Expressionism is the tendency of an artist to distort reality for emotional effect. Expressionism is exhibited in many art forms, including painting, literature, film, and architecture. Additionally, the term often implies emotional angst - the number of cheerful expressionist works is relatively small.
In this general sense, painters such as Matthias Grünewald and El Greco can be called expressionist, though in practice, the term is applied mainly to 20th century works.
Origin of the term
The term was coined by Czech art historian Antonin Matějček in 1910 as the opposite of impressionism: "An Expressionist wishes, above all, to express himself [sic]....[An Expressionist rejects] immediate perception and builds on more complex psychic structures....Impressions and mental images pass through his 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)
Some of the movement's leading painters in the early 20th century were:
There were a number of Expressionist groups in painting, including the Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke. Later in the 20th century, the movement influenced a large number of other artists, including the so-called abstract expressionists.
Expressionism is also found in other art forms - the novels of Franz Kafka are often described as expressionist, for example, and there was a concentrated Expressionist movement in early 20th century German theatre centred around Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller. In music, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg both wrote pieces described as expressionist (Schoenberg also made expressionist paintings).
In architecture, the work of Eric Mendelsohn comes under this category. An important building by him under this style is the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany. There is an organic quality to buildings using this approach. Some sculptors also used this style, as for example Ernst Barlach. There was also an expressionist movement in film, often referred to as German Expressionism: see expressionism (film).
There was never a group of artists that called themselves Expressionists. The movement is primarily German. The Blaue Reiter 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 Blaue Reiter which was only truly together for a year (1912). The expressionists had many influences, among them Munch, Van Gogh, primitive African art and they also came to know the work being done by the Fauves in Paris. It is important to realize that although the Fauves and the Expressionist both used bright colours, they used them for distinct purposes, the Fauves hoped to achieve beauty, the Expressionists hoped to achieve emotion through them. The importance of color was its expressive power, no longer was the subject the medium which led to drama or sentiment in the work of art, but it was the use of color and lines that were the expressive and powerful means. The Blaue Reiter "leader", 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 important jump to Abstraction, changing 20th century art.