Expressionism was a cultural movement originating in Germany at the start of the 20th-century as a reaction to positivism and other artistic movements such as naturalism and impressionism. It sought to express the meaning of "being alive" and emotional experience rather than physical reality. It is the tendency of an artist to distort reality for an emotional effect, it is a subjective art form.
Expressionism is exhibited in many art forms, including: painting, literature, theatre, film, architecture and music. The term often implies emotional angst. In a general sense, painters such as Matthias Grunewald and El Greco can be called expressionist, though in practice, the term is applied mainly to 20th century works.
Although it is used as a 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 Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter groups. 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 colours, distorted forms-in-dissolution, two-dimensional, without perspective.
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, Eight Years' War, Spanish Occupation of the 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.
The term was also coined by Czech art historian Antonin Matejcek in 1910 as the opposite of impressionism: "An Expressionist wishes, above all, to express himself....(An Expressionist rejects) immediate perception and builds on more complex psychic structures.... Impressions and mental images that pass through mental peoples 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)
The movement primarily originated in Germany and Austria. There were a number of Expressionist groups in painting, including the Blaue Reiter and Die Brucke. The Der Blaue Reiter group was based in Munich and Die Brucke was based originally in Dresden (although some later moved to Berlin). Die Brucke 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 move to abstraction.
Expressionist imagery exploded into modern art from the subconscious. Its divers formal means and emotional effects range from anguish to exuberance. As the powerful, personal creations of modern individuals, these images have little in common except their inventive power and their reliance upon a distinctly private vision.
In late 1939, at the beginning of World War II, New York welcomed a great number of leading European artists.
The heritage of their interest in the mythic realm of the unconscious would be continued-and extended-by another group of younger, New World artists-New York School.
American Expressionism and American Figurative Expressionism particularly the Boston figurative expressionism were an integral part of American modernism around the Second World War.
Major figurative Boston expressionists included: Karl Zerbe, Hyman Bloom, Jack Levine, David Aronson, Philip Guston. The Boston figurative expressionists post World War II were increasingly marginalized by the development of abstract expressionism centered in New York City.
Later in the 20th century, after World War II, figurative expressionism influenced worldwide a large number of artists and movements. Thomas B. Hess, wrote:
"the 'New figurative painting' which some have been expecting as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism was implicit in it at the start, and is one of its most lineal continuities."
Neo-expressionism was an international revival movement beginning in the late 1970s and centered around artists across the world: