From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Expressionism is a movement in the arts in which the artist does not depict objective reality, but rather a subjective expression of his inner experiences. Expressionism is exhibited in many art forms, including painting, literature, theatre, film, architecture and music. Additionally, the term often implies emotional angst – the number of cheerful expressionist works is relatively small, as well as a celebration of the cult of ugliness.
There was never a group of artists that called themselves "Expressionists" and never an "Expressionnist manifesto. The movement is primarily German and Austrian, though following World War II it began to influence young American artists such as Norris Embry, who studied with Oskar Kokoschka.
There were a number of Expressionist groups in painting, including the Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke. Later in the 20th century, the movement influenced a large number of other artists, including the abstract expressionists, the latter consisting primarily of American artists such as Jackson Pollock. The neo-expressionists were a revival movement in Germany beginning in the 1970s and centered around artists Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz.
Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke
The Der Blaue Reiter group was based in Munich and Die Brücke was based originally in Dresden (although some later moved to Berlin). Die Brücke was active for a longer period than Der Blaue Reiter which was only truly together for a year (1912). The Expressionists had many influences, among them Munch, Vincent van Gogh, and African art. They also came to know the work being done by the Fauves in Paris.
Influenced by the Fauves, Expressionism worked with arbitrary colors as well as jarring compositions. In reaction and opposition to French Impressionism which focused on rendering the sheer visual appearance of objects, Expressionist artists sought to capture emotions and subjective interpretations: It was not important to reproduce an aesthetically pleasing impression of the artistic subject matter; the Expressonists focused on capturing vivid emotional reactions through powerful colors and dynamic compositions instead.
The leader of Der Blaue Reiter, Kandinsky, would take this a step further. He believed that with simple colors and shapes the spectator could perceive the moods and feelings in the paintings, therefore he made the important jump to abstraction, changing 20th century art.
Origin of the term
Although it is used as term of reference, there has never been a distinct movement that called itself "expressionism", apart from the use of the term by Herwarth Walden in his polemic magazine Der Sturm in 1912. The term is usually linked to paintings and graphic work in Germany at the turn of the century which challenged the academic traditions, particularly through the Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter groups.
More generally the term refers to art that expresses intense emotion. It is arguable that all artists are expressive but there is a long line of art production in which heavy emphasis is placed on communication through emotion. Such art often occurs during time of social upheaval, and through the tradition of graphic art there is a powerful and moving record of chaos in Europe from the 15th century on the Protestant Reformation, Peasants' War, Spanish Occupation of Netherlands, the rape, pillage and disaster associated with countless periods of chaos and oppression are presented in the documents of the printmaker. Often the work is unimpressive aesthetically, but almost without exception has the capacity to move the viewer to strong emotions with the drama and often horror of the scenes depicted.
- "An Expressionist wishes, above all, to express himself [sic]....[An Expressionist rejects] immediate perception and builds on more complex psychic structures....Impressions and mental images pass through his soul as through a filter which rids them of all substantial accretions to produce their clear essence [...and] are assimilated and condense into more general forms, into types, which he transcribes through simple short-hand formulae and symbols." (Gordon, 1987)
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche played a key role in originating modern expressionism by clarifying and serving as a conduit for previously neglected currents in ancient art.
In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche presented his theory of the ancient dualism between two types of aesthetic experience, namely the Apollonian and the Dionysian; a dualism between the plastic "art of sculpture", of lyrical dream-inspiration, identity (the principium individuationis), order, regularity, and calm repose, and, on the other hand, the non-plastic "art of music", of intoxication, forgetfulness, chaos, and the ecstatic dissolution of identity in the collective. The analogy with the world of the Greek gods typifies the relationship between these extremes: two godsons, incompatible and yet inseparable. According to Nietzsche, both elements are present in any work of art. The basic characteristics of expressionism are Dionysian: bold colors, distorted forms-in-dissolution, two-dimensional, without perspective.
- The Haunted Screen (1952) by Lotte Eisner
In other arts
Expressionism is also used to describe other art forms.
There was also an expressionist movement in film, often referred to as German Expressionism. The most important examples are Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920), Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922).
In literature the novels of Franz Kafka are often described as expressionist. Expressionist poetry also flourished mainly in the German-speaking countries. The most influential expressionist poets were Georg Trakl, Georg Heym, Ernst Stadler, Gottfried Benn and August Stramm.
In the theatre, there was a concentrated Expressionist movement in early 20th century German theatre of which Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller were the most famous playwrights. Other notable expressionist dramatists included Reinhard Sorge, Walter Hasenclever, Hans Henny Jahnn, and Arnolt Bronnen. They looked back to Swedish playwright August Strindberg and German actor and dramatist Frank Wedekind as precursors of their dramaturgical experiments.
Oskar Kokoschka's 1909 playlet, Murderer, The Hope of Women is often called the first expressionist drama. In it, an unnamed man and woman struggle for dominance. The Man brands the woman; she stabs and imprisons him. He frees himself and she falls dead at his touch. As the play ends, he slaughters all around him (in the words of the text) "like mosquitoes." The extreme simplification of characters to mythic types, choral effects, declamatory dialogue and heightened intensity all would become characteristic of later expressionist plays.
Expressionist plays often dramatize the spiritual awakening and sufferings of their protagonists, and are referred to as Stationendramen (station plays), modeled on the episodic presentation of the suffering and death of Jesus in the Stations of the Cross. August Strindberg had pioneered this form with his autobiographical trilogy To Damascus.
The plays often dramatize the struggle against bourgeois values and established authority, often personified in the figure of the Father. In Sorge's The Beggar, (Der Bettler), the young hero's mentally ill father raves about the prospect of mining the riches of Mars; he is finally poisoned by his son. In Bronnen's Parricide (Vatermord), the son stabs his tyranncial father to death, only to have to fend off the frenzied sexual overtures of his mother.
In expressionist drama, the speech is heightened, whether expansive and rhapsodic, or clipped and telegraphic. Director Leopold Jessner became famous for his expressionistic productions, often unfolding on the stark, steeply raked flights of stairs that quickly became his trademark. In the 1920s, expressionism enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the American theatre, including plays by Eugene O'Neill (The Hairy Ape, The Emperor Jones and The Great God Brown), Sophie Treadwell (Machinal) and Elmer Rice (The Adding Machine).
In music, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, the members of the Second Viennese School, wrote pieces described as expressionist (Schoenberg also made expressionist paintings). Other composers who followed them, such as Ernst Krenek, are often considered as a part of the expressionist movement in music. What distinguished these composers from their contemporaries such as Maurice Ravel, George Gershwin and Igor Stravinsky is that expressionist composers self-consciously used atonality to free their artform from the traditional tonality. They also sought to express the subconscious, the 'inner necessity' and suffering through their highly dissonant musical language. Erwartung and Die Glückliche Hand, by Schoenberg, and Wozzeck, an opera by Alban Berg (based on the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner), are example of expressionist works.
In architecture, two specific buildings are identified as expressionist: Bruno Taut's Glass Pavilion at the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition (1914), and Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany completed in 1921. Hans Poelzig's Berlin theatre (Grosse Schauspielhaus) interior for Max Reinhardt is also sometimes cited. The influential architectural critic and historian, Sigfried Giedion in his book Space, Time and Architecture (1941) dismissed Expressionist architecture as a side show in the development of functionalism. It was only in the 1970s that expressionism in architecture came to be re-evaluated in a more positive light.