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Expressionism: A Shift in the Art Approaches Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 7th, 2021

Expressionism is a movement which commenced approximately in 1910, and is believed to be the basis of all the modern art. Although as a movement, Expressionism lasted for only a decade, up to 1920, it has been accredited with the explosion of all the innovative ideas of the mid-twentieth century, and the concepts introduced by the movement persist in the foundation of all of the modern art movements.

Expressionism was distinct in its approach in the rejection of the natural forms of the outer world and focuses more on the inner experiences of the human society, which is devoid of any form, shape and artistic approach. Thus, expressionism has been instrumental in the illumination of a completely novel self-exploratory sphere, not only for the artist but for the audience as well, and has substantial influence over the modern art forms.

In trying to investigate how “Expressionism intended to be subversive” but was “later systematically integrated as ‘high art’”, the researcher seeks to examine how this single art movement which lasted only for a short span of ten years, had such a profound and long lasting effect upon the art and artists of the remainder of the century. In the paper, the researcher also aims to review how a single approach to art can have such wide-ranging consequences in spite of the fact that the Expressionists were highly influenced by the preceding artists.

The researcher aims to study the fundamental shifts in Expressionism as a new movement rather than a continuation of the preceding Post-Impressionistic movement. Finally, by seeking answers to all the above questions, the researcher intends to explain the historical factors instrumental in the evolution of Expressionism as a distinct art movement and its crucial role in influencing the subsequent generations of artists.

While the fundamental philosophy of the Post-Impressionists primarily focused upon an external source of emotional response, ‘the landscape’, they introduced the idea of visual emotion in their works, which was a departure from strict Impressionism. The Expressionists were influenced by this development of emotional expression in painting, taking this idea, a step further. The impressionists explored the emotions occurring within the individual, but abandoned the idea of the traditional forms and symbols.

Since the old approach of the world was breaking down in the face of the modern inventions, the symbols and forms which were once easily recognized were becoming blurred with the clash between the rural and industrial cultures.

This resulted in the philosophy of art embracing an internal character and reintroducing the concept of personal spirituality of art form as the sole purpose of being. While there are different views and approaches regarding the best means of illustration of ideas in the works of art, the fundamental principle of spirituality links them. In addition, there were fundamental differences in the worldviews of the first generation and the second generation of Expressionist artists, which resulted in the evolution of major art schools emerging from Expressionism. Thus the prime aim of the researcher is the illustration of techniques, modes of interpretation, etc, which can all be traced back to the basic philosophical principles introduced as a fundamental point of division between the Post-Impressionists and Expressionists.

The researcher aims to elucidate the crucial aspects by emphasizing the works of Wassily Kandinsky, who is highly regarded as the founder of abstract art. In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky attempts to illuminate the specific philosophies involved in the creation and forms of the peculiar approach of expressionism.

The book, as a primary source is helpful in ascertaining the distinction between the philosophies of Expressionism and Post-Impressionism, while the secondary sources are crucial in understanding the detailed characteristics of the various art movements. For instance, in Dietmar Elger’s Expressionism: A Revolution in German Art, the author discusses the technical innovations and changes in modes of expression, comparing some German Expressionists categorized in groups such as the Brücke and the Blaue Reiter. L.D. Ettlinger’s article, “German Expressionism and Primitive Art”, explicates the particular development and advance of primitive art within the movement. The resources are crucial in enabling a general perception of how the movement influenced and changed the concepts of art in the modern world.

However, in reviewing the available literature on the subject, the researcher discovers that there is dearth of substantial research regarding the evolution of the artistic movements of the modern period of art. There is also insufficient information regarding the reasons and the manner in which the movement of Expressionism became prominent, which are vital in comprehending the changes taking place during this time.

Some literary documents attempt to draw out the contrast of the characteristics between Expressionism and the various modern art movements, such as Surrealism, Abstraction Expressionism, and Symbolism. However, most of the authors attempt to illuminate the achievements of modern artists, emphasizing the sophisticated art styles and philosophies which are distinct from Expressionist arts. For instance, Randolph Schwabe’s article ‘Expressionism’, contrasts Cubism and Expressionism stating that the former “is granted the merits of a variant of the true movement, which would attain the Expressionist goal by a more absolute intellectuality” (Schwabe 141).

Thus, while there is great deal of literature available which attempts to explain the meaning of the term ‘Expressionism’ and how it differs from other art movements, there is not enough literature regarding the importance of Expressionism in art history. This research attempts to provide a concise understanding of the importance of the Expressionist movement to art as we understand it today.

In exploring how Expressionism differed from the Post-Impressionists and from the art movements that emerged in the mid-1900s, it becomes clear that a fundamental shift in the concept of art had taken place, which was primarily introduced during the Expressionist period. However, this shift does not imply that the Expressionists attributed the shift in artistic concepts and some worshippers of the modern high art oppose the claim to be a mere coincidence.

By investigating the basic philosophies of the Post-Impressionists and their influences upon future Expressionist artists, the researcher detects a significant shift in the foundational concepts of art as well as in modes of expression for those ideas, subsequently indicating the disintegration process of the world. An analysis of future art movements has the potential to reveal the fundamental similarities to Expressionist ideas contained in each of them. Through this progression, it can be effectively proved that, the period of Expressionism, in spite of lasting a short while, played a crucial role in introducing a significant shift in the comprehension of art, in response to world changes which continue to form the foundation of subsequent movements.


Elger, Dietmar. Expressionism: A Revolution in German Art. Ed. Ingo F. Walther. Trans. Hugh Beyer. Frankfurt: Taschen, 2002: 7-15.

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. Trans. M.T.H. Sadler. Dover Publications, 1977.

Lloyd, Jill. “German Expressionism. Venice.” The Burlington Magazine. Vol. 139, N.1137, (1997): 899-900.

Schwabe, Randolph. “Expressionism.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. Vol. 33, N.187, (1918): 140-141.

Wechsler, Jeffrey. “Magic Realism: Defining the Indefinite.” Art Journal. Vol.45, N.4, The Visionary Impulse: An American Tendency, (1985): 293-298.

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