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Expressionism: A Breakthrough in Self-Knowledge for the Human Race

Art historians recognize a radical shift in the underlying philosophical approach to art around the turn of the twentieth century, the impact of which surpasses that of the changes that swept the art world following the great Renaissance of the 1400s-1600s. Although the Renaissance period brought tremendous changes in the artistic approaches based upon the traditional art of Greek and Roman statuary, the Expressionist movement of the 1900s instituted a profound rejection of all the traditional ways of the past and introduced a completely new approach to art and in the understanding of its role in human life.

Although they built upon the emotional concepts of the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists that immediately preceded them, the Expressionists were credited for the explosion of ideas that characterized the middle period of the 20th century, and continue to influence the art world today. This is in spite of the fact that, as a movement, the Expressionist existed only for a decade, from 1910 to 1920.

Through their works and artistic conception, the Expressionists introduced a darker side to art as they turned inward and began exploring the mysteries of the inner human experience and the sometimes frightening shapes it could engender. By rejecting the forms of the natural, outer world and focusing on the inner world of the human experience, which is free of rigidly defined form, shape, and artistic approach, the Expressionists opened up an entirely new realm of self-exploration for both the artist and the audience. This continues to influence our understanding of art today.

It is undeniable that the art of Expressionism owes a great deal of its inspiration to the ideas of the post-impressionists. Artistic movements prior to Expressionism explored emotional expression within their works in response to exterior influences; however, it was the Expressionists who changed the art world forever by exploring ways in which the workings of the human mind itself might be explored in its process of individuation and incorporation with greater society.

There is a fundamental difference in the art of the post-impressionists and the expressionists. Writing in 1918 regarding the differences between the two periods, Schwabe defines the attitude of Impressionism as “one of passivity before nature, of which attitude van Gogh, through all his febrile intensity, is found to be the final and highest development” while Expressionism focused on the “concentrated presentation of emotion sought for within the artist’s consciousness — an insistence on feeling rather than on the visualization and reproduction of the external world” (Schwabe 140).

While the Impressionist painters did not focus their attention on nature alone, the primary focus of their art was in capturing the emotional impressions of the moment as it was externally presented to the artist/viewer. In doing this, the impressionist artists managed to realize, at about the same time, that photography was proving them correct, that we don’t see every detail in the scenes that confront us, but instead manage to get an impression of the view through the basic shapes, colors, and play of light that catch at the edge of our vision as they are informed by the few elements we may happen to focus upon (Gombrich 524-528).

The Post-Impressionists took this one step further and added personal visual emotional reaction to their art. Artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch deliberately exaggerated the types of impressionistic distortions evidenced in the paintings of artists such as Monet in order to highlight their emotional reactions to the subject matter being depicted. Van Gogh utilized heavy impasto in his paintings to give the paint itself a means of expressing these emotional reactions while he deliberately exaggerated color contrasts to further highlight the emotional content. Munch likewise exaggerated elements of his paintings, such as the distortions seen in the head and landscape lines of “The Scream” as a means of focusing on the emotional impact of the moment being depicted rather than on the actual visual scene.

The Expressionists allowed themselves to be influenced a great deal by the works of such painters as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Robert Delauney, James Ensor, and Edvard Munch (Elger 10). From these Post-Impressionist painters, the Expressionists took their experimental colors and their attempts at depicting the psychological impact of an event, but they changed their focus from an external reaction to the internal experience.

In attempting to refocus the attention of art from the external world of impressions to the internal world of experience, Expressionism also represented a fundamental shift in artistic direction in turning its back on the natural forms of nature as a necessary means of expression.

Part of this shift in focus was probably brought upon by the significant changes that continued to occur during this period. Although the Industrial Revolution, which impacted the entire world, had its beginnings in the mid-1800s, the changes it brought about took slower to be fully realized in the art world. As Burchill (1966) points out, it was during this period in history that the harnessing of electricity made communication across long distances possible through the telegraph; and long waking hours became possible through the safe and inexpensive provision of light after dark. It was during this period that new technologies became available for many different purposes.

The properties of the atom were also discovered during this time. Spirits were also brought to an all-time high through the invention of synthetic dyes, which made it possible for the world to experience vivid color for the first time, introducing a tremendous psychological burst of emotional energy to feed the post-impressionists and the early Expressionists. Germany was at the forefront of this wave of progress, leading the world in technology and innovation by 1900.

These technological advancements alone introduced an entirely new way of living that was wholly divorced from the natural world of the past. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution had forced a reconsideration of man’s place in the universe and upset centuries-old religious beliefs. As Burhill points out, “the impact of these discoveries lay a quarter of a century in the future, but all the foundations of twentieth century science and technology were laid in the Age of Progress” (38).

Perhaps the most important thing that happened during the mid- to late-nineteenth century was the shift that took place in mankind’s way of thinking. Rather than basing his knowledge upon myth and superstition, mankind learned to apply systematic thought processes to explain the natural world and his role within it. And this, naturally, led to artists of all kinds to reassess what they ‘knew’ about representing the ‘real’ world. As Gombrich explains, artists were somewhat asked to “sit down before nature and paint it to the best of his abilities” (561). However, artists, since time immemorial, have had difficulty defining just what it was that they ‘saw’ as opposed to what they ‘knew’.

These ideas are only made more concrete with the increasing knowledge of psychology and science. As Gombrich points out, we make “mistakes in seeing … as soon as we start to take a pencil and draw, the whole idea of surrendering passively to what is called our sense impressions becomes really an absurdity. If we look out of the window, we can see the view in the thousand different ways” (562).

Previous generations had already attempted to capture what was ‘seen’ through representation in primitive art and through scientific approximation in Renaissance art. Impressionism had attempted to capture what was felt and none of these was felt to have captured the desired effect of denoting the ‘essence’ of the moment. In attempting to find a new means of expressing this essence, suggesting it to a greater degree or highlighting the probability that there is something inexpressible beyond the shadings of the painting, Expressionists sought freedom from the rigidly defined traditional symbols of the classic art schools and searched for new means of expression through primitive or highly mechanistic forms.

In light of the tremendous changes in lifestyle that had taken place within the space of a single generation, the Expressionists had to recognize that the traditional concepts and universal ideas of the past were breaking down and losing their meanings. Kandinsky, for example, in his presentation of his own artistic theories, outlines his feelings of disgust for the absence of spirit in traditional art. In illustrating the necessity for art to continue to evolve, always developing new ways of speaking of the true concerns of the day, Kandinsky also illustrates how art that becomes closer to the truth of human nature also becomes more and more abstract in its expression.

However, this is a necessary progression in Kandinsky’s approach as “every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of this art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will some day reach to heaven” (22). Thus, Kandinsky is calling for a return to the spiritual and the sublime in art as a means of recapturing the sense of religion that had been lost in the focus on science and technology that inundated his age.

In order to provide art with this sublime element, Kandinsky indicates that a painting should be a response to the artist’s inner need rather than an attempt to fulfill the audience’s desires or to remain in vogue with contemporary forms. By drawing what was on the surface, rather than attempting to capture the inner nature of the object, allowing the artist’s inner spirit to guide the brushes, Kandinsky says that the audience is able to gain their own appreciation of the spirit of the subject as it was expressed and experienced by the artist, forcing the suggestion of the sublime to enter into consideration.

In keeping with these ideas, Ettlinger points out how some of the Expressionists, such as Picasso, turned to primitive art as a means of attempting to find the most basic and universal expressions of the spiritual nature of the universe. While the immediate predecessors of Expressionism had already been involved in including the observed nature of primitive art in their works, it was the Expressionists who adopted the ideas themselves and applied them to their own experience.

Picasso, for example, brought the concepts of primitive ‘negro sculpture’ into his work as a means of illustrating the manifestation of his vision upon his senses (Ettlinger 192). While several artists, including Kirchner, attempted to bring primitive art into their work as a means of capturing a sublime and fully instinctual element, it was discovered that there did not seem to be any truly universal symbols beyond the very basic geometric shapes of triangle, square and circle, thus leading to the more elemental and minimalist approaches taken by later artists.

This abstraction of images was seen by Mondrian as being the only means by which an artist could sufficiently free himself from the external to express the more important internal understanding of the artist: “That which distinguishes him (the non-figurative artist) from the figurative is the fact that in his creations he frees himself from particular impressions which he receives from outside and he breaks loose from the domination of the individual inclination within him” (qtd. in Levine 22). However, eventually even this was recognized to be untrue.

Even before the onset of World War I and the horrors this experience unleashed in the minds of the artists, there was already evidence of schism within the ranks of the Expressionists. Schwabe (1918), writing from within the time period of the movement, characterizes this deep split in the movement by placing Kandinsky and Pechstein at opposite poles. In defining Kandinsky’s approach, Schwabe says that Kandinsky pursues an “intensive method,” an effort at expression disconnected from natural forms (141).

This is contrasted against the work of Pechstein who uses nature as a basis for the more mechanical forms of the art produced. Thus, while Pechstein can be seen to be fostering an approach along the lines of the geometric cubists and the mechanical artists of the future, the direction followed by Mondrian, Kandinsky bridges the difference between Western artistic approaches and the more spiritually minimalist approaches of Japanese philosophies. A great deal of these differences, both before and after the war, were shaped by the socio-political climate then brewing in the state of Germany as the country relatively quickly entered into war.

Spirits in Germany were relatively high during the initial years of the century. Germany was doing well as an international power and its leaders were eager to go to war with Russia (Roberts 238). However, the nation was not unified; it remained divided, as people stayed in their respective groups and castes, with the rigid and stiff lines demarcation and social discrimination separating them from each other (Kurtz 71).

As a result, there were several minority movements that opposed the status quo and began establishing their own centers of intellectual training. The confusion that the prosperity and poverty, education of the state and education of the populace, and art of tradition and art of impression all combined to contribute to the Expressionist ideas of formless spirituality, shapeless emotion, and non-symbolic expression.

According to Elger, the Expressionists, believing that purification would come through it, saw the war as a powerful catharsis. They believed that the ancient order, which they had considered to be so oppressive, would be destroyed by the war, and that a better society would rise when it was over (15).

When Germany acted seemingly on a whim to declare war on two fronts, and then the war began to drag on, the spirit of Germany’s people, and the artists who had brought mindfulness and spirituality into their work, began to be affected as well. The longer the war dragged on, the more changes took place in the attitude of the artists. Dix’s paintings became an accusation of militarism and the bourgeoisie. And Kirchner, Beckmann and Kokoschka, who could not bear the horrors of trench warfare, had had physical and psychological breakdowns and were discharged. And many of the other Expressionists — Marc, Macke, and Morgner, among them — died in action at a young age (Elger 15).

Following the Great War, the Expressionist movement began to splinter into numerous factions, each exploring the concepts of mindfulness, spirituality and transcendent expression that had been introduced as a unique feature of Expressionism. Expressionism, as a form of art, had far reaching effects after the First World War and in course of time it gave rise to movements such as Surrealism, Abstraction, and Minimalism.

Abstract painting is one of the most creative artistic innovations made in the twentieth century. It was the experimental Kandinsky and Mondrian, and the conceptual Malevich who pioneered and propagated this new innovation in painting immediately after the outbreak of the First World War. Later the form became more powerful and influential after the end of the Second World War when Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and their colleagues experimented with the various types of Abstract Expressionistic paintings. All these painters and artists used abstraction as an effective device through which they could express and communicate the artistic discovery that they developed.

Commenting on the origin and development of abstract expressionism in painting, Guy Hubbard (2002) points out the influence of two opposite types of artistic thinking-Cubism and Expressionism -on the new art form. According to him one part of it is rooted on the abstract ideas of Cubism whereas the other part is “from Expressionism, where artistic ideas focused on emotional feelings rather than on careful preparation”. He describes Abstract painting as ‘Action Painting’, as “Abstract Expressionists concentrated on the actions involved in creating artworks rather than trying to produce images that people could recognize” and because they “welcomed successful accidents and chance events” in their portraits (Hubbard).

Abstract expressionism was not only limited to painting. Sculptors like David Smith, Theodore Roszak and Seymour Lipton extensively made use of the movement in their sculptures. One can also trace back the root of expressionism to the great artistic tradition of Romantics as both of them emphasized on spontaneous and powerful emotions. Thus, one can state that the primary focus of the abstract artist is to unearth his own inner self, exercising his own imagination rather than picturing things as he sees and experiences with his senses.

Expressionism in painting also gave way to Surrealistic painting that distinguishes itself from all other modern art forms. Surrealism found its expression in literature first and easily found its application in visual arts like painting. Influenced by Freud’s Psychoanalytical theories, the surrealists tries to delve into the themes of dreams and fancy and they believed that the truths brought out by the subconscious mind of the person has much significance than the every day realities that one comes across. They represented the dream like states of man and the major representational surrealists were Salvador Dali (1904-1989), Rene Magritte (1898-1967), and Max Ernst (1891).

Rene through his surrealistic works tried to provide unusual meanings to familiar ordinary objects. It was Max Ernest who invented novel techniques such as “frottage” and “decalcomania” that gave new dimensions to surrealistic paintings in Germany. His “frottage”, involves “making rubbings of textured surfaces, using the marks as chance starting points for an image” and the “decalcomania”, involves “painting on glass and then pressing it directly onto the canvas to create a texture”.

These novel techniques by Max Ernest are thoroughly expressionistic as they “allowed his subconscious mind to see into the random pattern, thus creating images directly from his imagination, without any preconceived ideas.” (Surrealism). All these do not mean that Surrealists negated aesthetic value in their paintings; in fact, surrealism seeks to offer a solution to the contemporary art’s neglect of aesthetic experience.

Raymond Spiteri (2005) rightly observes that there is strange disparity “between the actual experience of contemporary art and its conceptualization”; however he believes that in Surrealism “aesthetic experience still played a central role, in that the vicissitudes of thought were related to material objects; indeed, the fashioning of objects often took priority over explicit intention.” (Spiteri). However, one tends to attribute thematic, social, political or cultural significance or intepretation to surrealistic paintings. No doubt, Surrealistic paintings attacked all sorts of intellectual and social constraints and tried to throw light on the personal as well as the political life of people.

Unlike Abstraction and surrealism, minimalism is purely an aesthetic form of art where the art forms have no symbolic significance and where the feelings and the emotions of the artist are given least importance. The importance was shifted from the artist to the paintings as well as to the understanding and appreciation of the onlookers: “The primary intention of these paintings was to remove the trace of the artist. Minimalist art strived to create an object with such a presence that can be seen at its basic physical appearance and appreciated at face value.” (Minimalism). The art form is originated in America and Frank Stella was its foremost proponent.

Minimalism promoted objects that fascinated aesthetic attention and made use of the minimum amount of colors, shapes, lines, and textures. Minimalist paintings do not try to convey any theme or message; the work itself is the supreme reality for them. Thus, one can clearly see hoe expressionism has contributed to the growth and development of Abstraction, Minimalism and Surrealism as three major movements in modern painting and arts.

Tracing the various art movements that emerged following World War I, Elger and Beyer point out Wassily Kandinsky’s works as probably the most radical because his Expressionism led to abstract art in a series of consistent steps. And there was also Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus manifesto, which started off a school of art that was both highly demanding of functionality and clarity of form, and at the same time, permeated by an Expressionist language (Elger & Beyer 7).

From Kandinsky, we continue to have artists who choose to explore their expressive qualities through abstract shapes, randomly placed paint splatters, or other intriguing means of application and seemingly un-artistic approaches such as that of the Young British Artists in their hyper-realistic sculptures and images. The early stages of the Bauhaus can also be found in the reduction of forms to their most basic shapes, stripping away the unnecessary and attempting to discover the spiritual center. From the Bauhaus can be traced many of the forms of the modern world, including the now-traditional rectangular form of the urban skyscraper and the minimalist forms of the ‘traditional’ classroom tubular chair.

Also attempting to trace through the spiritual elements of the Expressionism movement, other splinter groups followed still other scientific advancement. For example, the ideas of Sigmund Freud, which are now widely known, combined with the spiritual goals of Expressionism and gave rise to Surrealism and its expression of the inner dream-state of the artist. Freud’s ideas include the subdivisions of the human mind into the subconscious and the conscious (Downs 20).

Within this distinction, Freud says that the true, natural inner nature of man can only be found within the much larger and mostly secret labyrinth of the subconscious mind. While this subconscious mind cannot be directly accessed by the conscious mind, hints and suggestions from it can be received through imagery in dreams. This belief has helped to give rise to fantasy art and to the animated films that have entertained the world’s children for the past two generations through their ability to transcend reality and enter an entirely different ‘magical’ plane. Artists practicing trompe l’oeil are also descendents of the Expressionists as they demonstrate through their art the degree to which the human eye can be fooled into mistaking obvious illusion for reality.


In tracing the foundational concepts of contemporary artistic movements, it can be seen that today’s artists continue to attempt the basic goals of the Expressionists. For while the Impressionists focused their attention on illustrating the tricks of the eye, the play of light, and the impressions of the moment, breaking ground in numerous important areas as they explored the fallacy of ‘painting what they saw’ and began to incorporate expressions of emotion within their work, the Expressionists introduced an entirely new concept to the idea of painting by shifting the focus to inner spirituality as expressed from within rather than being imposed from without.

Even in the early days of the movement, there were already different ideas of how to best bring this expression into physical form, but the interruption of the World War I into its development created a deep split between the two major approaches. Following the war, the basic concepts of Expressionism continued to be explored through these various approaches, giving rise to movements such as Surrealism, Abstraction, and Minimalism.

Expressionism, therefore, can be considered the founder of all modern art because it was this particular movement that introduced the concepts that continue to remain the foundation of all modern art movements today.

Works Cited

Burchell, S.C. “The Blessings of Science.” Age of Progress. Great Ages of Man: A History of the World’s Cultures. New York: Time-Life Books, 1966: 28-47.

Downs, Robert B. “Sigmund Freud Publishes The Interpretation of Dreams: 1900.” 1900-1920: The Twentieth Century. Zacharias, Gary (ed.). Events that Changed the World series. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2004: 18-26.

Elger, Dietmar & Hugh Beyer. Expressionism: A Revolution in German Art. Frankfurt: Taschen, 2002: 7-15.

Ettlinger, L.D. “German Expressionism and Primitive Art.” The Burlington Magazine. Vol. 110, N. 781, (1968): 191-201.

Gombrich, E.H. “Experimental Art.” The Story of Art. London: Phaidon, 1995: 524-598.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. MTH Sadler (Trans.). Dover Publications, 1977: 22.

Kurtz, Harold. “The Summit of the German Volcano.” The Second Reich: Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Germany. New York: American Heritage Press, 1970: 63-84.

Levine, Edward M. “Abstract Expressionism: The Mystical Experience.” Art Journal. Vol. 31, N. 1, (1971): 22-25.

Roberts, J.M. “The Great War and the Beginning of the Twentieth Century Revolution.” Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000. New York: Viking, 1999: 238-270.

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

Hubbard, Guy. “Abstract Expressionism.” Arts & Activities. Vol. 131(3), (2002).

Spiteri, Raymond. “Confronting the Liquidators.” Art Journal. Vol. 64(4), 2005.

Surrealism. Eyecon Art. Art History Pages. 2008. Web.

Minimalism. Ethnic Paintings. Online Encyclopedia of Painting. 2008. Web.

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