Expressionism as an art movement can be very broad and difficult to characterize. It spans across different countries, mediums, movements and periods. Expressionist art was therefore not defined by a set of aesthetic principles, but rather as a tool of expression and societal commentary. Below are 10 iconic paintings that represent the evocative and dynamic nature of the expressionist period.
The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch is regarded as one of the most significant and influential artists of modernism. He was part of the Symbolist movement and pioneered expressionist painting. He was influenced by impressionists and post-impressionists in Paris such as Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. His career lasted nearly 60 years and produced numerous modern masterpieces.
The Scream is one of the most iconic modern art pieces in the world. It is renowned for embodying the profound sense of angst and anxiety that permeated the early modernist era. The painting is largely autobiographical as it is based on Munch’s experience hearing a piercing ‘scream of nature’ after being left behind by two of his friends, who appear in the background of the piece. There are two versions of the painting; one is located at the Munch Museum in Oslo and one at the Oslo National Gallery.
The Blue Rider (1903) by Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky was a pioneer of abstraction in modernist art and created a comprehensive bridge between post-impressionism and expressionism. His work underwent several stylistic changes, evolving from realistic and organic to geometric and abstracted. He also founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group in Munich in 1911, which became one of the earliest formal groups of expressionist artists.
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The Blue Rider is an excellent example of Kandinsky’s shift between impressionist and expressionist painting styles. While it has clear impressionist influences in technique and style, its heavy impasto, bold coloration and slightly rough brush strokes are elements of early expressionism. The piece’s abstracted nature also invited interpretation from the viewer; some have claimed to see a baby in the rider’s arms.
Dance Around the Golden Calf (1910) by Emil Nolde
Emil Nolde was an expressionist painter and a part of the German Die Brücke (The Bridge) group of expressionist artists. He is remembered as one of the greatest colorists of 20th-century modernism, using large, rough strokes and contrasting hues to create dynamic pieces. The heightened nature of his work yields emotional responses in its viewers, creating a relationship between artist and audience.
Dance Around the Golden Calf depicts a passage from the book of Exodus. According to the tale in the Old Testament, the Israelites made the Golden Calf to placate people when Moses traveled up to Mount Sinai as they feared he may not return. The painting portrays the unsophisticated people performing a votive dance around the idol, unaware of its falsity. The rugged brushstrokes and bright colors emphasize the heightened emotionality of the piece.
The Large Blue Horses (1911) by Franz Marc
Franz Marc was a German artist who was also a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group. His work utilized bright colors and a notably more cubist style than some of his contemporaries. Marc often depicted animals in his art with a deep yet understated sense of emotion, gaining notoriety among other influential artists at the time.
The Large Blue Horses was featured in the first exhibition by Der Blaue Reiter in 1911. The piece features manly bright, contrasting primary colors. The blue color and soft curvature of the central horses form “a sense of harmony, peace and balance” against the stark red of the hills in the background. Marc stated that this contrast displayed the juxtaposition between tranquil spirituality and violence, evoking a sense of transcendence.
Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant (1912) by Egon Schiele
Egon Schiele was an Austrian expressionist painter and mentee of fellow artist Gustav Klimt. Despite a short career and life, Schiele is remembered as a prolific early modernist influence. His work is known for its dynamic expressions, unrefined sexuality and unusual body shapes which are indicative of the early expressionist style.
Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant features a depth of emotion despite the simplicity of the piece. The artist sits at an angle, looking at the viewer with a look of skepticism. His head and facial features are enlarged, and the body twisted unnaturally, insinuating a subtle tension that permeates the piece. The plant in the background also cranes to the side, mimicking the body curvature of the artist. The face is rendered with intense color depth and muscular detail, unlike the surrounding clothing and background, suggesting an acutely psychological aspect to the piece.
Street, Berlin (1913) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, along with Emil Nolde, was a member of the Die Brücke group of German expressionists. His work was characterized by vivid block colors, wide, contrasting brushstrokes and sharp, angular forms. His expressive use of color was inspired by the work of post-impressionist and early expressionist painters Vincent van Gogh, Albrecht Dürer and Edvard Munch.
Street, Berlin depicts Kirchner’s scornful view of life in Berlin. This is evidenced by the piece’s intense, sharp brush strokes and disconcerting color contrasts. The faces of the subjects are nearly indistinguishable from one another, highlighting the vacuous superficiality of Berlin’s high life. The figures stand on tilted ground, nearly overflowing out of the painting itself, creating a feeling of claustrophobia and disorientation.
The Night (1918-19) by Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann was a German painter, writer and sculptor who was known for the dramatized nightlife, mythical or biblical scenes in his work. Although he is broadly labeled as an expressionist painter, he rejected the movement and denied being a part of it. Beckmann often depicted his own face in his work, which can be identified by a frowning face with a large head.
The Night was a product of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity movement, which was established as an anti-expressionist rebellion. The piece features sharp angles and chaotic, overlapping figures as an expression of Beckmann’s disenchantment with life in postwar Germany. The piece portrays gruesome elements of sex, death and violence, drawing attention to the overstimulation and obscenity of modern society.
Reclining Nude (1919) by Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani was an Italian painter and artist who lived and worked in France. He is known for his nude portraits of women which are characterized by elongated necks and bodies, blank facial expressions and eye contact with the viewer. His work was not well received until his death, but today he remains one of the most prolific painters of his time.
Reclining Nude is part of a series of nude portraits by Modigliani that began in 1916. The portraits were influenced by depictions of Venus in ancient Greco-Roman and Italian Renaissance art, and the women are often idealized as such. The use of soft skin coloration stands out against dark, interior backgrounds, connoting a sense of intimacy between subject and artist. The subject in Reclining Nude lays back with casual ease as if relaxed in the presence of the painter.
Portrait of a Man (1919) by Erich Heckel
Erich Heckel was a German painter and another founding member of the Die Brücke expressionist group. He was also known for his woodcutting, which featured angular shapes, strong linework and simplistic color schemes. His painting featured softer, less rigid linework and a variety of color mixtures, displaying influences from Vincent van Gogh.
Portrait of a Man is a painted woodcut composition. Like his other woodcut portraits, the piece features sharp, defined features. The figure embodies the trauma and insecurity that plagued postwar Germany during the time. He sits with his eyes to the side and his hands clasped at his chin, emitting a dual sense of defeat and anticipation. The cool, roughly painted color scheme also lends to this sense of anxiety.
Castle and Sun (1928) by Paul Klee
Paul Klee was a Swiss artist whose eclectic painting style incorporated elements of expressionism, surrealism and cubism. His work featured bold color blocks and geometric shapes. He experimented with color, form and design theory throughout his career, and his writings on the subject are considered integral to understanding Modernism.
Castle and Sun depicts either a medieval castle or a modern cityscape, with smaller triangles overshadowed by a skyline of towers. Like many of Klee’s paintings, Castle and Sun is rendered in a geometric color block style, with bright, contrasting details against a deep red background. The sun in the background also appears as if it could be a moon. The use of unclear imagery poses a juxtaposing duality that is omnipresent in the piece, inviting the viewer to draw their own conclusion as to what the painting depicts.