Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Year 8 - Expressionism: Background

Last updated October 2018.

Encyclopedia Britannica definition

Expressionism -  artistic style in which the artist seeks to depict not objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse within a person. The artist accomplishes this aim through distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy and through the vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of formal elements. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Influences of the period

What were the predominant social and economic influences that perhaps served as inspiration for the 'Expressionist' movement ?

- World War I

- The Arts movements

- Developments in Science

Expressionism - Spiritual and Social Voice

Expressionism gained significance between the years 1905 and 1918 during a turbulent, cultural climate, a "revelation of the profoundly problematic conditions of Europe at the turn-of-the century" (qtd. in Whitford 18). The Expressionists believed that art and society were interwoven. Through art, literature, cinema, and music they disclosed social injustices, rejected materialistic prosperity, and wanted to weaken the privileged leisure-class system.

Europe in the early 20th century

As pointed out by art historian Victor Miesel, "All Europe was in a state of ever-increasing discontent."

Rapid industrialization and urbanization, such revolutionary discoveries as Freud's theory of dreams (1900) and Einstein's theory of relativity (1905), a succession of political crises; these were events which filled Europeans everywhere with apprehension.

"It was during this time that "painters abandoned realism and countryside landscapes for nightmare depictions of impoverished lives in ravished cities, their bold strokes of dark lines bending and creaking under the strain. Writers clipped their sentences to the barest essence, their voices almost always pounding away full blast, and in all the arts, there was a near-obsession with death and decay and an apocalyptic sense that civilization had come to the end of its rope." 

The Bedroom in Arles - Vincent van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles is one of the artist's best known paintings. The striking colours, unusual perspective and familiar subject matter create a work that is not only among Van Gogh's most popular, but also one that he himself held as one of his own personal favourites.

In a letter to his brother, Theo, Vincent wrote: 

My eyes are still tired by then I had a new idea in my head and here is the sketch of it. Another size 30 canvas. This time it's just simply my bedroom, only here colour is to do everything, and giving by its simplification a grander style to things, is to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination.

The walls are pale violet.

The floor is of red tiles

The wood of the bed and chairs is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheets and pillows very light greenish-citron

How do you know?

Characteristics of expressionism in the visual arts:

* non-representational; not a "straightforward presentation of the external world, but a projection of an internal idea without the use of literal symbols"
* a look into the emotional and psychological state; distorted images; irregular shapes
* portrayal of human terror, haunting anxieties, nightmarish fears, anguish
* materialism, industrialization, disillusionment, fragmentation,
* excursions into the subconscious
* distorting images depict the inner, psychological, subjective world of the artist


How the term 'Expressionism' came about

Herwald Walden used the term ‘Expressionism’ in his polemic magazine Der Sturm in 1912, but it was not referred to as a movement until it had almost died out.What is now referenced ‘German Expressionism’ is probably Germany’s most original and important artistic mode since the Middle Ages.

Pioneers of expressionism

Van Gogh (1853-90) exemplifies expressionism. Not only were most of his pictures autobiographical, in that they chronicled his thoughts, feelings and mental equilibrium, but even the composition, colours and brushwork of his paintings were a close reflection of his feelings as he painted. Few artists have since equalled his genuine intensity of self-expression.

 If Van Gogh distorted form and colour to convey his inner feelings, the French artist Paul Gauguin(1848-1903) relied on colour to express his emotions. He also employed symbolism, but it was his colour in painting that truly set him apart. As well as expressionism, he also influenced the development of Synthetism as well as Cloisonism, during his time at Pont-Aven

The third great pioneer of expressionism was Edvard Munch (1863-1944), the neurotic Norwegian painter and printmaker who, despite being emotionally scarred in early life, managed to live to over 80 years of age. However, nearly all his best pictures were painted before his nervous breakdown in 1908.


Cafe Terrace - Vincent van Gogh

Another well-known artwork, read more from the link...