Expressionism: characteristics and artists

Expressionism: characteristics and artists
Isabel del Rio

Expressionism, an avant-garde movement which appeared at the beginning of the 20th century and which has lasted the complete century and it’s still alive.

It collects the findings of the Post-impressionist artists (Van-Gogh; Cezanne; Gauguin…), Primitive art, and of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch to spread its influence to other avant-garde groups. For example, the abstract Kandinsky or the cubist Picasso had expressionist periods and in different later artworks expressionism is present.

Main characteristics:

-Expressionism main objective is to raise subjective feelings above objective observations. Then expressionist paintings, sculptures, or prints aim to reflect the artist’s state of mind rather than the reality of the external world.

Expressionism. Sculptor Ernst Barlach, 1929

Expressionism. Sculptor Ernst Barlach, 1929

-As Fauvism, they use symbolic colors and exaggerated imagery, but they added to the decorative bright colors of the Fauvist style (Matisse), stronger linear effects and harsher outlines, being black is favorite color.

-Topics can be diverse but they usually tend to dwell on the darker, sinister aspects of the human psyche. From the beginning, the German school (The Bridge group, born in 1905) focus on sad disturbing topics, but the depressive influence on the artists of the two world wars, especially of the Great War, wouldn’t change this tendency (see Otto Dix or George Grosz’ artworks).

-The classical perspective is broken and, in fact, the great problem of painting from the Renaissance no interest to them. As other avant-garde movements, they reject of the strict Academic rules and very many of the expressionist artists were autodidact. Here, the important is not the training but the ability to express an emotion and to transmit this emotion to the viewers.

– From 1933, most expressionist German artworks was branded as “degenerate” by the Nazis. For example, in 1937 over 600 works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner were sold or destroyed and Kirchner, founder of The Bridge group, committed suicide one year later. Other artists, as Max Beckmann (1884-1950), ended his days in the United States, and they caused great influence in the American art, since the Action Painting of Jackson Pollock is, in fact, an abstract expressionist manifestation.

Five artists:

Expressionism, by Georges Rouault

Expressionism, by Georges Rouault

-The French artist, Georges Rouault (1871-1958).

He trained with Matisse and exhibited with the Fauves, but his palette of sad colors and his deep topics place him as an early isolated Expressionist. In fact, his work has been described as “Fauvism with dark glasses”.

Some authors consider him the greatest religious painter of the 20th century (see his tortured Christos) but maybe it’s in another kind of paintings, for example: “Prostitute at her mirror, 1906” where Rouault’s deeply compassion and hope of redemption is better shown.

Expressionism. Berlin Street Scene, by Kirchner

Expressionism. Berlin Street Scene, by Kirchner

-The German artist Ernst Ludwing Kirchner (1880-1938).

He likes images of the modern city and even of its smart citizens but the result is a hostile, alienating world, with distorted figures and colors, and strange point of views when he composes the painting: “Berlin Street Scene, 1913” is violent, really disturbing.

Expressionism. Farmstead, by Emil Nolde

Expressionism. Farmstead, by Emil Nolde

-The German painter and printmaker Emil Nolde (1867-1956).

Briefly associated with The Bridge group, he was a thoughtful Expressionist who worked in isolation for much of his career. His interest in primitive art and sensual colors led him to paint some remarkable pictures (also in watercolor) with dynamic energy, simple rhythms, visual tension, and sense of space: “Farmstead under Red Evening”.

-The American artist Jackson Pollock (1912-1956).

Expressionism, by Jackson Pollock

Expressionism, by Jackson Pollock

A major figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement. He was well known for his uniquely defined style of drip painting. Pollock moved away from the use of only the hand and wrist, since he used his whole body to paint abstract works which show all the emotions of his volatile personality: then, another subjective emotive expressionist, younger than the primitive German school: See “No. 5, 1948”.

-The painter, sculptor and writer Antonio Saura (1930-1998)

Expressionism, by Antonio Saura

Expressionism, by Antonio Saura

He was one of the major post-war artists to emerge in Spain in the 50’s and his works have marked several generations of artists. Limiting his palette to blacks, greys and browns, he produces strange figures of violence and force, being the proofs that Expressionism has been alive all of the 20th century, although coexisting with other tendencies. See for example: “The imaginary portrait of the king Felipe II”

Expressionism has also been important in cinema, for example in the movies of Ingmar Bergman and in architecture (The Tower in Potsdam-Berlin, by Erich Mendelsohn or the Monument to the March Dead by Walter Gropius).

In the video, you can see Pollock painting in 1950


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