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Year 8 - Expressionism: German Expressionism

Last updated October 2018.

Expressionist artists

There were two main groups of German Expressionist artists that rose to prominence. One was Die Brücke ("the bridge"), led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The other was called Der Blaue Reiter ("the Blue Rider"), led by Vassily Kandinsky. Although both movements did express differing visions, they both displayed the many characteristics of German Expressionism

Their inspiration

While Expressionist painters were predominantly inspired by Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, and thus paid special attention to color and symbolism and employed exaggerated imagery, German Expressionism focused on the more sinister aspects of the human psyche.

German Expressionism conveyed a feeling of darkness, eccentricity, madness, paranoia, and obsession. 

German Expressionists often focused on the criminal underworld, infusing their works with a surreal, eerie atmosphere, anti-heroic characters, and elements of evil and betrayal. They also utilized geometric shapes, and often examined the contrast between the city and the country. They did not aim to offer a realistic portrayal of the world, but rather strove to elicit a powerful, authentic emotional response from their audiences. Deliberately dream-like, their images were filled with distorted lines and shapes.

Goals of die Brücke

The artists embraced ―Brücke because of its multivalent potential. In Heckel‘s recollection, the name ―represented no program but in a sense it led from one shore to the other, and it would have been clearly understandable to their contemporaries who viewed new art as a link to the future that moved away from the past without discarding it. The goals of the artists of the Brücke were, thus, to reform art, not to transform or destroy it entirely

Article about the Die Brücke

Today, when society is beset by doubts about what science and technology have done to the world, Die Brücke seems to have been one of the 20th century's earliest movements of revolt, advocating and practising revolt by art and in art.

The War

The Inter-War Years: An Age of Anxiety : German Political Turmoil and Economic Crisis

•      Post-War Berlin

•      Establishment of the German Communist Party

•      Formation of the Freikorps

•      The Battle over Reparations

•      German Hyper-Inflation

•      The Dawes Plan and the Great Depression

The German Empire

German Expressionism also drew inspiration from Fauvism, German Gothic and 'primitive art'.

(click on image to view the MoMA website on Expressionism)

Expressionism is a term that arises in the early 20th century around a group of painters, mainly German and centered in Munich, who sought to convey deep emotional content using significant amounts of abstraction but without losing figural subject matter.  

The two groups of artists

Die Brücke focused on bright and dark sides of city life and how people lived under pressure. The themes of stress from World War I was commonly seen in many of the artworks from this group. This intensity of subject led to strong and forceful paintings and painting styles. Die Brücke was known for their intense paintings.

On the other hand, the other group, the Der Blaue Reiter, had different qualities with the other group. This group was known for having rich values, sensitive strokes, and subtlety. Many of the well-known artists from this group focused on abstraction, romantic imagery, and spritual subject

Manifesto of Die Brücke

Manifesto of the artist group Die Brücke

“With faith in progress and in a new generation of creators and spectators we call together all youth.  As youth, we carry the future and want to create for ourselves freedom of life and of movement against the long established older forces.  Everyone who reproduces that which drives him to creation with directness and authenticity belongs to us."

 “To challenge all conventions through art; to effect social change through art, to dismantle the establishment through art, to combine all progressive and revolutionary elements in art and life. . .”

More about Die Brücke

Name: German for "The Bridge." Term coined by Schmidt-Rottluff.

Who: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Max Pechstein.

When: c. 1905-1913.

Where: Dresden, Germany.

What: Die Brücke artists believed their work to be a kind of bridge between revolutionary elements and the art of the future. First group of German Expressionist painters.

Subject Matter: City streets, landscapes, sexuality.

Style: Flat, linear, rhythmical expression; simplification of form; and brilliant color.

Janson Example: KIRCHNER, Self-Portrait with Model, 1907.

Kissick Example: KIRCHNER, Five Women in the Street, 1913-15.

Influenced by: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch, Berlin Secession, Fauvism, medieval woodcuts, Oceanic and African art.

Will influence: Later Expressionists.

Key Expressionist artists

Chronology of the Expressionism movement

Read more about the Chronology of Expressionism from the link

Political and Social context


The Dance of Life - Edward Munch

German expressionism was also about a certain time, the early part of the 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.