Can you notice loneliness, anxiety, isolation, or raw sexuality in these paintings? How about in this one? These are all topics that expressionist artists showed in their artworks.
Expressionism was an international movement of the early 20th century and it was present not only in art but in architecture, theatre, cinema, dance, and literature too! The roots of the expressionist aesthetic can be found in post-impressionist and symbolist artworks, but also in proto-expressionist works like Edvard Munch’s Scream!
The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893
Expressionists aimed to show true emotions in their works. And those emotions were often scary, dark, worrying, and well - not so positive. But expressionists wanted to show life as it truly was for them, a life filled with the anxiety and alienation present in the modern world. They often used bold colors and more abstract forms in order to get their message across, or to say it more precisely, to show their emotions thoroughly. Explorations of the human psyche and the popularity of psychoanalysis also influenced the expressionist focus on the self and the subjective ways of looking at life.
When we think about Expressionism in the visual arts, two groups of artists seem to be particularly important. Both were based in Germany: in Dresden, Munich and Berlin. These groups were known as the Blue Rider and The Bridge. The artists connected to these two groups defined the style of expressionism in art.
So let’s talk about Die Brucke or The Bridge created in 1905. The Bridge was founded by artists Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The name of the group was taken from the writings of the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche who famously wrote “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” And this artistic bridge of our expressionists was supposed to represent a path between the present and the future, and a path between the artist and the viewer.
These expressionist artists showed what it was like to live in a modern city with all the angst that this life could carry with it. Like in Kirchner’s 1908 work Street Dresden, we see a crowded city street that screams intensity! And the bold colors Kirchner used helped make the scene seem even more extreme. The sidewalk is painted pink, and we can assume that it probably wasn’t pink in real life. The same goes for the faces of the two women we see approaching, their faces are green and orange. Quite intense!
Street Dresden by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner,1908
Expressionists also embraced printmaking, especially woodcuts. Prints were easier to distribute so more people could see expressionist artworks. They also often portrayed nudes, but in a new, modern way. The poses in these often sexually charged images seem casual and natural, completely different from the female nude poses people were used to seeing in academic art. In Erich Heckel’s woodcut print Franzi Reclining, we see a young model Franzi, who often modeled for Expressionists, lying in a slightly awkward way. The scene is quite different from your typical portrait of a nude in art history. The way in which Franzi’s face was portrayed was inspired by African masks.
Franzi Reclining by Erich Heckel, 1910
Like many other artists of the time including Fauvists or Cubists, the German expressionists were inspired by non-western art that was known as “primitive art.” Kirchner was inspired by the art created by the native artists of Africa and Oceania that he saw at the Ethnological Museum in Dresden. While Emil Nolde, another member of The Bridge, also visited the Ethnographic museum in Berlin frequently. Unfortunately, The Bridge group was short-lived and it disbanded just before the start of World War I.
The Blue Rider
Now, let’s travel to Munich where Der Blaue Reiter or the Blue Rider was born. The Blue Rider was active from 1911 until 1914 and it was founded by the famous Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. The name of the group was inspired by a frequent motif we see in Kandinsky’s works - a horse rider. Horses were also seen in works of another Blue Rider member - Franz Marc. The group consisted of two other Russian artists Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefskin and German artists like Paul Klee and Auguste Macke.
Kandinsky, who had the gift of synesthesia, wanted to explore the ways in which music affected spiritual states, so he started painting visual equivalents to music, these paintings he often liked to name improvisations or compositions. In works like Composition VII Kandinsky aimed to show how something musical could also be visualized by using abstract forms.
Unfortunately, because of World War I the artistic group stopped working together. Kandinsky had to move back to Russia, while Macke and Marc were killed during the war.
Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky, 1913
In Austria, Expressionism was present in the works of artists Oscar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. Schiele, in particular, was mentored by none other than the famous Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Focusing mostly on portraits (and self-portraits), Schiele often showed the problems of the psyche, the anxiety of the individual, and raw sexuality that was considered shocking. We can notice all of these things in his painting called Seated Male Nude from 1910. In what happens to be a self-portrait, we see an expressive, intense, almost disturbing idea of one’s body.
Seated Male Nude by Egon Schiele, 1910
Another Austrian painter connected to Viennese Expressionism was a man called Oskar Kokoschka. Kokoschka also worked as a writer. In fact, he wrote a play called Murderer, the Hope of Women that is now considered one of the first expressionist plays ever. In his self-portrait Knight Errant, we see Kokoschka lying in the middle of the painting dressed in a medieval armor suit. The landscape around him seems to be quite stormy and disturbing. And we can sense that there is an inner struggle going on in the main figure. A very unsettling image indeed.
Knight Errant by Oskar Kokoschka, 1915
Expressionists aimed to show emotional intensity. Showing realistic features of people, places or things wasn’t as important as showing the reality of one’s inner world. And Expressionism represents an important chapter in the history of modern art. The expressionist ways of showing things affected art movements like New Objectivity, Neo-Expressionism, and obviously Abstract Expressionism greatly.