Expressionism first emerged around the turn of the century alongside numerous other avant-garde modernist movements which aimed to rethink approaches to art and literature, to help artists escape the limitations of traditional artistic representation. Expressionists’ primary ideal was to present the world in the most subjective way possible, placing things like emotion, mood, and ideas as far more important than realistic depictions of figures, landscapes, or scenes.
Many of the roots of expressionism developed in literature and poetry, but the idea was soon to catch on with painters. Many point to a series of paintings by Julien-Auguste Hervé titled Expressionismes as the first example, and various works by van Gogh, Munch, and James Ensor also laid fundamental foundation stones. The movement began in earnest between 1905 and 1910 with the Die Brücke group of artists in Dresden, and the Der Blaue Reiter group in Munich.
A problem in identifying a clear history for the movement lays in it’s broad ideas; it overlapped with many other movements of the time such as futurism, vorticism, surrealism, dadaism, and cubism, all of which ignored realistic representation in favour of something else.
The impact of worldwide events on the expressionist period
This wasn’t the first time that artists had started to inject more emotion and feeling into their work, the preceding few centuries in Europe had seen several waves of emotive representation in culture, often alongside tumultuous times of warfare and social change. Sometimes it took the form of propaganda, reflecting the anger felt at injustices or atrocities of war, but un-reality was also used to great effect during the Baroque period, to express such things as the grandeur of God.
The early part of the 1900s was a time of great change and ideas in art and culture, and much of it came as a reaction to the First World War. Expressionism formed in the years preceding it, and movements such as Dada came shortly after it began with a very deliberate idea to wipe out the past that had spawned such terrible violence. In many ways, Expressionism isn’t so much a movement as a shared feeling amongst artists of the period; a need to say more than could be expressed in traditional subject and compositions.
In the spirit of modern art, of course, expressionism went much further than before. It took influence from Fauvism in using free and expressive colours, even if they clashed or failed to make an aesthetically pleasing whole. Such decisions were deliberate and intended to provoke reaction, even a negative one, where Baroques breaks with reality had always been directed towards expressing more positive things such as beauty or awe.
German expressionism spreads, and soaks into the fabric of the arts
Things moved fast in modern art through the early 1900s, perhaps motivated by the emotions of war, and the ideals of expressionism soaked in deep amongst European artists, and gradually spread to North America as well. Marsden Hartley was greatly influenced after meeting Kandinsky in 1913, and a far stronger wave of influence came as the Second World War began and many European artists moved to the US and began to influence many American artists.
The years 1905 to 1920 are often cited as the years between which expressionism existed, but in many ways it never went away, influencing post WW2 American art into distinct expressionist movements. Abstract expressionism was one of the clearest examples, and even as that began to fade neo-expressionism emerged, and traces can still be seen in much contemporary art.
As a shared feeling, it may seem obvious in the contemporary era to express emotions through art, but we owe all of that familiarity to the successes of expressionism and many other modern art movements at the turn of the century. Once the idea was out, it could never be put away.