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Grove Art: Subject Guide

Expressionism

Introduction

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Street, Dresden, oil on canvas, 1.51×2.00 m, 1908 (dated 1907) (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © by Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer, Wichtrach/Bern, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NYExpressionism is an umbrella term that refers to international movements in art, architecture, literature, music, dance and theater that flourished between c. 1905 and c. 1920, especially in Germany. It is also a broad term used to describe works that are inspired by an artist’s personal inner vision and contain a strong emotional component. In the early 20th century, however, profound unrest and disillusionment with the forces of modernization characterized much of the ideology of artists involved with Expressionism. Some of the primary Expressionist groupings include Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter. Die Brücke group was headed by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner who wanted to create a better world by bridging the traditions of the past with what he viewed as an alienating modern society. Der Blaue Reiter, led by Franz Marc and Vassily Kandinsky, wanted to create the blueprints for an enlightened and liberated society which emphasized spirituality as opposed to cold industrialization. Stylistically, Expressionism challenged both 19th century academic traditions and Impressionism in its rejection of portraying the outer visible world. Instead, Expressionist artists sought to communicate the universal condition of humanity’s inner spiritual being. They wanted to encapsulate their feelings and emotions through line, form and color while also eliciting visceral reactions from their viewers. To do so, many artists were inspired by what they saw as the raw energy of Primitivism. Through assertive, strong and often violently distorted forms, colors and brushstrokes, Expressionist artists portrayed the angst of the modern world. These vibrant and emotionally charged works still speak to the contemporary viewer about the challenges of expressing one’s individuality in the face of an impersonal and alienating modernity.

Essays

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