Expressionism – Definition, Examples, History & More – Art Theory Glossary

What is Expressionism?

Expressionism is an art movement that originated in the early 20th century, focusing on the expression of emotions rather than physical reality. It is characterized by bold colors, distorted shapes, and exaggerated brushstrokes to convey the artist’s inner feelings and emotions.

Expressionism can be seen in various art forms, including painting, literature, music, and film. It is often associated with a sense of angst, alienation, and disillusionment, reflecting the turbulent times in which it emerged.

Origins of Expressionism

Expressionism first emerged in Germany in the early 20th century, as a response to the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the time. Artists sought to break away from traditional artistic conventions and explore new ways of expressing their innermost thoughts and emotions.

The movement was influenced by various artistic and philosophical movements, including Romanticism, Symbolism, and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Expressionist artists were inspired by the works of Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and James Ensor, who all explored themes of inner turmoil and psychological intensity.

Characteristics of Expressionism

Expressionism is characterized by its use of bold colors, exaggerated forms, and distorted perspectives to convey a sense of emotional intensity. Artists often used sharp, angular lines and dynamic compositions to create a sense of movement and tension in their works.

The use of symbolism and allegory is also common in Expressionist art, as artists sought to convey deeper meanings and explore the human condition. Many Expressionist works depict themes of alienation, despair, and the struggle for individuality in a rapidly changing world.

Key Artists of Expressionism

Some of the key artists associated with Expressionism include Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky, Egon Schiele, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. These artists were known for their bold and innovative approaches to art, pushing the boundaries of traditional artistic conventions.

Edvard Munch, a Norwegian painter, is best known for his iconic work “The Scream,” which has become a symbol of existential angst and despair. Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter, was a pioneer of abstract art and is considered one of the founders of the Expressionist movement.

Influence of Expressionism on Art Movements

Expressionism had a significant influence on later art movements, including Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, and Neo-Expressionism. The bold colors, emotional intensity, and psychological depth of Expressionist art inspired artists to explore new ways of expressing their innermost thoughts and emotions.

Abstract Expressionism, which emerged in the 1940s and 1950s in the United States, was heavily influenced by the expressive qualities of Expressionist art. Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning embraced the spontaneity and emotional intensity of Expressionism in their own works.

Criticisms of Expressionism

Despite its innovative and groundbreaking qualities, Expressionism has faced criticism for its subjective and emotional approach to art. Some critics argue that Expressionist art lacks formal discipline and technical skill, focusing too much on raw emotion and personal expression.

Others have criticized Expressionism for its dark and pessimistic themes, which can be seen as overly dramatic and sensationalist. Critics have also questioned the movement’s political and social implications, suggesting that it may be too individualistic and detached from broader societal concerns.