Art History Lab

Expressionism: Capturing the Inner Turmoil of the 20th Century

Expressionism: A Movement of the 20th Century

The art movement known as Expressionism emerged in the early 20th century in Germany. It was a response to the economic, social, and political upheavals of the time, and it’s characterized by its subjective perspective, exaggerations, and distortions.

Expressionism isn’t simply a visual art movement, it has also made its way into literature, drama, cinema, and other forms of art.

In this article, we will explore the roots and spread of Expressionism and look more closely at some of the key elements of the movement.

Expressionism: Realistic and Accurate Representations from a Subjective Perspective

Expressionism was a response to the limited, realistic representations of the world prevalent during the early 20th century. Expressionist artists were fascinated by the potential to represent the world in a fresh, new way that mirrored their own inner experiences.

This movement ultimately pushed these artists to create from the perspective of the inner self rather than the external world. In evaluating Expressionist art, it is important to note the use of color, form, and texture to express a subjective point of view.

Expressionism featured recognizable motifs that were transformed through exaggeration and distortion. The result was an incredibly powerful, emotionally charged, and often disturbing experience.

Modernist Movement, Germany, World War One, Spread of Expressionism Art, German Expressionism

Expressionism is often seen as part of the broader Modernist movement, which swept through the art world in the early 20th century. German Expressionism, specifically, was heavily impacted by the trauma of World War One and continued its momentum after the war ended.

This movement put forward works that were emotional, socially-engaged, and politically charged.

German Expressionism’s popularity spread across Europe and beyond, thanks to Cologne’s Wallraf- Richartz Museum lending works to development sites and commissioned works to create a new character.

It was seen in the works of Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, and Goethe, which influenced the movement. Avant-garde Movement, Exaggerations and Distortions, Subjective Perspective, 20th Century Life

Expressionist artists were part of the avant-garde movement that believed in art as a medium for social change and liberation.

Expressionism created a space to proclaim and amplify marginalized artists’ and thinkers’ voices, who felt unable to express themselves in the immediate constraint of the time. The movement extensively used exaggeration and distortion to heighten emotional content and reaction.

It attempted to provide a visceral experience and enable a fuller self-expression than other static modes of visual communication could do, and helped towards achieving the promise of journalism and reliable reporting styles. Expressionist Painting, Literature, Drama, Cinema, Industrialization, Urban Development

Expressionism impacted all modes of art, not just painting.

It expanded beyond the visual arts and extended into literature, drama, and cinema. Expressionist playwrights and directors aimed to subvert the language and conventions of traditional theater by integrating modern themes and a subjective perspective into their work.

The rise of the Industrial era propelled urbanization and emphasized the need for new avenues of connection and communication between people. Expressionist art left a notable symbol of those changes in the way it presented space and imagery.

In conclusion, Expressionism was a revolutionary movement that reshaped the art world and left an indelible impact on popular culture. Through its use of subjective perspective, exaggeration, and distortion, it opened up a whole new world of artistic expression in the 21st century.

Expressionist art challenged traditional notions and provided an alternative voice to contribute change in a turbulent period of time.

Expressionism and the Apprehension of Modernity

The expansion of technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coupled with the rapid urbanization happening around the world, created a unique and apprehended environment that Expressionist artists captured through their work. These artists highlighted the isolation and detachment that individuals experienced in the modern world, focusing on the vivid emotions that came with it.

Expressionism used jagged angles, flattened forms, and distorted views to create a style that represented the turmoil and instability of the time. The works of Expressionist artists reflect the sense of apprehension that echoed from the rise of a new culture, one that placed commerce and material interests above human experience and social connectivity.

Ultimately, Expressionist art gave a voice to individuals who felt they were becoming marginalized in a rapidly changing world. Expressionism, Printmaking, and Political and Social Causes

Printmaking played a significant role in the Expressionism movement, allowing for the mass production and dissemination of political and social messages.

The use of color, along with the flattened and distorted forms present in Expressionist prints, enabled artists to speak directly to the emotional and political sentiments of their intended audience. One of the key aspects of Expressionist printmaking was its emotional significance.

It allowed artists to express raw and honest feelings about societal issues and political causes they felt strongly about. Through means such as etching and woodcuts, artists were able to produce engrossing pieces of protest art, which helped focus attention on political and social causes that were being overlooked.

Expressionism and the Support for War

The Expressionist movement has its roots in the early 20th century, a time when many countries supported war. The turmoil created by World War I had an enormous impact on the world and provided a setting for Expressionism that included support for the war.

Artists explored the defeat of middle-class society and the materialistic tendencies that contributed to the war in their work. Through Expressionism, artists expressed their disillusionment and rejection of the established, traditional ways of life that had led to the war.

The works of Expressionist artists emphasized the cultural limitations of society and advocated for radical change that would place humanity at the forefront.

Expressionism and Personal Experience

The personal experience of war had a tremendous impact on artists associated with the Expressionist movement. Many artists struggled with the emotional toll of war, which included mental breakdowns, physical injuries, and loss of loved ones.

Expressionist art allowed artists to express these personal experiences of wartime, including the horrific imagery and raw emotions that were typically taboo. Expressionist art was also groundbreaking due to its introspective nature.

The works of Expressionist artists focused on exploring the broken-down minds and bodies of individuals and offered a window into the emotional experiences of war. These raw and truthful feelings resonated with many people, who came to understand the true cost of war.


Expressionism remains an essential movement in the history of art and culture, with its influence felt in many areas of life today. Its unique style and presentation allowed artists to break free from traditional notions of artistic expression and instead use their work as a form of personal and cultural protest.

Through its emphasis on emotion and personal experiences, Expressionism played an influential role in politics, social protest, and cultural movements.

Expressionism and Authenticity

Expressionism was a movement that sought to capture authentic emotions and feelings through a subjective perspective. During the Post-Impressionist era, many artists had begun to reject the stale conventions of realism and naturalism, seeking to find more authentic ways of expressing themselves in their work.

Expressionism offered a departure from the representation of reality by utilizing distortions, exaggerations, and bold colors to create works that reflected subjective thoughts and emotions. Expressionist artists believed that authenticity lay in these departures from lifelike portrayals, refusing to be confined to procedural and sterile representations.

Expressionism and Reinvigoration

Expressionism represented an injection of energy and artistic significance in the art world. As a movement, it stood against the established norms, dismissing stylistic conventions and providing an intense and often powerful form of expression.

The conviction and expressive force present in Expressionist art gave it a new lease on the medium as a whole, reinvigorating the ideas and principles of the Post-Impressionist Era. Expressionist artists rejected the idea that the representation of reality was the fundamental purpose of art, instead emphasizing the transformative qualities of art as a form of personal and cultural expression.

The reinvigoration of the art world allowed Expressionist art and artists to challenge and criticize socio-political perspectives while celebrating its new aesthetic and conceptual ideals.

Expressionism and its Influences

Expressionism, with its departure from traditional artistic renderings, was influential in exploring and challenging the range of emotions within art. Artists such as Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri Matisse were among those who contributed profoundly to this movement.

Edvard Munch is perhaps the most notable artist among the Expressionist movement, his work is still widely recognized today for its psychological insight and visual intensity. Vincent van Gogh’s influence on the movement is also notable, with his use of unnatural colors and dynamic brushstrokes enabling him to make artworks that communicated his tense emotional states.

Henri Matisse exemplified the Expressionist movement’s tendency to explore line and color for emotional impact, over stark and objective representation.

The Influences of Munch and van Gogh

Munch’s The Scream represents one of the most iconic images of Expressionism, as his use of over-stated textures and distortions communicate the harrowing experience that beholders would have had during that time. Van Gogh’s unique use of short, impastoed brush strokes and harsh, brash colours has been one of the primary inspirations for Expressionism’s expressive and emotion-focused techniques.

The intensity in his works help arguably brought a true sense of psychological state to art, changing the face of art while inspiring a new generation of artists.


Expressionism was a movement that challenged the traditional conventions of art, advocating for a subjective perspective that enabled the exploration of emotions and feelings in an authentic way. Its influence remains felt in many areas of art and culture today, with its reinvigoration of the medium of painting, which helped to champion artistic expression that could engage and communicate with all of humanity.

Artists such as Munch, van Gogh, and Matisse embraced the values of Expressionism, exploring the depths of emotion and the power of art in a way that resonates with people even today.

The Term Expressionism and its Origins

The term “Expressionism” was first coined by Czech art historian Antonin Matjek in 1910. Matjek used this term to describe the artistic movement that stood in opposition to Impressionism.

While Impressionism focused on capturing the external world through the use of light and color, Expressionism aimed to convey the subjective emotions and inner life of the artist. Expressionist artists sought to express their own inner experiences and responses to the world, pushing the boundaries of traditional artistic representation.

By exploring the depths of their own emotions, they hoped to connect with the viewer on a visceral and emotional level.

Expressionism and Harsh Subject Matter

Expressionism was not afraid to confront harsh subject matter, delving into the darker aspects of human experience and societal issues. This approach allowed artists to create works that offered social critique while also conveying intense and raw emotions.

Expressionist artists employed unrestrictive brushwork, using extended and jagged forms to convey psychological tension and unease. These artists often used bold and intense colors to heighten the emotional impact of their works and to provoke an immediate response from the viewer.

Founding Groups of German Expressionism

Two significant groups that played pivotal roles in the development of German Expressionism were Die Brcke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Both groups emerged in response to the influence of industrialization and the urban anxiety that accompanied it.

Die Brcke, founded in Dresden in 1905, sought a departure from the academic traditions of art and aimed to create a new artistic language that reflected the changing world. The artists of Die Brcke embraced bold colors, discordant compositions, and a rejection of naturalism to explore the emotional and psychological dimensions of their subjects.

Der Blaue Reiter, founded in Munich in 1911, was more focused on spiritual and symbolic content. The artists associated with this group sought to create art that transcended the confines of the material world, often using abstraction to communicate their inner visions and spiritual beliefs.

Der Blaue Reiter artists celebrated the symbolic power of art and its ability to evoke profound emotions and spiritual experiences.

Expressionism and its Visual Language

Expressionism developed a unique visual language that aimed to convey the emotional and psychological state of the artist. This language utilized bold colors, discordant compositions, and abstraction to create powerful visual experiences.

Expressionist artists employed bold and intense colors to evoke emotional responses from their viewers. These hues were often used in a non-naturalistic way, amplifying the artist’s subjective experience rather than aiming for realistic representation.

The discordant compositions used by Expressionist artists were intended to disrupt traditional notions of harmony and balance, reflecting the turmoil and disarray of the modern world. Abstraction played a significant role in Expressionism, allowing artists to move beyond the limitations of the physical world and tap into the realm of symbolic content.

Through abstraction, they could communicate deeper truths and evoke spiritual references, enhancing the emotional impact of their works.


Expressionism emerged as a powerful artistic movement that aimed to convey the subjective emotions and inner life of the artist. It stood in opposition to Impressionism and embraced harsh subject matter, employing a visual language characterized by bold colors, intense emotions, and abstraction.

The founding groups of German Expressionism, Die Brcke and Der Blaue Reiter, pushed the boundaries of artistic expression and created a platform for social critique and spiritual exploration. Expressionism remains a significant movement in art history, challenging viewers to engage with raw emotions and deep introspection.

Edvard Munch and the Expression of Anxiety

Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” is perhaps the most iconic representation of Expressionism. This work captures the essence of anxiety and reflects the conflict between spirituality and the tumultuous forces of modernity.

“The Scream” depicts a figure in distress, mouth open wide in a silent scream, while the surroundings are distorted and twisted. Munch’s use of bold colors and swirling lines conveys the inner turmoil and existential angst that many people experienced during this time of rapid social and technological change.

The dark and vivid hues in the painting intensify the emotional impact, emphasizing the anxious and chaotic atmosphere. Munch’s “The Scream” embodies the Expressionist desire to express deeply personal emotions and transcend the limits of objective reality.

The painting became a powerful symbol of individual angst and the struggles of modern life.

Wassily Kandinsky and the Power of Abstraction

Wassily Kandinsky, often considered the pioneer of abstract art, was deeply influenced by the spiritual and emotional qualities of color and form. His work aimed to go beyond representational art and explore the inner world of the artist.

Kandinsky believed that color and form had the power to communicate directly with the viewer’s soul. He used abstract shapes and simple colors, removing any realistic depictions, to tap into the spiritual realm.

He believed that every color and shape had inherent symbolic meanings that could evoke powerful emotions. One of Kandinsky’s recurring symbols was the horse and rider, representing the triumph of the spiritual over the material.

This symbolic motif appeared in many of his paintings, showcasing the artist’s exploration of spiritual qualities through abstraction. Kandinsky’s works, characterized by their vibrant colors and dynamic compositions, aimed to transcend the physical world and connect with the viewer on a deeper, more spiritual level.

His abstract art challenged traditional notions of representation and opened the door to new possibilities in artistic expression.

Franz Marc and Animal Symbolism

Franz Marc embraced animal symbolism in his artwork, using it as a means to explore spirituality and connect with the natural world. The vibrant and intense colors he employed depicted animals in a way that went beyond mere representation, conveying an emotional and spiritual experience.

Marc believed that animals possessed a purity of spirit that was increasingly absent in the industrialized and materialistic world. Through his use of bold colors and simplified forms, he aimed to capture the vibrancy and serenity of the animal kingdom.

Animal symbolism played a crucial role in Marc’s work, as he saw animals as embodiments of spiritual qualities. The use of specific animals, such as horses, deer, or cats, carried symbolic meaning that added depth and significance to his paintings.

Marc’s art celebrated the harmony and balance found in nature, inviting the viewer to reconnect with a more spiritual and serene existence.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Urban Alienation

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s art explored themes of urban alienation and the impact of modernity on the individual. His paintings often featured sharp and jagged brushstrokes, reflecting the fragmented and chaotic nature of urban life.

Kirchner’s use of bold and dissonant colors created a sense of unease and tension in his works. He sought to capture the psychological impact of living in a rapidly changing and impersonal society, highlighting the isolation and anxiety experienced by many.

Kirchner’s paintings often depicted urban scenes and figures engaged in mundane activities, but the distorted and exaggerated forms conveyed a sense of unease and disconnection. His art was a social critique, exposing the dehumanizing effects of modern urban environments.

Through his use of sharp lines and contrasting colors, Kirchner aimed to convey the psychological and emotional experiences of individuals navigating the complexities of urban life. His art served as a reflection of the social and cultural challenges faced by individuals in the modern world.


Expressionism, through the works of artists such as Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, explored a range of themes and emotions, capturing the anxiety, spirituality, vibrancy, and social critique of their time. These artists pushed the boundaries of traditional artistic representation, using vibrant colors, distorted forms, and abstraction to convey powerful emotional and spiritual experiences.

Their works resonate with viewers, engaging them on an emotional level and provoking deep introspection about the complexities of the human experience. Expressionism remains a significant movement in art history, reminding us of the power of art to express and illuminate the inner depths of the human condition.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Authenticity in Expressionistic Art

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff was a prominent German Expressionist known for his exaggerated and sharp depictions of figures and landscapes. His work aimed to capture an authenticity that resonated with the emotional and psychological experiences of the modern era.

Schmidt-Rottluff’s Expressionistic landscapes and portraits often featured bold and vivid colors, with distorted forms and exaggerated features. Through these depictions, he sought to convey the inner experiences and subjective perspectives of his subjects, capturing the essence of their emotional states.

By deviating from literal representation, Schmidt-Rottluff created a visual language that tapped into the depths of human experience. Through his bold brushwork and intense use of color, he conveyed a sense of urgency and intensity, inviting viewers to engage emotionally with his art.

Oskar Kokoschka and the Abstraction of Community

Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian artist, explored themes of community and the human condition through his Expressionistic approach. While his work incorporated abstraction with geometric and abstracted forms, it still retained a sense of human connection and humanity.

Kokoschka used his distinctive style to depict the complexity of human relationships and the challenges of maintaining a sense of community. His works were characterized by vibrant colors and bold brushwork, creating a visual language that conveyed the dynamic and fluid nature of human interactions.

Through the abstraction of forms, Kokoschka sought to reveal the underlying emotions and psychological states of his subjects. This expressive approach allowed him to explore the depths of human experiences and the complexities of interpersonal relationships.

Egon Schiele and the Intensity of Expressionistic Art

Egon Schiele, an Austrian artist, pushed the boundaries of Expressionism with his overtly erotic and intensely emotive works. He delved into the human figure, blurring the lines between beauty and rawness, and explored the intense and often controversial aspects of human sexuality.

Schiele’s Expressionistic landscapes and portraits captivated viewers with their bold and distorted depictions. He used exaggerated, contorted poses and stark lines to convey the range of emotions and desires in his subjects.

His artworks often provoked uncomfortable feelings, challenging societal norms and expectations. Through his art, Schiele explored the intense and sometimes contradictory nature of human existence.

His intense brushwork and use of bold colors enhanced the emotional impact of his works, leaving a lasting impression on viewers. Expressionism’s Legacy and Influence on Art Movements

Expressionism’s influence on the art world extended well beyond its initial period of prominence.

The movement’s innovative approach and focus on subjective expression paved the way for various offshoot movements and had a profound impact on contemporary art. One of the most significant movements influenced by Expressionism was Abstract Expressionism, which emerged in the United States after World War II.

The emphasis on emotional intensity and individual expression found in Expressionism laid the groundwork for the development of Abstract Expressionism, with artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning embracing gestural abstraction and intense emotional expression. Expressionism also left its mark on other movements, such as Futurism, Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism.

The fragmentation of forms and exploration of the subconscious seen in these movements can be traced back to the influence of Expressionism. The legacy of Expressionism can be seen in the ongoing exploration of subjective experience and emotion in contemporary art.

Artists continue to draw inspiration from the movement’s emphasis on authenticity and the power of artistic expression to convey profound and personal experiences.


Expressionism, with artists such as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, further expanded the boundaries of artistic expression. Their works embodied the authentic emotions and psychological experiences of individuals in the modern era.

The influence of Expressionism extended beyond its original period, leaving a lasting impact on art movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. This movement’s legacy continues to inspire contemporary artists to engage with subjective experiences, emotions, and the depths of the human condition in their works.

In conclusion, Expressionism emerged as a revolutionary art movement in the early 20th century, challenging traditional artistic conventions and seeking to convey subjective emotions and experiences. Artists such as Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky, and Egon Schiele pushed the boundaries of artistic expression, capturing the anxieties, spirituality, and intensity of the modern era.

The influence of Expressionism extended to various offshoot movements, including Abstract Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. The importance of Expressionism lies in its emphasis on authenticity, emotional intensity, and the power of art to illuminate the depths of the human condition.

Through its bold and innovative approach, Expressionism continues to inspire contemporary artists to explore the subjective and resonate with viewers on an emotional level. Expressionism reminds us of the enduring capacity of art to convey and provoke profound feelings, leaving an enduring imprint on the history of art.

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