What is Expressionism?

Expressionism was a cultural movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the start of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world under an utterly subjective perspective, violently distorting it to obtain an emotional effect and vividly transmit personal moods and ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express the meaning of "being alive" and emotional experience rather than physical reality.

Expressionism emerged as an 'avant-garde movement' in poetry and painting before the First World War; in the Weimar years was being appreciated by a mass audience, having its popularity peak in Berlin, during the 1920s.

Expressionism is exhibited in many art forms, including: painting, literature, theatre, dance, film, architecture and music. The term often implies emotional angst. In a general sense, painters such as Matthias Grünewald and El Greco can be called expressionist, though in practice, the term is applied mainly to 20th century works.

The Expressionist stress on the individual perspective was also a reaction to positivism and other artistic movements such as naturalism and impressionism.

Although it is used as a term of reference, there has never been a distinct movement that called itself "expressionism", apart from the use of the term by Herwarth Walden in his polemic magazine Der Sturm in 1912. The term is usually linked to paintings and graphic work in Germany at the turn of the century which challenged the academic traditions, particularly through the Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter groups. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche played a key role in originating modern expressionism by clarifying and serving as a conduit for previously neglected currents in ancient art.

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche presented his theory of the ancient dualism between two types of aesthetic experience, namely the Apollonian and the Dionysian; a dualism between the plastic "art of sculpture", of lyrical dream-inspiration, identity (the principium individuationis), order, regularity, and calm repose, and, on the other hand, the non-plastic "art of music", of intoxication, forgetfulness, chaos, and the ecstatic dissolution of identity in the collective. The analogy with the world of the Greek gods typifies the relationship between these extremes: two godsons, incompatible and yet inseparable. According to Nietzsche, both elements are present in any work of art. The basic characteristics of expressionism are Dionysian: bold colours, distorted forms-in-dissolution, two-dimensional, without perspective.

Generally the term refers to art that expresses intense emotion. It is arguable that all artists are expressive but there is a long line of art production in which heavy emphasis is placed on communication through emotion. Such art often occurs during time of social upheaval, and through the tradition of graphic art there is a powerful and moving record of chaos in Europe from the 15th century on the Protestant Reformation, Peasants' War, Eight Years' War, Spanish Occupation of the Netherlands, the rape, pillage and disaster associated with countless periods of chaos and oppression are presented in the documents of the printmaker. Often the work is unimpressive aesthetically, but almost without exception has the capacity to move the viewer to strong emotions with the drama and often horror of the scenes depicted.

The term was also coined by Czech art historian Antonín Matějček in 1910 as the opposite of impressionism: "An Expressionist wishes, above all, to express himself... (an Expressionist rejects) immediate perception and builds on more complex psychic structures... Impressions and mental images that pass through mental peoples soul as through a filter which rids them of all substantial accretions to produce their clear essence [...and] are assimilated and condense into more general forms, into types, which he transcribes through simple short-hand formulae and symbols." (Gordon, 1987)

The movement primarily originated in Germany and Austria. There were a number of Expressionist groups in painting, including the Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke. The Der Blaue Reiter group was based in Munich and Die Brücke was based originally in Dresden (although some later moved to Berlin). Die Brücke was active for a longer period than Der Blaue Reiter which was only truly together for a year (1912). The Expressionists had many influences, among them Munch, Vincent van Gogh, and African art. They also came to know the work being done by the Fauves in Paris.

Influenced by the Fauves, Expressionism worked with arbitrary colors as well as jarring compositions. In reaction and opposition to French Impressionism which focused on rendering the sheer visual appearance of objects, Expressionist artists sought to capture emotions and subjective interpretations: It was not important to reproduce an aesthetically pleasing impression of the artistic subject matter; the Expressionists focused on capturing vivid emotional reactions through powerful colors and dynamic compositions instead. The leader of Der Blaue Reiter, Kandinsky, would take this a step further. He believed that with simple colors and shapes the spectator could perceive the moods and feelings in the paintings, therefore he made the move to abstraction.

Expressionist imagery exploded into modern art from the subconscious. Its divers formal means and emotional effects range from anguish to exuberance. As the powerful, personal creations of modern individuals, these images have little in common except their inventive power and their reliance upon a distinctly private vision.

In late 1939, at the beginning of World War II, New York welcomed a great number of leading European artists.

The heritage of their interest in the mythic realm of the unconscious would be continued—and extended—by another group of younger, New World artists—New York School.

Following World War II Expressionism began to influence young American artists. Norris Embry (1921-1981) studied with Oskar Kokoschka in 1947 and over the next 43 years produced a large body of work grounded in the Expressionist tradition. Norris Embry has been called "the first American German Expressionist". Other American artists of the late 20th and early 21st century have developed distinct movements that are generally considered part of Expressionism. Another prominent artist who came from the German Expressionist "school" was Bremen born Wolfgang Degenhardt. After working as a commercial artist in Bremen he migrated to Australia in 1954 and became quite prominent and sought after in the Hunter Valley region. His paintings captured the spirit of Australian and world issues but presented them in a way which was true to his German Expressionist roots.

American Expressionism and American Figurative Expressionism particularly the Boston figurative expressionism were an integral part of American modernism around the Second World War.