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Year 8 - Expressionism: Welcome!

Last updated October 2018.





Pronunciation: /ɪkˈsprɛʃ(ə)nɪz(ə)m, ɛk-/

Definition of expressionism


[mass noun]
  • a style of painting, music, or drama in which the artist or writer seeks to express the inner world of emotion rather than external reality.
  • Expressionists characteristically reject traditional ideas of beauty or harmony and use distortion, exaggeration, and other non-naturalistic devices in order to express emotional states. The paintings of El Greco and Grünewald exemplify expressionism in this broad sense, but the term is also used of a late 19th and 20th century European and specifically German movement tracing its origins to Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and James Ensor, which insisted on the primacy of the artist’s feelings and mood, often incorporating violence and the grotesque
(from the Oxford dictionaries)


What is Expressionism? 

  Need to “Express” powerful emotion

  Focus on “Angst” and Individual Anguish

  Importance of Color in Painting

The beginnings

'Insolent mockery of the Divine under centrist rule’

Slogan from the entartete Kunst exhibit, Munich 1937

German Expressionism began as a reaction to the conditions of Wilhelminian Germany; a rejection of the pre-war German bourgeois culture as chronicled in the likes of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. Young intellectuals felt excluded and classless in a complacent, materialistic Germany.


Expressionist Art

What is Expressionist Art? - Characteristics

Expressionism is an intensely personal art form. The expressionist artist strives to convey his personal feelings about the object painted, rather than merely record his observation of it. Thus, in order to achieve maximum impact on the viewer, representational accuracy is sacrificed (distorted) in favour of (eg) strong outlines and bold colours. Compositions tend to be simpler and more direct, and are often characterized by thick impasto paint, loose, freely applied brushstrokes, and occasional symbolism. The message is all-important. 


E L Kirchner Street Scene - MoMA interactive

Click on this image to see an interactive analysis of several 'Street Scenes' art by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

An art historian's definition

(Blumen by Emil Nolde)

Art historian Norbert Lynton helped define German Expressionism with this description, "All human action is expressive; a gesture is an intentionally expressive action. All art is expressive - of its author and of the situation in which he works - but some art is intended to move us through visual gestures that transmit, and perhaps give release to, emotions and emotionally charged messages. Such art is expressionist."

Expressionist Technique

Expressionist Technique

Expressionist Truth was subjective

New artistic means were needed in order to express these new perspectives and bring audiences beyond the surface

Distorted line

Exaggerated shape


The Movement

The Expressionist movement was largely inspired by Nietzsche's philosophy of art, which held that the artistic impulse inspired a wondrous vitality - a reawakening of the senses - in the artist himself. In other words, the artist breathes in the basic gestures of creation, which are then expressed in his work. Developed during a period of history that saw Germany undergo severe social, political, and economic dislocation following the country's defeat in World War I.

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