Expressionism Facts and History
Expressionism is generally applied to 20th century viewpoints that proclaim the primacy of emotion in all the arts. An expressionist, whether a painter, sculptor, or even an architect, subordinates formal and technical considerations to the communication of intense feeling.
Although some critics have taken expressionism to signify all modern art, it is actually a recurring tendency linked to romanticism and especially congenial to Nordic and Slavic cultures. Modern expressionism in the visual arts, however, can be traced back to developments in France during the 1880s. Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Van Gogh, in reaction against impressionism, deliberately distorted nature for emotional and symbolic purposes. Van Gogh's statement that it was the artist's duty to paint "the fundamental emotions—joy, sorrow, anger, and fear"—became the basic tenet for all subsequent expressionist effort.
At the same time, but influenced by developments in France, the Norwegian Edvard Munch, the Belgian James Ensor, and the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler created images of unusual psychological and spiritual force. Throughout Europe and in all areas of culture, everyday realities were passionately rejected. For inspiration, artists turned to the highly expressive painting of Grünewald and El Greco, to primitive and folk arts, and to the work of children and the insane.
Around 1905, groups began to form that could be called expressionist. The first, the fauves (wild beasts), was French and under the leadership of Matisse. But of the fauves, only Rouault worked consistently as an expressionist, producing some of the most moving religious art of the period. By 1909, fauvism in France had been superseded by the more formal approaches of cubism. In Germany, however, expressionism became so important that it mushroomed into a world outlook covering a variety of religious, revolutionary, and nationalistic aspirations.
Brücke and Blaue Reiter
In the visual arts two groups became famous in Germany, the Brücke (Bridge) and the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider). The first, founded in 1905, included Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, Pechstein, and Nolde. The second was initiated in 1911 by Kandinsky and Marc, and associated with them were Macke and Klee. In these groups, styles ranged from representationalism to complete abstraction and reflected such diverse sources as medieval woodcuts, African masks, fauvism, and cubism. But their art had a common purpose to reform the world through catharsis and self-revelation "by making visible the invisible."
During the first decades of the 20th century numerous artists in Germany worked with similar ideas. A focal point for their activity was the Sturm (Storm) Gallery in Berlin. Here expressionist work by Kokoschka, Kubin, Feininger, and Chagall was exhibited alongside Italian futurist and Russian constructivist art. It should be stressed that absolute distinctions cannot be made between expressionism and other movements, especially in Germany. The so-called Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) of Beckmann, Dix, and Grosz; the "social realism" of Kollwitz; and the Dadaism and surrealism of Arp and Ernst—all were related in various ways to German expressionism.