Expressionist Art: A Beginner’s Guide

Expressionist art refers to a style of European painting that emerged in the early twentieth century. It was an experimental style that depicted both existential anxiety and spiritual revival.

Dec 27, 2020By Fraser Hibbitt, BA English Literature
André Derain by Henri Matisse, 1905; with Two Women by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1912; and Improvisation 28 (Second Version) by Wassily Kandinsky, 1912


Expressionist art is a term retrospectively used by art historians to describe a set of specific movements in the early twentieth century. Expressionist art had always been around, it can be used to categorize a painting which aims to represent emotion, negative or positive, as the primary subject of a piece. Read on for an overview of the Expressionism movement.


Introduction To Expressionist Art

Bathers at Moritzburg by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1909-26, via Tate, London


However, what differs in the Expressionist art of the early twentieth century, or the modernist period, is that artists began to treat the inner life as their primary aim and degraded any sense of naturalism. The early twentieth century saw a flourishing of art movements that were searching for a form to engage with contemporary life. There was an underlying belief amongst these modern artists that a great change was needed to revitalize art, to get back in touch with human truth. Many young artists were eager to dispense with the traditional canon of painting and display their own painting as a new turn in history.


Two Women by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1912, via Tate, London


Expressionist art is one of these movements. The center of Expressionist art begun in Germany in the first decade of the twentieth century with the artistic groups of Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter translated as ‘The Bridge’ and ‘The Blue Rider’ respectively. Their influence would travel across Europe, especially to Austria with the likes of Egon Schiele.


These groups, though short-lived, created an impressive collection of work depicting psychological states, creating direct, spontaneous compositions, reviving neglected traditions, and pioneering the use of ‘primitivism.’ These artists tried to gain a new spiritual meaning in a world that had grown increasingly mechanical and anonymous.

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Predecessors Of The Expressionism Movement

Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893, via Nasjonalmuseet Oslo


The German Expressionism movements were influenced by the contemporary scene, especially what was being produced in France by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. It was because these artists were breaking from traditional ways of painting and composing creative reflections of culture and society.


We can see earlier examples with names such as Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh who both painted with an intensity drawn from the inner self; so much so that these painters had to break from a traditional style of painting to create their art.


Modern society, for artists, created a dynamic of disillusionment and, at the same time, motivation to overcome this disillusionment. This was caused by the modern dependency on efficiency, practicality, and science; cities were the embodiment of this mechanical lifestyle.


Bust of a Woman by Pablo Picasso, 1909; with André Derain by Henri Matisse, 1905, via Tate, London


Religious power had been diminishing since the rise of rationality and science. Organized religion, such as Christianity, begun to feel outdated and detrimental to the progressive spirit of the modern way. The highly influential German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900, pronounced that ‘God is dead, and we have killed him.’


This lack of spiritual meaning is apparent across the spectrum of early twentieth art; it is a part of the impulse for artists to create radically new forms in search of spiritual rejuvenation. This is especially true for the Expressionism movement; ‘Die Brucke’ is a direct reference to Nietzsche’s idea of breaking with the past to find a new meaning, to becoming a new being. Expressionist art sought means to tackle disillusionment, anxiety, about the modern world whilst finding a spiritually enriching way of progressing from this angst.


The Movements Of Expressionist Art

Street Scene Dresden by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1908, via MoMA, New York


The two Expressionism movements, Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter were essentially dealing with the same problem: how to create an art form that would equally reflect the times whilst transforming the way we relate to the world around us. They both sought to reform the canon of Western art.


The Expressionists believed that, since the Renaissance, art had become obsessed with an accurate depiction of the outside world: naturalism. Scenes were constructed artificially to make the flat surface of a painting seem three dimensional; figures were studied in great detail and their forms mapped perfectly whilst implicitly showing their mental state through gesture and expression.


What Expressionist art wanted to do was to paint symbolic scenes of emotional responses to the world. They wanted direct, intense expressions that would rekindle the inner self.


Therefore, depicting an object, figure, scene in what we would term a ‘realistic’ is beside the point. The Expressionists felt that most of art had abandoned this principle of emotional response and taken shelter in their illusion of space and figure; it is all really line and color, and these should be used to express the inner workings of humanity.


Street Scene Berlin by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1913, via MoMA, New York; with Young Girl with a Flowered Hat by Alexej Jawlensky, 1910, via the Albertina Museum, Vienna


The Expressionists found inspiration from pre-Renaissance paintings that did not try to affect the viewer with its natural stylizations but aimed to produce a spiritual message. Folk art, which was never shown in Salons or museums, was of great interest because they were an immediate expression of feeling. ‘Primitivism’ was hailed as a way to hearken back to the natural feeling of humankind. Art created by European colonies that seemed, to the frustrated European, to embody the vital energy of the soul.


These influences helped the Expressionists discover their aesthetic sense. They realized that painting flat figures, a jarring perspective, and an anti-realistic use of color conveyed the inner self more appropriately than painting realistically. The term ‘gaucherie’ meaning awkward, incongruous, took on a new meaning during this time; to paint images of awkward dimensions, color, was authentic and expressive.


Die Brucke And Der Blaue Reiter

Artillerymen in the Shower by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1915, via Sotheby’s


Die Brucke formed in 1905, led by the painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The Die Brucke is known for its garish, anti-realist, color and its primitive, ‘untrained’ style of composition. Die Brucke was looking to express the inner feeling of alienation and anxiety which modern western civilization imposed upon the individual. The group had revolutionary ambitions as has been mentioned by the name of the group, ‘the bridge.’ They wanted the emerging artistic youths to strip away the old traditions and create freedom for the future.


Die Brucke’s use of flat figures and anti-realistic coloring conveyed this feeling of nausea and anxiety. Their obvious brush strokes added to their aesthetic of ‘gaucherie,’ often fuelling the painting with intense emotion. However, their mission wasn’t successful as the group would disband by 1913 over internal tensions, leaving each artist to find their own means of expression.



Dancer by Emil Nolde, 1913, via MoMA, New York


Der Blaue Reiter was formed in Munich by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. Unlike the jarring directness of Die Brucke, Der Blaue Reiter tended towards expressing the spiritual aspects of living. There were more interested in symbolism as a mode to convey this sentiment. This is not to say that they didn’t share many characteristics with Die Brucke. For example, both groups found inspiration from the ‘primitive’ and the medieval tradition, especially German and Russian folk art.


Der Blaue Reiter was also concerned with the formal aspects of painting. Kandinsky and another prominent member, Franz Marc, thought that color and line itself could express inner emotion, even spiritual understanding. Kandinsky veered to abstraction with the idea that painting could be like music; it needn’t have a meaning but could express beauty by its mere composition, like the harmonies of music.



Improvisation 28 (Second Version) by Wassily Kandinsky, 1912, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


Der Blaue Reiter set up a journal under the same name to disseminate their theories and practices. Its articles and essays were not confined to the group members or painting, but to anyone with similar ideas on culture. Der Blaue Reiter aimed to set up a discourse with society and opened an avenue to discuss experimental philosophical ideas on modes of expression.


There were also individual painters like Egon Schiele who weren’t a part of a specific ‘Expressionist’ group but nonetheless painted in a similar style. Schiele painted with intense, anti-realistic colors, trying to portray the psychological factors instead of anything ‘realistic.’


The Legacy Of Expressionist Art

The Visit by Willem de Kooning, 1966; with Women Singing II by Willem de Kooning, 1966, via Tate, London


Expressionist art lost its initial impetus after the first World War; some members would be casualties of war, like Franz Marc of the Der Blaue Reiter. The Expressionism movements were denigrated as the German cultural mood shifted; they wanted an art more politically charged. Much of the early Expressionist art would receive further ridicule at the hands of Hitler when he set up an exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’ for the public to scoff at.


However, the Expressionism movement played a significant role in the early formation of the modern art scene. In this, they inspired the next generation of budding artists who would face the further alienation of societal collapse under the Great Depression and the Second World War. The work of expressing the inner self, revolutionizing the way we think and feel, would be taken up by the Surrealist movement. The pioneering abstractions of Kandinsky would provide valuable inspiration for the later movement in the U.S. called Abstract Expressionism.


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By Fraser HibbittBA English LiteratureI received my BA in English literature. I enjoy reading and writing on literature, philosophy, cultural studies and art. I am a self-taught guitarist with an interest in music theory and composition. I have travelled widely having grown up in both the UK and Norway. Currently, I am based in Brighton, UK, where I finished my degree.