Pronunciation key

( iks-spreshən-izʼm )



  1. Late 19th and early 20th century movement in the arts, especially in drama emphasizing subjective expression to inner experience of the artist, characterized by nonobjective use of symbols, stereotyped characters, stylization, etc.

—ex•pres′sion•ist n. —ex•pres′sion•is′tic adj. —ex•pres′sion•is′ti•cal•ly adv.


An art movement that flourished in the early part of the 20th century. In about 1911, critics coined the term in attempt to describe the style of painting which was developed from, and the resulting reaction to, impressionism. The Impressionists' painters primary focus centered on the surface of objects and how they appeared to the eye at a particular time. Originally it was a term used to describe the aesthetic principles and their art, the word expressionism has since been expanded to fields as disparate as literature, music and the cinema. Often expressionism is used in the sense to indiscriminately describe all art movements which followed Impressionism. Used as thus, the term embraces cubism, futurism, surrealism and so forth. In the loosest sense of the word, the term is applied to any artistic work in which objective reality is subjected to distortion which represents the mental perception of the artist. The theory is that art should express, through the intellectually subjective approach of the artist, attributes inherent in the subject itself rather than merely the natural, external aspects of the subject. Expressionism as a term is more appropriately applied to works of certain groups of artists in all the arts who deliberately distort or exaggerate ordinary forms and colors in an attempt to spontaneously express their emotions.

The expressionist artist was concerned with giving form and substance to their strong inner feelings, sometimes they felt unhappy so they expressed this state of mind in their work which tended to reflect the same somber, painful, even chilling or grotesque. Life was portrayed as modified and distorted by their personal interpretation of reality. For expressionism, truth or beauty was in the mind, not in the eye. The eye is accustomed to realistic portrayals in art, but the expressionist works purposely to to distort in line, tone or idea. This seeming distortion of external realism springs from the artist's own desire to concentrate some quality in the subject that seems to them to be of significance in expressing the essential truth and reality of his subject, the inner being.

A Starry Night by Van Gogh

A good example of Expressionism would be Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night with deliberate distortions of size and appearance of heavenly bodies and the use of vivid colors and swirling, heavy brush strokes. The painting it has been said, was an expression of a highly personal vision experienced by Van Gogh vs. a simple impression of the night sky and how it appears to the eye as being full of stars. A intensified excitement was primarily the product of Van Gogh's mind.

Grove of Cypresses, an early Van Gogh drawing in pen and ink portraying intense character without color.
Image credit: Art Institute of Chicago
Grove of Cypresses, an early Van Gogh drawing in pen and ink portraying intense character without color.

Hints of expressionist style are traced back to the Spanish painter El Greco in the 1600's. The style itself became significant at the close of the 19th century with artists such as Van Gogh (Netherlands) and Paul Gauguin (France), James Ensor (Belgium) and Edvard Munch (Norway). The lithograph by Munch The Cry or as it is better known, The Scream reveals hysteria and spiritual terror which is typical of expressionism.

Two Dancing Girls by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Image courtesy of the Allan Frumkin Gallery of Chicago
Two Dancing Girls by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. This woodcut demonstrates the distortion of figures that is so typical in this style of art.

The Germans followed the lead of Paris in the art movements that supplanted the influence of the Italian Renaissance following the French Revolution as did the majority of Europeans, including the Italians. They were quicker than Paris to sense the importance of the revolt of Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin against Monet and Pissaro. The first major event in 20th century painting took place at the Paris Salon d'Automne in 1905. A group of French painters which included Derain, Vlaminck, Marquet, Rouault and Matisse exhibited paintings with intense color, free brushwork and expansive shape that one critic called the painters Fauves or wild beasts. Fauves as a movement was short lived, and faded, never formally organized yet its influence was widespread in late 20th century painting. Some of its members such as Matisse continued to employ the style in his productions but the immediate sources were Van Gogh and Gaughin, and its vitality and spontaneity gave an expressionistic quality to it.

The seeds of the movement known as German Expressionism were planted by Van Gogh, Munch, Matisse and the Fauves. The earliest of this style in German art are seen in Dürer and Grünewald.

Dancing The Boogie (1912) Emil Nolde
Image credit: Private Collection, Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge 1991
Dancing The Boogie (1912) Emil Nolde
A marked exuberance in movement is demonstrated in Emil Nolde's Dancing The Boogie which emphasizes by blurred figures and brilliant, chaotic colors. Such work epitomizes the characteristic style of Expressionist art form, that of exploring the mind from the artist's own emotional perception.

A head by Ernst Barlach for Güstraw cathedral's war monument which conveys human suffering effectively.
Image credit: Museum of Modern Art
A head by Ernst Barlach for Güstraw cathedral's war monument which conveys human suffering effectively.

Dr. Tietze and His Wife. Oskar Kokoschka succeeded to express both emotional impact and a contrast of personality with linear qualities with a strong use of glowing color.
Image credit: Museum of Modern Art
Dr. Tietze and His Wife. Oskar Kokoschka succeeded to express both emotional impact and a contrast of personality with linear qualities with a strong use of glowing color.

The first organized group to promote expressionism was called Küntsler Gruppe Brücke ("Artists Group of the Bridge") or Die Brücke translated, The Bridge. It thrived from 1904-1913 in Germany. The first exhibition was in the year 1905 and centered about Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Eric Heckel and Max Pechstein. Their headquarters were located in Dresden and were inspired by the paintings of the Fauves and Norwegian painter Munch and medieval German woodcuts. They used brute, simplified form and strong, often clashing colors in a heavy, expressionistic style.

The Large Blue Horses (1911) Franz Marc
Image credit: Art Past, Art Present, Prentice Hall and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Gift of the T.B. Walker Foundation, Gilbert M. Walker Fund 1942
The Large Blue Horses (1911) Oil on Canvas, Franz Marc

Later, a more influential group emerged in Munich in 1911, that called itself Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) which derived its name from a painting by one of its leading spirits, Wassily Kandinsky who with Franz Marc, formulated the new aesthetic aims for the group, a group which included Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944, Russia), Paul Klee (Switzerland) and Franz Marc (Germany). The organization influenced the work of many artists through its paintings and writings some of those being Georges Rouault (France), Marc Chagall (Russia), Oskar Kokoschka (Austria), Max Beckmann and George Grosz (both of Germany).

From the outstart, Der Blaue Reiter as an art movement was international in scope and with a pronounced degree of intellectualism but it ceased as a unified group following 1914 with the onset of World War I which dispersed its members and claimed the lives of Franz Marc and August Macke. Expressionism itself, endured in 20th century art and maintained a strong influence on painters in New York during the 1940's and 1950's.

Max Beckmann, Self Portrait
Image credit: Art Institute of Chicago
Max Beckmann, Self Portrait.

Expressionism in Music

In music, expressionism embraces those works which tend to display similarities to those in 20th century painting. In music the term has been applied to later works of Arnold Schönberg. He claimed to sublimate music by eliminating previous conventionalities of the classical and romantic school, Germans describe his expressionism as "the casting off of all rules, thereby to win a complete freedom for his musical expression." However, this could apply to many composers who did not claim to be expressionists. The expressionist movement is opposed to the impressionism of composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Delius.

While expressionism is found in writing and music, the movement has been best exemplified in painting and sculpture.

Expressionism in Drama

Expressionism has been used, sometimes incorrectly, to characterize all of the revolutionary manifestations in the arts during the 1910-1925 period. Paintings of Vassilli Kandinsky, sculpture of Constantin Brancusi, the music of Arnold Schönberg, the poems of T.S. Eliot, novels by Franz Kafka and dramas by Eugene O'Neill have all been labeled expressionist in their style by theorists, critics and artists themselves.

Expressionist style influenced literature, mainly in drama. Expressionism represented a reaction to the sentimentality of late-19th century romanticism. German and Austrian expressionist poets around WWI were influenced by Freudian theories which delved into the subconscious mind, the anti-rationalism of Friedrich Nietzsche and writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Poems of Gottfried Been, Ernst Toller, Johannes Becher and Georg Traki are profoundly characterized by a frenzied, chaotic imagery and almost vehement tone. Other expressionist qualities are found in the prose of Franz Kafka, but was strongest in the works of August Strindberg and Frank Wedekind and their following amidst 20th century German playwrights.

Playwrights were heavily influenced by the dramatic forms and techniques used on stage and made popular by August Strindberg of Sweden. It was first developed as a movement in Germany and the influence spread, reaching its peak following WWI in plays of such as Ernst Toller, Frank Wedekind, Georg Kaiser and Josef and Karel Capek. In America, the plays of Elmer Rice, Eugene O'Neill and colleagues demonstrated the expressionist influence.

Characters in expressionism would tend to be one-sided, and represent a single idea and attitude. They would be situated where objects of the outer world are distorted to reveal the tormented mind of the character or artist. These theatrical effects were achieved by symbolic settings, awkward or bizarre lighting or nonrealistic acting.

In many aspects it demonstrated the influence of modern psychology in the arts by its reflection of the inner frustration of the artists, most strongly seen in Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Some plays placed characters in the grip of violent emotions such as fear. Using therapeutic approaches that included free association and conversion from the allegorical of dream interpretation in patient care, Sigmund Freud established the active role of human unconscious state in guiding behavior. Unmasking the subconscious was a key in the understanding of the human mind to Freud. Carl Jung modified and extended upon Freud's theories, developing additional psychological insight into human behavior. One theory advanced by Jung was that of "collective unconscious" which is a layer of unconscious that carries with it, the inherited disposition of the human species and revealed by the common use of archetypal symbols such as the circle across the world, irregardless of diverse cultural tradition.

Notably too, this art form was influenced by the philosophy of Karl Marx who vehemently criticized evils seen in society. Another influence was based on medieval guilds, and artists lived and worked together as a community. The symbol of the Bridge was adopted from Nietzsche's writings, indicated that they conceived their role as a transitionary force by which "all the revolutionary and surging elements" of modernism could bring German art to a new and fulfilling future.

Revolutionary in nature, expressionism is sometimes considered to be the whole movement of modern art built on the theory that it is diametrically opposed to impressionism, the French art movement against which modernism was a revolt. The impressionist painted people and landscapes as they viewed them in the moment of observation as well as in the light of their personal mood. In contrast, the expressionist was said to paint from his soul - to paint solid and persistent in accordance with his own interpretive insight. However, any painter of genius paints both his impression of his subject and an expression of his reaction to it.

Its influence can be seen in the fictional writing of German-Czech author Franz Kafka and in some German poetry from the early 20th century. Expressionist drama with disturbing incident, pithy dialogue, exaggerated and distorted depictions of reality left its mark on silent cinema especially in the films of Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau and Robert Weine (Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1919). In painting, The Bridge and Blue Rider provided the basis for the broad trend that became known as German Expressionism which is still evident today. Expressionism is no longer a movement, but its aims and methods may still be discovered in contemporary art and drama.

Street, Berlin 1913 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Oil on Canvas, 47 x 35 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Street, Berlin by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. This painting was included in the 1937 exhibition of "degenerate art" organized by the Nazi Party in Germany. The intent of the exhibition was suppose to demonstrate many works of modern German art were the products of artists who were insane and deviant. The show toured across Germany until 1941 and according to Nazi propaganda it was viewed by 3,200,000 participants.

References and Further Reading

  • Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (College Edition) ©1955
  • The New World Family Encyclopedia ©1955
  • The American Peoples Encyclopedia ©1960
  • Art: An Introduction ©1972, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
  • The World Book Encyclopedia ©1981
  • The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition ©1985
  • Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge ©1991
  • Art Past, Art Present, Fourth Edition, Prentice Hall ©2001
  • Related Terms

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  • Further Reading

  • Expressionism (Definition)
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • Expressionism in Film
  • Expressionist Exhibition
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • Expressionism Introduction
  • Expressionism
  • Expressionism Online Collection
  • Expressionism
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