be found at The Munch Museum in Oslo. It depicts a figure with an agonized expression against a swirling landscape of burnt orange skies and cobalt waters.
The inspiration for these works came to Munch while he was walking along a path at sunset with the city on one side and the fjord on another. He felt tired and ill and “sensed a scream passing through nature” with the clouds in the sky turning red. He painted this image and while the work stems from a personal encounter, it’s said the painting represents the universal anxiety of modern man. Munch once said: “I do not believe in the art which is not the compulsive result of Man’s urge to open his heart” and it’s this philosophy that expressionists adopted within their owns works.
Improvisation, Wassily KandinskyMuseum of Fine Arts of Tatarstan, Kazan, Russia
Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky is credited with creating the first abstract painting in 1910. The watercolor, which uses muted hues of red and blue, sheds references to well-known forms and is void of any narrative.
When teaching in Russia, Kandinsky initially found that his spiritual, expressionistic view of art was rejected by his peers as being too individualistic and bourgeois. This painting, at the Museum of Fine Arts Tatarstan in Russia, comes from a series of works titled Compositions and Improvisations, which are part of Kandinsky's Blue Rider Period. In this body of work the artist’s paintings are large and expressive color masses and are completely abstract in form and lines. The paintings were spontaneous and serve as the basis for which many Expressionist paintings were built upon.
Self-Portrait, Grimacing, Egon SchieleLeopold Museum, Wien, Austria
Austrian painter Egon Schiele was an early advocate of Expressionism. He is noted for his portraits, and his twisted body shapes, sombre color palettes, dark symbolism and irregular contours became hallmarks of the movement. This self-portrait, which can be seen at the Leopold Museum in Austria, is a classic example of the artist’s style and sees Schiele’s grimace painted in garish yet beautiful colors.
Many critics saw Schiele’s work as grotesque, erotic and disturbing, with the artist often focusing on sex, death and discovery. Others saw his bold approach as an exploration of distortion and conventional norms of beauty. Though Schiele died from influenza at the age of 28, on the cusp of commercial success, his aesthetic went on to influence painters like Oskar Kokoschka and Neo-Expressionists including Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Fränzi in front of Carved Chair, Ernst Ludwig KirchnerMuseo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a German expressionist painter and one of the founders of the artist group Die Brücke (The Bridge), a key collective that led to the foundation of Expressionism. United by their interest in the expressing of extreme emotion through vibrant color that was very often non-naturalistic, they also influenced the work of many artists not directly part of Die Brücke. This portrait from 1910, which can be found at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, is an example of Expressionism in its most basic form. Though the subject is based in reality, there’s an unpredictable use of color and the form has been reduced to simple shapes and cast in un-naturalistic brushstrokes.
In World War I, Kirchner volunteered for army service but after suffering a breakdown was discharged. In 1933, his work was branded as “degenerate” by the Nazis and 4 years later over 600 of his works were sold or destroyed. Unable to process the trauma of this, in 1938 the artist committed suicide aged 58.
Masks, Emil NoldeThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, USA
Emil Nolde once wrote that he was interested in the “grotesque expression of power” and “elemental force” and this painting, which can be found at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City embodies these ideas. Painted in 1911, the work is based on masks Nolde studied at Berlin’s Museum of Ethnology with many of his paintings being inspired by what he saw on his travels. The artist uses bold, expressive color applied with random strokes of the brush to heighten the energy within the painting.
Like Kirchner, Nolde was briefly a member of Die Brücke and like Kirchner, the artist’s works were also classed as “degenerate” by the Nazis. Deemed too modern and “experimental”, Nolde’s works were confiscated from him and removed from museums. During the war he privately painted small-scale watercolors, which he called “unpainted pictures”.
Howling Dog, Paul KleeMinneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, USA
Paul Klee demonstrates the ways in which an artist can be influenced by numerous movements in art. Employing various techniques and vivid color palettes, Klee’s almost childlike experimentation was influenced by Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism and Abstraction.
While his work is hard to classify on first glance, the Expressionist elements within Klee’s work stem from his bold and varied use of color and the often fantasy-style depictions and figures found within his work. This semi-abstract approach can be seen in this painting from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Klee uses linework to represent a dog howling at the moon, while the geometric approach can be seen in Cubism, the wisps of color creates a dreamy atmosphere.