Expressionist Art: A Brief Introduction
Expressionist art was a short-lived early 20th century art movement. Artists focused on emotional truth and used color to communicate philosophical and spiritual ideas. These ideas influenced the later Abstract art movement and Modern Art paintings. While the term can refer to art created in any period, German Expressionism painters mainly define the style in any country.
This brief introduction uncovers what “Expressionist” means, its characterizing features, and the most famous artists.
What does “Expressionist” mean in art?
When applied to fine art paintings, expressionist art distorts reality to achieve artistic goals. Paintings often communicate the artist’s emotions or universal ideas and concepts.
For this reason, art historians see Expressionism as a progression from the Romanticism of the 19th century. The Expressionist art movement also links with Fauvism, Cubism, and Neo-Expressionism developments. It was a genuinely adaptable approach to artistic creation.
Although Expressionism can refer to the art of any era, it first appeared in late 19th 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 frequently appearing in their paintings were tools to express their inner world.
How do you identify Expressionism Painting?
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. The result is an almost child-like appearance, with a simplicity of form underpinning many compositions.
What are the three characteristics of Expressionism Artworks?
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.
Expressionism Artist Edvard Munch
One of the most famous Expressionist artists is Edvard Munch. The Scream by Edward Munch has become a foundational image not only of Expressionist art but modern creativity as a whole. Edvard Munch's The Scream is one of our most famous oil paintings.
Edvard Munch is also linked to the Symbolist movement. As a late 19th century development, the art 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.
Why is German Expressionism Art famous?
German Expressionist art is primarily known for its two leading groups of artists.
These were Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (referring to The Blue Rider). Here is 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 critical 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 their love of horses and symbolic aims to turn back to nature. The color 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 its unparalleled variety of innovative paintings and creative theorizing. The movement was distinctive due to its conceptual focus. Expressionist artists created lengthy academic explanations of their approach to painting and creativity, a relatively new development for the time.
Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art 1910 was the most famous. This treatise defended and promoted abstract approaches to artistic creation. In addition, 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 gaining traction 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. The group includes painters such as August Macke, Emil Nolde, Otto Mueller, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Max Pechstein. Later generations of German Expressionist artists include Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Oskar Kokoschka. Many of their oil paintings reflect the horrors of World Wars I and II and life in Nazi Germany.
While on the movement's fringes, Paul Klee and Egon Schiele are among the most famous artists in an Expressionist style. Born in Switzerland and Austria, respectively, they worked alongside many German Expressionist painters.
What are the names of Famous Expressionist Artists?
Here are six examples of iconic Expressionist paintings created by some of the most famous artists in the genre.
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.
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 and dark blue shadows interrupt an otherwise naturalistic scene. Believing blue enabled him to get closer to ultimate truths and spirituality, Kandinsky utilized this color in many of his oil paintings. For Kandinsky, the darker the shade of blue, the closer it linked artists with eternal truths.
Marianne von Werefkin’s Self Portrait is particularly striking, even amongst Expressionist art. Her colors communicate her vivid inner life and use a heavily stylized approach to heighten the spiritual and psychological intensity of the artwork. With the intense blues and reds of Werefkin’s piercing eyes, the viewer unavoidably becomes the subject of her gaze. Von Werefkin's painting epitomizes much of the Expressionist movement's key characteristics combined with loose, broad brushstrokes and abstract background patterns.
As a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter group (alongside Kandinsky), Large Blue Horses is one of the most famous animal paintings ever created. This profoundly symbolic painting features three muscular blue horses set against a vivid red, yellow, and green landscape.
As the co-founder of the Die Brücke group, Kirchner painted this troubling scene shortly after the group’s disbandment. The painting depicts prostitutes walking the streets of Berlin. 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 20th century.
Otherwise known as Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up, this painting depicts Schiele’s wife, Edith Harms. She has a bold and sensually suggestive gaze. The painting reflects Schiele’s increasing focus on erotic depictions. As a result, the artist was arrested and even imprisoned on one occasion for obscenity in his paintings. Perhaps for this reason, 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 oil painting.
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