We hear of an artistic movement that lasted only ten years total and are then told that this single art movement had a profound effect upon the art for the remainder of the century. How can this be so? How can one single approach to art have such wide-ranging consequences? The movement in question is the Expressionist movement and, although they took a great deal of influence from artists that preceded them, they were held to be highly distinctive of this earlier period.
The Expressionists were credited with the explosion of ideas that characterized the middle period of the 20th century. Why are the changes that are to come attributed to Expressionism as a starting point rather than some other movement, such as the Post-Impressionists? The Expressionists are typically defined by very narrow terms as a German arts group that existed in the period from 1910 to 1920. Through my research, I intend to show that Expressionism as an artistic movement introduced a fundamental shift in the philosophical approaches to art in response to the modern age. This helped to inform subsequent generations of artists as they attempted to similarly evolve with their times.
To support this claim, I intend to first prove that the Post-Impressionists introduced the idea of visual emotion in their works. While this was a departure from strict Impressionism, their fundamental philosophy of art remained focused upon an external source of emotional response, namely, the landscape. The Expressionists, influenced by this development of emotional expression in painting, took this idea one step further. They did this by exploring the emotions as they occur within the individual, but abandoned the idea of traditional forms and symbols. This was because the old understandings of the world were breaking down in the face of the modern inventions.
Symbols and forms, once easily recognized, were becoming blurred as cultures clashed and rendered meaningless as concepts of rural and industrial collided. This comprises the second part of my argument. The philosophy behind the art took on a more internal character and reintroduced the concept of personal spirituality within the art as its only purpose of being. While there were different approaches regarding the best means of illustrating these ideas, which will be explored, they were united by this fundamental spiritual principle. In addition to these shifts within the movement, there was also a fundamental shift in worldviews from the first generation to second generation Expressionist artists.
This happened as the artists became divided by the experiences and aftermath of the First World War. As the final piece to my argument, I will introduce some of the major art schools that emerged from Expressionism. This demonstrates the many ways in which the movement splintered off and how these splinter groups, in turn, inspired yet further movements as the century moved forward. While these groups all differed in their specific philosophical approaches, techniques used and modes of interpretation, they all can be traced back to the basic philosophical principles introduced as a fundamental division point between the Post-Impressionists and Expressionists.
In reviewing the available literature on the subject, it was determined that there hasn’t been a great deal of clear research regarding the evolution of the artistic movements of this period. There also hasn’t been a single straight-forward explanation provided as to why Expressionism, as an art movement, is credited with so much importance to modern art. In books such as Expressionism: A Revolution in German Art, technical innovations and changes in modes of expression are discussed as ideas such as primitivism and abstraction began to take hold within the movement. However, little information is provided as to how these innovations influenced subsequent art movements or why.
This information is essential to an understanding of the changes that were taking place during this time. Unfortunately, there is not sufficient information to provide a clear and concise understanding of how this movement became so influential. Other sources, such as Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, attempt to illuminate the specific philosophies involved in the creation and forms of expression involved in this particular approach.
While these help to make a distinction between the philosophy of Expressionism as it differs from Post-Impressionism, it does nothing to illustrate how these philosophies were carried forward through the century in differing directions. In other words, there is a great deal of literature available attempting to explain what is meant by the term ‘Expressionism’ and which artists actually fit within this category but very little literature available regarding why this is important information to understand.
No single piece of literature even attempts to draw out the connections between Expressionism itself and the various movements that it gave birth to. Authors tend to concentrate on a single defining characteristic of a single art movement, such as in Jeffrey Wechsler’s article “Magic Realism: Defining the Indefinite.” Others work to analyze someone else’s collection as in Jill Lloyd’s review of “German Expressionism Venice.” L.D. Ettlinger’s article “German Expressionism and Primitive Art” seeks to track a particular development within the movement, such as the advance of primitive art.
All of these elements of the movement are important to include in a general understanding of how the movement influenced and changed our concepts of art in the modern world. However, they do not provide the necessary connections to illustrate how it was Expressionism that influenced so much of modern art as opposed to the ideas that were brought out during earlier periods. By using several of these sources as a means of broadening our understanding of Expressionism, how it differed from the past and how it uniquely helped to shape the future of art, this research will provide a concise understanding of the importance of the Expressionist movement to art as we understand it today based upon solid evidence rather than shaky claims.
In exploring how Expressionism differed from the Post-Impressionists and from the art movements that emerged in the mid-1900s, it became clear that a fundamental shift in the philosophy of art had taken place. This shift was primarily introduced during the Expressionist time period. However, this did not necessarily indicate that the shift could be attributed to these artists as opposed to being merely a coincidence of timing.
By investigating the basic philosophies of the Post-Impressionists and the influences they had upon future artists who comprise the Expressionist group, it can be discovered that there was a significant shift in the foundational concepts under the art as well as a fundamental shift in modes of expression for those ideas. Tracing through the movement by taking a close look at some of the more influential artists of the period reveals how these philosophies were put into practice.
It also begins to illustrate how world events began the splintering process. Analysis of future art movements reveals the fundamental similarities to Expressionist ideas contained in each of them. Through this progression, it is proved, in concise and understandable detail, that Expressionism, as short as the period lasted, introduced a significant shift in our understanding of art in response to world changes that continues to feed subsequent movements.
Elger, Dietmar & Hugh Beyer. Expressionism: A Revolution in German Art. Frankfurt: Taschen, 2002.
Ettlinger, L.D. “German Expressionism and Primitive Art.” The Burlington Magazine. Vol. 110, N. 781, (1968): 191-201.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. MTH Sadler (Trans.). Dover Publications, 1977.
Lloyd, Jill. “German Expressionism. Venice.” The Burlington Magazine. Vol. 139, N. 1137, (1997): 899-900.
Wechsler, Jeffrey. “Magic Realism: Defining the Indefinite.” Art Journal. Vol. 45, N. 4, The Visionary Impulse: An American Tendency, (1985): 293-298.