Expressionism: An Introduction

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Reclining Nude in Front of Mirror, 1909-1910, oil on canvas, 83.3 x 95.5 cm (Brücke-Museum, Berlin)

By Shawn Roggenkamp / 10.02.2016

Imagine a painting where the magentas scream, the greens glare, and coarse brushstrokes become more ominous the longer you look at them. Paintings like this, where the artist uses color, line, and visible techniques to evoke powerful responses from the viewer date from the early 20th century but continue expressive traditions that can be found throughout art’s history (see, for example, work by Francisco Goya). When capitalized as “Expressionism,” however, the term refers more specifically to an artistic tendency that became popular throughout Europe in the early 20th century. Like many categories in art history, Expressionism was not a name coined by artists themselves. It first emerged around 1910 as a way to classify art that shared common stylistic traits and seemed to emphasize emotional impact over descriptive accuracy. For this reason, artists like Edvard Munch straddle the line between Post-Impressionist developments in late 19th century painting and early 20th century Expressionism. Likewise, the Fauves in France exhibited similar characteristics in their work and are often linked to Expressionism.

Expressionism in Germany

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Manifesto, 1906, woodcut, 28.8 x 22.2 cm, Künstlergruppe Brücke, Dresden

Though many artists of the early 20th century can accurately be called Expressionists, two groups that developed in Germany, Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), are among the best known and help to define the style. Influenced in part by the spiritual interests of Romanticism and Symbolism, these artists moved further from the idealized figures and smooth surface of 19th century academic painting that can be seen in paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, for example. Instead of depicting the visible exterior of their subjects, they sought to express profound emotional experience through their art. German Expressionists, like other European artists of the time, found inspiration in so-called “primitive” sources that included African art, as well as European medieval and folk art and others untrained in Western artistic traditions. For the Expressionists, these sources offered alternatives to established conventions of European art and suggested a more authentic creative impulse.

Die Brücke

In 1905, four young artists working in Dresden and Berlin, joined together, calling themselves Die Brücke (The Bridge). Led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the group wanted to create a radical art that could speak to modern audiences, which they characterized as young, vital, and urban. Drawn from the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher, the name “Die Brücke” describes their desire to serve as a bridge from the present to the future. While each artist had his own personal style, Die Brücke art is characterized by bright, often arbitrary colors and a “primitive” aesthetic, inspired by both African and European medieval art. Their work often addressed modern urban themes of alienation and anxiety, and sexually charged themes in their depictions of the female nude.

Erich Heckel, Fränzi Reclining, 1910, woodcut, 35.6 x 55.5 cm (The Museum of Modern Art)

Their first exhibition was held in the showroom of a lamp factory in Dresden in 1906 for which they published a program of woodcut prints reflecting their interest in earlier traditions of German art. In the introductory broadsheet (above left), Kirchner made clear the group’s revolutionary intentions. He proclaimed,

With faith in progress and in a new generation of creators and spectators we call together all youth. As youth, we carry the future and want to create for ourselves freedom of life and of movement against the long established older forces.1

This optimism was not long-lived. Internal squabbling caused the group to dissolve in 1913 just prior to the start of the First World War.

Vasily Kandinsky, Cover of Der Blaue Reiter Almanac, Piper Verlag, Munich, 1912

Der Blaue Reiter

Based in the German city of Munich, the group known as Der Blaue Reiter lasted only from their first exhibition at the Galerie Thannhausen in 1911 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Created as an alternative to Kandinsky’s previous group, the more conservative Neuen Künstlervereinigung München (New Artists Association of Munich or NKVM), Die Blaue Reiter took its name from the motif of a horse and rider, often used by founding member Vasily Kandinsky.

This motif appeared on the cover of the Blue Rider Almanac (left), published in May 1912, and reflects Kandinsky’s interest in medieval traditions and the folk art of his Russian homeland. In contrast to Die Brücke, whose subjects were physical and direct, Kandinsky and other Die Blaue Reiter artists explored the spiritual in their art, which often included symbolism and allusions to ethereal concerns. They thought these ideas could be communicated directly through formal elements of color and line, that, like music, could evoke an emotional response in the viewer. Conceived by Kandinsky and Franz Marc, the almanac included essays by themselves and other German and Russian artists, musical compositions by Expressionist composers, such as Arnold Schönberg, and Kandinsky’s experimental theater piece, “Der gelbe Klang” (The Yellow Sound). This range of content shows Der Blaue Reiter’s efforts to provide a philosophical approach not just for the visual arts, but for culture more broadly. These ideas would become more fully developed at the Bauhaus where Kandinsky taught after the war (Marc died during the Battle of Verdun in 1916).

Franz Marc, The Large Blue Horses, 1911, oil on canvas, 41.6 × 71.3 inches (Walker Art Center)

Austrian Expressionism

While the Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter groups had relatively defined memberships, Expressionist artists also worked independently. In Vienna, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele stand out for paintings that show intense, often violent feeling and for their efforts to represent deeper psychological meaning.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant, 1912 (Leopold Museum, Vienna)

In the aftermath of the First World War, many artists in Germany felt that the forceful emotional style of Expressionism that had been so progressive before the war but had become less appropriate. Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) arose as a direct response to pre-war stylistic excess.

1 Translated excerpt from Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1993, page 65