Expressionism: The Art Form

ExpressionGarish views, distorted views, flattened forms, and extreme angles are all distinctive features of an international movement in art, literature, performance and architecture known as Expressionism. This art form flourished in Northern Europe particularly Austria and Germany starting in 1905 and soon the Expressionists migrated to other cities. They shared studios, published their work and writing, and exhibited together and formed groups such as The Blue Rider (Die Blaue Reiter) and The Bridge (Die Brucke). Expressionism embraces a 20th century style of various art forms including literature, and music that is charged with a spiritual and emotional vision of the world. The embryonic forms of expressionism can be recognized in the spiritual and physical suffering depicted in ‘The Crucifixion’ by Grunewald and the tortured vision engraving of The Temptation of Saint Anthony’ by Martin Schongauer.

Resurfacing of the expressionist spirit

The expressionist spirit resurfaced at the end of the 19th century in the paintings of two isolated and awkward personalities a Norwegian Edvard Munch and the Dutchman, Vincent Van Gogh. While impressionists were mainly admiring the beauty and color of the landscape, Edvard Munch and Van Gogh took a radically different view and perspective. They discovered a form of self expression that gave them an individual perspective in an insecure and hostile world. This search for emotional truth drove them on and paved the way for the 20th Century Expressionist Art Forms that explored the inner soul and its general landscape.

Influential Expressionist paintings

  • “Sunflowers” painting (1888) by Van Gogh opened the eyes to the intensity and impact of expressive color. Rather than simply describing the subject, Van Gogh expressed his feelings about the subject using color. Therefore, instead of reproducing exactly what he saw, he used color arbitrarily to express himself forcibly. This was instrumental in liberating color as a key emotional instrument in 20th century art. On the other hand, his brushwork’s vitality was a key influence in the growth and development of both the Expressionists’ and the Fauves’ painting techniques.
  • “The Scream” painting (1893) by Edvard Munch was also very influential. The painting provides us with a unique psychological outline for expressionism art: exaggerated colors and distorted shapes that amplify a sense of alienation and anxiety. Therefore, “The Scream” is his voice crying out in the wilderness declaring the expressionist message before the term was invented.

Abstract expressionism painting - Golden RaysRather than depicting how the world looks from the surface, expressionists’ main goal was depict the world we live in as it feels viscerally in order to reinvigorate art with an expressive force and authenticity.

In pursuit of authenticity, most expressionists looked for motivation and inspiration beyond the European culture and art to tribal art and native folk traditions. They frequented world fairs and ethnographic museums, where they encountered various collections of Oceanic and African art. However, they perceived non-western art as primitive and hence closer to the origin of humanity. Therefore, they borrowed from what they encountered including flattened planes, decorative patterning and geometric ornamentation. They also embraced printmaking as one of the ways of quickly distributing work to a large audience and also as a means of criticizing or promoting political and social causes.

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