Expressionist Paintings: A Brief Introduction
The Expressionism art movement was a short-lived artistic style of the early twentieth century. Focusing on emotional truth and using color to communicate intellectual and spiritual ideas influenced much later Abstract and contemporary art.
While the term can refer to art created in any period (in any country), German Expressionist painters mainly define the style.
Here is a brief introduction to this captivating artistic approach. From what the term “Expressionist” means to its characterizing features and most famous artists, discover Expressionist art and its leading adherents.
What does “Expressionist” mean in art?
When applied to fine art, expressionism refers to artworks distorting reality to achieve artistic goals. This often communicates the artist’s emotions or universal ideas and concepts.
For this reason, art historians see Expressionism as a progression from the Romanticism of the nineteenth century. Also linked with developments in Fauvism, Cubism, and Neo-Expressionism, it was a genuinely adaptable approach to artistic creation.
Although Expressionism can refer to the art of any era, it first appeared in late nineteenth-century Europe. Famous Expressionist artists of this preliminary period include Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and the artists of Der Blaue Reiter Group.
The term often applies explicitly to German Expressionist art, however. Indeed, German Expressionist artists notably pioneered the style. For these painters, the artist’s inner feelings and ideas were paramount. People, objects, and animals (all frequently appearing in their paintings) were simply tools to express their inner world.
How do you identify Expressionism art?
In Expressionist paintings, artists often use primary colors and vivid hues. These bright tones appear non-naturalistic, accompanied by loose brushwork and a textured appearance.
Expressionist artists’ use of color strongly relates to the dynamic nature of their art, where colors and brushstrokes reveal insights into each artist’s thoughts and emotions.
In addition, Expressionist art frequently features simplified shapes, broken with planes of flat, bright color. This provides an almost child-like appearance, with a simplicity of form underpinning many compositions.
What are the three characteristics of Expressionism?
Three main visual features characterize expressionist art:
- Bright coloring: used to communicate and exaggerate emotional or spiritual truths. Color had deep personal significance to Expressionist artists.
- Flattened perspective: frequently combined with distorted views and extreme angles, heightening emotional dissonance.
- Bold brushwork: Expressionist painters often employed incredibly loose and dramatic brushstrokes to create various creative effects.
Who is the famous artist of Expressionism?
One of the most famous Expressionist artists is Edvard Munch. His best-known painting, The Scream (1893), has since become a foundational image not only of Expressionist art but modern creativity as a whole.
As well as Expressionism, Munch was also linked to the Symbolist movement. As a late nineteenth-century development, the movement focused on metaphorical representations. Like Expressionist art, it rejected previous realist and naturalistic styles.
Munch painted his own psychological and emotional reality in line with this approach. His loose brushwork, vivid coloring, and depictions of universal themes significantly inspired German Expressionist painters.
What is German Expressionism known for?
German Expressionist art is primarily known for its two leading groups of artists.
These were Die Brücke (which translates as The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (referring to The Blue Rider). Here’s a brief overview of each.
- Die Brücke: Led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the group developed a radical artistic style that was explicitly anti-authoritarian and anti-traditional. Founded in Dresden (Germany) in 1905, its key defining characteristics were intense emotional ambiguity and bright, non-naturalistic coloring. The name referred to the movement’s aim as a “bridge” between society and the creative arts.
- Der Blaue Reiter: Originating in Munich (Germany) in 1909, Der Blaue Reiter group transformed Expressionist art. Led by Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky, and Auguste Macke, the name referenced the artists’ love of horses and their symbolic aims to “turn back to nature.” In addition, blue held particular spiritual importance for all three artists.
Sadly, both groups abruptly ended with the onset of the First World War. Many members, including Franz Marc and Auguste Macke, died in the fighting.
What is unique about German Expressionism?
German Expressionism was unique for the unparalleled variety of innovative painting and creative theorizing.
In addition, the movement was distinctive due to its conceptual focus. German Expressionist artists created lengthy academic explanations of their approach to painting and creativity, a relatively new development for the time.
The most famous of these was Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art (released in 1910). This treatise defended and promoted abstract approaches to artistic creation. It argued for spirituality in art, showing how color could function as an autonomous feature in painting (separate from its representative qualities).
The essay had an immediate international impact, with interest in Kandinsky and German Expressionist art rapidly expanding after this date.
Who was a German Expressionist painter?
Famous Expressionist artists working in Germany included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Wassily Kandinsky, and Franz Marc.
Aside from their significant roles in leading the Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter groups, they also generally championed Expressionism art and artists. This included painters such as August Macke, Emil Nolde, Otto Mueller, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Max Pechstein.
Later generations of German Expressionist artists included Otto Dix, George Grosz and Oskar Kokoschka. Much of their work fed from the horrors of the First and Second World Wars and life in Nazi Germany.
While on the fringes of the movement, Paul Klee and Egon Schiele are among the most famous artists working in an Expressionist style. Born in Switzerland and Austria, they worked alongside many German Expressionist painters.
What is an excellent example of an Expressionist painting?
Here are six examples of iconic Expressionist paintings created by some of the most famous artists working in the genre.
1. Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893)
As one of the most famous paintings of all time, The Scream is a masterpiece of Expressionist art. Known in German as Der Schrei der Nature, it depicts a terrified face set against a shifting fiery background.
For Munch, the painting represents the universal anxiety of humanity. Nonetheless, it also explores his concerns at the time. Munch particularly struggled with depression and alcoholism, exorcising his fears in his artistic creations.
2. Wassily Kandinsky, The Blue Rider (1903)
A foundational painting of German Expressionism, The Blue Rider depicts a skilled equestrian galloping through a late summer landscape. The rider’s shocking blue cape (as well as the dark blue shadows) interrupts an otherwise naturalistic scene.
Believing blue enabled him to get closer to ultimate truths and spirituality, Kandinsky utilized this color in many artworks. For Kandinsky, the darker the shade of blue, the closer it linked artists with eternal truths.
3. Marianne von Werefkin, Self-Portrait (1910)
Marianne von Werefkin’s Self Portrait is particularly striking, even amongst Expressionist art. Using a heavily stylized approach to heighten the spiritual and psychological intensity of the piece, Werefkin’s striking colors communicate her vivid inner life.
With the intense blues and reds of Werefkin’s piercing eyes, the viewer unavoidably becomes the subject of her gaze. The artwork epitomizes much of the Expressionist movement's key characteristics combined with the loose, broad brushstrokes and abstract background patterns.
4. Franz Marc, Large Blue Horses (1911)
As a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter group (alongside Kandinsky), Large Blue Horses is one of the most famous animal paintings ever created. Featuring three muscular blue horses set against a vivid red, yellow and green landscape, it’s a profoundly symbolic painting.
Representing Marc’s quest to unite art with nature and eternal truths, the lines, subject matter, and coloring work harmoniously. Indeed, while the curved outlines of the horses create peace and balance, the vivid red tones enhance the painting’s intensity.
5. Ernst Kirchner, The Street, Berlin (1913)
As the founder of the Die Brücke group, Kirchner painted this troubling scene shortly after the group’s disbandment. Depicting prostitutes walking the streets of Berlin its emotional intensity is profoundly affecting.
Surrounded by slyly peering men dressed in dark overcoats and top hats, the intense clash of the women’s bright clothes with the glum streets heightens the anxiety and excitement of the scene.
Explaining the subject matter, Kirchner saw prostitution as symbolic of modernity. For the artist, it demonstrated the simultaneous intimacy and alienation of urbanized life in the early twentieth century.
6. Egon Schiele, Seated Woman with Bent Knee (1917)
Otherwise known as Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up, this painting depicts Schiele’s wife, Edith Harms.
With a bold and sensually suggestive gaze, the artwork reflects Schiele’s increasing focus on erotic depictions. The artist was arrested (and even imprisoned on one occasion) for obscenity in his paintings. It’s perhaps for this reason that Harms appears clothed in this particular artwork.
Sadly, Schiele and Harms died in 1918 (from Spanish Influenza), just a year after Schiele created this emotionally intense and highly expressive piece.
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