Expressionist art represented a huge step forward in the development of Modern Art ideas. Impressionism had first considered incorporating the subjectivity of the artist to the painting; allowing them to hint at mood and movement to better convey their impression on viewing the scene, but these were small steps into experimentation. Expressionism encouraged artists to think of little other than evoking and communicating their feelings, moods, and ideas; any colour, brushwork, form, or subject could be explored, opening minds to just what art could be.
Vincent van Gogh
Often described as a Post-Impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh was a crucial figure in laying the groundwork for Expressionist painting, and many of the foundations for the entire Modern Art movement. An art dealer and missionary before suffering depression and taking up painting, van Gogh famously lived his life in poverty and little recognised for his contribution to art until after his death. Inspired to react against Impressionism by artists like Gauguin, he developed a style of vivid colours and highly expressive brushwork, at the same time as his mental health deteriorated into psychotic episodes, delusions, and hospitalisation, before his depression caused him to commit suicide. His style came to be incredibly influential in Fauvism and Expressionism, as a crucial link in Modern Art’s redefining of what art and painting should be.
Growing up around family illness, bereavement, and mental health problems, Munch turned to art early, leading a bohemian lifestyle, and inspired by nihilist Hans Jaeger to paint his emotional and psychological state. He learned about colour from the works of Gauguin, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec, before producing his iconic work, The Scream, admitting at a later date that it came during a point of deep personal anguish. He worked throughout his life, developing a highly personalised set of symbolism, and deeply influencing other Expressionist painters.
Fascinated by colour psychology and symbolism from childhood, Kandinsky soaked up influences from folk art, the Impressionism of artists like Monet, and theories of music and theosophy on his way to learning to paint, only entering training in his 30s. Elements of Pointillism and Fauvism can be seen in many of his developing works, along with deliberate disjunctions; elements which didn’t quite make sense or clearly reveal themselves, leaving viewers to puzzle and debate over what exactly was depicted and why. This pattern would continue, with Kandinsky taking his Expressionism into new areas of Abstract, Constructivist, and Surrealist art styles as he continued to develop his art theories of colour, music, and spirituality.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
A founder of the Die Brucke movement that was crucial to the establishing of Expressionism, Kirchner had studied as an architect, but alongside two other students chose to pursue a search for a new approach to artistic expression. Creating a Bohemian atmosphere to their social circle and experimenting with representations of female nudes, Kirchner revived the art of woodblock art prints, and developed a style of expressive, almost sketchy, brushwork and Fauvist blocks of simple colour. Disrupted by the First World War, Kirchner volunteered to fight but suffered a mental health breakdown, and would struggle with mental health for the rest of his life, retreating to Switzerland and turning to landscape painting, though he would eventually become a victim of suicide.
Another of the founders of Der Blaue Reiter group, alongside Kandinsky and others, Marc is known for his brightly coloured original artworks of animals, which developed from studies of other artists such as van Gogh, and the Futurist works of Robert Delaunay. Marc’s style was very much Expressionist though he found interest in Futurism and Cubism, and worked often with art prints from woodcuts and lithographs to create simple, but emotively coloured images. He was drafted into the First World War to create camouflage tarpaulins for infantry, exploring a range of styles for the most effective, before his life was cut short during the Battle of Verdun.