Expressionism was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality.
At the end of the 19th century, this Expressionist spirit resurfaced in the paintings of two awkward and isolated personalities ñ one was the Dutchman, Van Gogh and the other a
Norwegian, Edvard Munch. While the Impressionists were admiring the colour and beauty of the natural landscape, Van Gogh and Munch took a radically different perspective. They
chose to look inwards to discover a form of ëself-expressioní that offered them an individual voice in a world that they perceived as both insecure and hostile. It was this more subjective search for a personal
emotional truth that drove them on and ultimately paved the way for the Expressionist art forms of the 20th century that explored the inner landscape of the soul.
Paintings like Van Goghís Sunflowers opened our eyes to the intensity of expressive color. He used color to express his feelings about a subject, rather than to simply describe it. His heightened vision helped to liberated color as an emotional instrument in the repertoire of 20th century art and the vitality of his brushwork became a key influence in the development of both the Fauves' and the Expressionistsí painting technique. Munchís painting of The Scream was equally influential. It provides us with a psychological blueprint for Expressionist art: distorted shapes and exaggerated colors that amplify a sense of anxiety and alienation.
Gustav Klimt in Austria
Another figure in the late nineteenth century that had an impact upon the development of Expressionism was Gustav Klimt, who worked in the Austrian Art Nouveau style of the Vienna Secession. Klimt's lavish mode of rendering is subjects in a bright palette, elaborately patterned surfaces, and elongated bodies was a step toward the exotic colors, gestural brushwork, and jagged forms of the later Expressionists. Klimt was a mentor to painter Egon Schiele, and introduced him to the works of Van Gogh, among others, at an exhibition of their work in 1909.
The Advent of Expressionism in Germany
Although it included various artists and styles, Expressionism first emerged in 1905, when a group of four German architecture students who desired to become painters - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Karl
Schmidt-Rottluff, and Erich Heckel - formed the group Die Br¸cke (the Bridge) in the city of Dresden. A few years later, in 1911, a like-minded group of young artists formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich,
after the rejection of Wassily Kandinsky's painting The Last Judgment (1910) from a local exhibition. Der Blaue Reiter was not exactly an Expressionist group, more a
meeting of diverse talents who contributed to the publication of an almanac 'Der Blaue Reiter' and two exhibitions of the same name. In addition to Kandinsky, the group included Paul Klee,
Amedeo Modigliani, Piet Mondrian, and Franz Marc, among others, all of whom made up the
loosely associated group.
The artists of Der Blaue Reiter group shared an inclination towards abstraction, symbolic content, and spiritual allusion. They sought to express the emotional aspects of being through highly symbolic and brightly colored renderings. Their name emerged from the symbol of the horse and rider, derived from one of Wassily Kandinsky's paintings; for Kandinsky, the rider symbolized the transition from the tangible world into the spiritual realm and thus acted as a metaphor for artistic practice. For other members such as Franz Marc, Paul, Klee, and Auguste Macke, this notion became a central principle for transcending realistic depiction and delving into abstraction.
Kandinsky's painting was moving away from the depiction of realistic forms into the more spiritual realms of abstraction. In moving towards abstraction by breaking down the boundaries of realistic forms, Kandinsky tries to tap into the more expressive power of color as it exists in the mind. In his master piece Composition VI, there are still vague references to figures and objects in the landscape, color emerges as an ephemeral force that energizes the entire canvas.
Although Der Blaue Reiter never published a manifesto, its members were united by their aesthetic innovations, which were influenced by medieval and primitivist art forms, Cubism, and Fauvism. However, the group itself was short-lived; with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Franz Marc and Auguste Macke were drafted into German military service and were killed soon after. The Russian members of the group - Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky, and others - were all forced to return home. Der Blaue Reiter dissolved immediately thereafter.
French Expressionism: Rouault, and Chagall
Expressionism's elasticity has meant that many artists beyond Germany's borders have been identified with the style. Georges Rouault, the French artist sometimes described as an Expressionist, may have influenced the
Germans, rather than the other way around. He learned his vivid use of color and distortion of form from Fauvism, and, unlike his German Expressionist counterparts, Rouault expressed an affinity for his Impressionist
predecessors, particularly for the workd of Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He is well known for his devotion to religious subjects, and
particularly for his many depictions of the crucifixion, rendered in rich color and heavy layers of paint.
The Russian-French Jewish artist Marc Chagall drew upon currents from Cubism, Fauvism, and Symbolism to create his own brand of Expressionism in which he often depicted dreamy scenes of his Belarusian hometown, Vitebsk. While in Paris during the height of the modernist avant-garde, Chagall developed a visual language of eccentric motifs: "ghostly figures floating in the sky, the gigantic fiddler dancing on miniature dollhouses, the livestock and transparent wombs and, within them, tiny offspring sleeping upside down." In 1914, his work was exhibited in Berlin, and had an impact on the German Expressionists extending beyond World War I. He never associated his work with a specific movement, and considered his repertoire to be a vocabulary of images meaningful to himself, but they inspired many, including the Surrealists. Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, "When Henri Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is."
Further Developments and Legacy
The original Expressionist movement's ideas about spirituality, primitivism, and the value of abstract art would also be hugely influential on an array of unrelated movements, including Abstract Expressionism. The
Expressionists' metaphysical outlook and instinctive discomfort with the modern world impelled them to antagonistic attitudes that would continue to be characteristic of various avant-garde movements throughout the century.