It’s difficult to look at a piece of work and immediately pinpoint its genre as Expressionist – anything from Edvard Munch’s The Scream to Wassily Kandinsky’s geometric extravaganzas seem to be grouped under this umbrella. Expressionism in many ways bridges the gap between an artwork that aims to show you what the artist sees and one that aims to show you what the artist feels. Arguably, all art is expressive, but the term was coined to draw particular attention to works incorporating a deep subjectivity to what they were seeing, thus ending up with an emotive and often distorted image.
Although some critics have used Expressionism to denote a permanent tendency in any art that lets out emotion rather than lets in impressions, it can be narrowed down to a cultural movement that has its origins in Germany and Austria in the early 1900s. It grew in opposition to Impressionism, heavily influenced by the cultural avant-garde of Weimar Germany and the Dutch painter Van Gogh. The Brüke and Blaue Reiter groups of artists quickly became the centre around which Expressionism flourished. The philosopher Nietzsche was also key in originating modern Expressionism by clarifying the idea of a dualistic aesthetic experience in relation to it. Gaining much ground in the US as well with the likes of Weber, Knatts and Rattner, Expressionism continued to spread despite being disallowed in Nazi Germany and came to encompass a variety of sub-styles.
The fundamental aspect of Expressionism is that it is imbued with a constant subjectivism, where seeing is important only when turned inward. Works often present themselves through obsessional and dramatic themes; with line, intensity of colour, and bold form as prominent characteristics. An expressionist landscape’s colour may be assaultingly bright to convey the awe of the painter; weather may look downright apocalyptic in order to dramatise it; there may be nothing but line and form if the emotion being expressed demands it. Symbolism and allegory are central as well, but rather than in the way Surrealism or Conceptualism would convey them (through displaced object/subject), it is the physical elements themselves – an unexpected colour, texture, line – which carry the connotations. Spontaneity, exaggeration, morbidity, psychoanalysis, intensity and introspection are inextricably linked to these characteristics.
Two expressionist pieces which really demonstrate the huge scope of work that can be grouped under this movement are The Scream and the Guernica. Norweigan artist Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) exists in several versions in different media, suggesting the obsessive and intense undertones that are so characteristic of the movement. A strange, sexless figure is in on a bridge overlooking an ominously blood-red sky, uttering a silent scream as it clutches its ears, as if to block out a noise only audible in its own mind. Many scholars have theories as to the source of his inspiration, from the 1883 volcanic eruption of Krakatoa dyeing the sky of Europe red, to the presence of a mental institution not far from the setting of the painting. More than having a single physical source of inspiration however, behind The Scream lies probably a unique mix of all of these and more, born in true Expressionist style from a internal state of mind, and expressed through distortion and exaggeration.
Pablo Picasso’s famous Guernica (1937) is a later example of Expressionism, showing both the evolution of the style as well as the key aspects of it which have remained constant. Painted in response to the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, this mural incorporates many symbolic images in a violent, cramped and sharp collection of form, line, and monochromatic tone. Expressing the tragedies of war with a complexity and force that, arguably, a realistic piece cannot, it has become a widely acclaimed anti-war symbol.
Evolution and Continuation
Expressionism can still be found today, and in many more art forms than when it first began. In film, directors such as Douglas Sirk, Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch have incorporated a sense of heightened artificiality into some of their work, which is a manifestation of Expressionism. Franz Kafka’s writings are often categorised as such. Pina Bausch and Mary Wigman were pioneers of expressionist dance, a sub-genre of modern dance, and even architectural evidence of the movement may be found in the form of the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany and Hans Poelzig’s Berlin Theatre. Expressionism grew in the ’60s and ’70s into Abstract-Expressionism and Neo-Expressionism, all styles which continue to be favoured by many artists today.