Expressionism was a modernist movement in poetry and the arts. It originated in Germany in the early 20th century. Expressionistic art work represents the world from a solely subjective perspective. Expressionistic artists distort the reality in order to express emotions and evoke moods and ideas. Expressionism developed as an avant-garde style before WWI and remained fashionable through the Weimar Republic.
The term Expressionism suggests emotional angst. The movement was a reaction to positivism, impressionism and naturalism. It opposes the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and growth of cities by putting the individual and his/her perception of the world in the center of attention.
Expressionistic artists reject immediate perception and realism. According to their philosophy impressions need to go through a persons psyche and soul like through a filter first, where they are assimilated, transformed and transcribed into simple, short-handed symbols and formulae, which again can be transferred onto canvas or any other medium. These symbols and formulae are completely subjective and personal.
Art historians put the starting point of Expressionism with the founding of art organization Die Bruecke in Dresden in 1905 by Kirchner. A like-minded group “Der Blaue Reiter” was founded in 1911 in Munich. This group included Macke, Kandinsky, Klee and Marc. In the beginning it was a German dominated art movement. It was predominant between 1910-30. Most precursors however were not German as the movement declined in Germany with Hitler’s rise. Forced immigration to the USA from occupied Europe before and during WWII helped Expressionism spread worldwide.
Despite all what is said above Expressionism is hard to define as it was overlapping with other modernist styles that were around during the same period e.g. Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Dada.
Expressionists were influenced by Edvard Munch, van Gogh and African art as well as the Fauve who were responsible for Expressionisms’ tendencies to arbitrary colors and jarring compositions. For Expressionists it wasn’t important anymore to create an aesthetically pleasant reproduction of the subject matter, but to express emotions connected with the impression in vivid colors and dynamic compositions. The use of simple colors and shapes should help to convey moods and feelings, an idea that increased abstract tendencies and a shift from figurative expressionism to abstract expressionism. This shift was enhanced by the meeting of American artists with self-exiled European Surrealists.
Notable artists: Munch, Kandinsky, Marc, Macke, Klee, Kirchner, Beckmann, Grosz, Schmidt-Rottluff, Dix, Beckmann, Kokoschka, Chagall, Hartley, Zerbe, de Kooning, Pollock etc.