When and where did Expressionism start?

The classic phase of the Expressionist movement lasted from approximately 1905 to 1920.

The roots of Expressionism can be traced back to certain Post-Impressionist artists such as Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) and Edvard Munch (1863–1944).

Munch, for example, began to express his inner world through his artworks around 1893 with “The Scream” (previously mentioned in my last post on “Modern Art”).

Edward Munch, “The Scream”, 1893, National Gallery Oslo.

Expressionism is often associated with modern German art, particularly in the context of the “Die Brücke (The Bridge)” and “Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider)” groups, from where it spread throughout Europe.

What was Expressionism about and how does it express itself?

In contrast to the Impressionists, who wanted to express their surroundings — nature — in their paintings, the Expressionists sought to express inner life and the meaning of emotional experience. In their paintings, colour can be highly intense, brushwork is typically free, and paint application is highly textured.

What are the most important painters and pictures?

The first Expressionists, emerging in 1905, were Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), Fritz Bleyl (1880–1966), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976), and Erich Heckel (1883–1970). They formed the group Die Brücke in the city of Dresden.

They were inspired by the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). The group’s name came from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–85): “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”

With their art, these Expressionists intended to convey emotions through provocative images of modern society.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Street”, 1913, MoMA.

In 1911, a like-minded group of young artists, Der Blaue Reiter, formed in Munich. The group included Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Franz Marc (1880–1916), Paul Klee (1879–1940), Alexej von Jawlensky (1865–1941), and August Macke (1887–1914), among others.

Wassily Kandinsky “Blue Rider”, 1903, Private Collection.

The group’s artists sought to express emotion through symbols and bright colours. Their name came from the symbol of the horse and rider, featured in one of Kandinsky’s paintings from 1903. For him, the rider symbolised the transition from the real to the spiritual world.

Franz Marc, “Large Blue Horses”, 1911, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Alexej von Jawlensky, “Portrait of Alexander Sacharoff”, 1909, Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Improvisation IV”, 1911, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.

The group itself was short-lived; with the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Marc and Macke were drafted for German military service and died on the battlefield soon after. The Russian members of the group — Kandinsky, von Jawlensky, and others — were all forced to return home.

With the French Expressionists, such as Georges Rouault (1871–1958) and Marc Chagall (1887–1985), and in Austria with Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980) and Egon Schiele (1890–1918) known as Austrian Expressionists, the movement spread throughout Europe.

Egon Schiele, “Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up”, 1917, National Gallery, Prague.

Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, artists like Otto Dix (1891–1969), George Grosz (1893–1959), and Max Beckmann (1884–1950) formed New Objectivity and aimed for an unsentimental and objective approach in their work.

After World War II, Abstract Expressionism emerged in America. Most known for his drip paintings (see my former post on “Modern Art”), Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) represents this movement as well as Mark Rothko (1903–1970) and Franz Kline (1910–1962), among others.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Neo-Expressionism developed with German artists Georg Baselitz (b. 1938) and Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), as they used vibrant colours and thick layers of paint. This revival of Expressionism, later on, culminated in a global Neo-Expressionism in the 1980s with Julian Schnabel (b. 1951), for example.

Where to go?

Many Expressionist artworks are shown at the Tate Gallery of Modern Art (Tate), London, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), while Brücke-Museum Berlin, Lenbachhaus, München, Franz Marc Museum, Kochel am See, and Schlossmuseum Murnau, Murnau, show Expressionist art exclusively. Don’t miss the chance to pay those museums a visit when you are in the vicinity!

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