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Artist movement series: Expressionism

Disillusioned with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and all the changes to life that it brought, artists began looking for a way to express the strong emotions they were feeling.

At the same time, many artists were looking for something other than Impressionism, the school that dominated throughout the mid-to-late 18th Century. Impressionism was viewed by them as nothing more than pretty pictures with no depth, a superficial and false portrayal of life.

In this sense, Expressionism can be viewed as reactive, a passioned call of angst that sought to portray emotional experience on the canvas rather than reality. It supposed that art was meant to be self-expressive, even to the point of abstraction, so long as the emotional reality was at the forefront.

While the term had been floating around as early as the 1850s, it was not until 1905 that Expressionism really took form. A group of four German artists led by Ernest Ludwig Kirchner founded Die Brücke (The Bridge) as an artist collective in Dresden. Their work was credited with being the founding organization of the movement.

Another group formed in Munich in 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee and August Macke also helped to set the stage for Expressionism.

But it was not until 1913 that the term became associated with the art.

Expression became a true German artistic movement and was a significant influence after World War I and into the Weimar Republic.

But it did not stay rooted in Germany. Expressionism moved into neighbouring countries such as France and Austria. There was even a Neo-Expressionist movement in the United States.

Contributing artists

Edvard Munch
The Scream (1893)
The Scream (1893)

Probably the most famous Expressionist artist, Munch’s printmaking conveyed a sense of depression and anxiety.

The Norwegian suffered from several mental health breakdowns throughout his life. His art, often a reflection of what was going on inside him, was so open and visceral, it helped propel him as a leader of the movement.

Take his famous work, The Scream (1893). It serves as the most famous work within Expressionism. But to Munch, it was simply a reflection of how he felt when taking a walk. He once described that walk:

“I was walking along a path, and one side lays the city, and below me was the fjord. I felt tired, ill. I stopped and gazed out over the fjord. The sun was setting, and the clouds red like the colour of blood. I felt a scream pass through nature. It seemed to me I could actually hear the scream. I painted this picture–the colours were screaming…”

Wassily Kandinsky
The Blue Rider (1903)
The Blue Rider (1903)

While Kandinsky helped to guide Expressionism into a modern art movement, his work tended to blur the lines between a few different schools.

As one of the earliest Expressionists, he still used the bright colours of Impressionism, but in an abstract way. This served to distort the physical reality of the painting and implore the viewer to perceive how it makes them feel.

The Blue Rider (1903) is one such painting. A seemingly bright painting of a rider on a lush field, the heavy brushstrokes have led many to ponder what the rider is carrying. This single question changes the nature of the painting itself as many have stated to see a baby in the rider’s arms, leaving the reason up to interpretation.

Erich Heckel
Portrait of a Man (1919)
Portrait of a Man (1919)

Heckel was a member of the Die Brücke Expressionist group, which helped usher in the movement. He was heavily influenced by the work of Vincent van Gogh and featured many similarities in style and technique to this post-Impressionist painter.

Portrait of a Man (1919) is a woodcut portrait with long, angular features. Coming right at the end of World War I, this painting portrayed a man fraught with the tension and anxiety of an unknown post-war Germany.

The colour scheme, the posture of the figure and even the composition all lend themselves to a sense of contemplation, of both being defeated but also of a future hope.

By Nathan Durec


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