Understanding Expressionism: A Comprehensive Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. What is Expressionism?
  2. Origins of Expressionism
  3. Characteristics of Expressionism
  4. Key figures in Expressionism
  5. Impact of Expressionism on modern art
  6. Expressionism in different art forms
  7. How to identify Expressionist art
  8. Expressionism in the 21st Century

Let's take a journey into the world of art, specifically focusing on a genre that has had a profound impact on the art scene: Expressionism. It's a style that can be tricky to pin down, but no need to fret. This blog aims to simplify it for you, offering a clear and straightforward definition of Expressionism, its origins, key figures, and its significant influence on modern art.

What is Expressionism?

When we talk about the definition of Expressionism, we're referring to an art style that's all about the emotional and psychological experience. Unlike other art forms that focus on depicting the external world as it appears, Expressionism is less about what the eye can see and more about what the heart can feel. It's the artist's reaction to their surroundings, their internal emotions and thoughts, rather than a mirror image of the outside world.

Think of it this way—if you're an artist painting a scene of a bustling city street, you wouldn't focus on capturing every exact detail. Instead, you'd convey your personal emotions and impressions. Maybe the city feels overwhelmingly noisy, or it's so lively it feels like a carnival. That's the essence of Expressionism.

Here's a simple breakdown of what defines Expressionism:

  • Focus on emotions: The artist's emotions, thoughts, and experiences take center stage.
  • Distortion of reality: Artists use distorted and exaggerated visuals to express their emotional reality.
  • Strong use of color: Bold and vivid colors are often used to represent emotions.
  • Abstract forms: Expressionists often use abstract forms and shapes to represent their inner feelings.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the definition of Expressionism, it's time to learn more about its origins, key figures, and how to identify it in various art forms. Keep on reading to become a true connoisseur of Expressionist art.

Origins of Expressionism

Let's hop into our time machine and travel back to the early 20th century, specifically to Germany in the 1900s. This was a time of great social change and uncertainty, the perfect breeding ground for a new form of art like Expressionism.

Two art groups were instrumental in the birth of Expressionism: "Die Brücke" (The Bridge) and "Der Blaue Reiter" (The Blue Rider). Die Brücke was founded in 1905 in Dresden, and its members aimed to bridge the past and future of art, hence the name. They sought to create new and innovative artworks that were a stark departure from traditional academic art. The Blue Rider was founded a few years later in 1911 in Munich. This group focused on the spiritual and symbolic aspects of art, using color and form to express deeper meanings.

Expressionism gained momentum quickly, spreading beyond Germany and across various forms of art, including film, literature, theatre, dance, architecture, and music. It was a truly revolutionary time in the world of art, with artists boldly expressing their innermost feelings like never before.

So, now you know the origins of Expressionism. It was a movement born out of a desire for change and a need for artists to express their emotions and experiences. And as we'll see next, this emotional honesty became one of the defining characteristics of Expressionism.

Characteristics of Expressionism

Alright, now that we've traveled back in time to understand the origins of Expressionism, let's look at what defines this art movement. What makes Expressionism, well, Expressionism?

At its core, Expressionism favors emotional experience over physical reality. An easy way to remember this is that Expressionism is all about expression—not what you see, but what you feel. It's like a heart-to-heart conversation with a painting or a sculpture. Sounds pretty cool, right?

Here are some key characteristics of Expressionism:

  • Emotion over reality: Expressionist artists use color, shape, and form to show feelings and ideas, rather than to recreate physical reality. So, if you see a bright red sky or a distorted figure, it's not a mistake—it's Expressionism.
  • Distortion for emotional effect: Ever seen a painting where everything seems a bit...off? That's likely an Expressionist piece. Artists distort scale and perspective to create a sense of unease or to emphasize certain emotions.
  • Personal perspective: Expressionism is not about objective observation. Instead, it's about how the artist sees and experiences the world. Think of it like viewing the world through the artist's personal lens.
  • Intense color: Bold, vibrant colors are a hallmark of Expressionism. Artists use color not for its realistic portrayal, but for its emotional impact. So, a bright red might not represent a real apple, but the artist's intense feelings.

And there you have it! These are the traits that give Expressionism its unique voice in the art world. As you can see, it's more than just an art style—it's a way for artists to communicate directly from their heart to yours.

Key Figures in Expressionism

Just like an epic movie or a bestselling book, the world of Expressionism has its stars too. These are the artists who took the definition of Expressionism and made it their own, leaving a lasting impact on the art world. So, who are they? Let's meet some of them.

  • Edvard Munch: You might not recognize his name, but you've probably seen his most famous work, The Scream. This painting, with its distorted figure and vivid colors, is one of the most iconic works of Expressionism. Munch used art to explore his own feelings and anxieties, making him a pioneer of this movement.
  • Wassily Kandinsky: Kandinsky was a game-changer. He's often credited as the first artist to create a purely abstract work. His paintings are like visual music—full of color, rhythm, and emotion. Kandinsky believed that colors and shapes could create an emotional response in the viewer, a key principle of Expressionism.
  • Egon Schiele: Schiele's art is raw, intense, and deeply personal. He often painted bodies in twisted poses and with exaggerated features, using distortion to express his inner turmoil. Schiele's work may not always be comfortable to look at, but it's a powerful example of Expressionism's emotional depth.
  • Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: As a founding member of Die Brücke (The Bridge), a group of German Expressionist artists, Kirchner played a major role in shaping this movement. His work is known for its bold colors and jagged lines, which he used to convey the tension and anxiety of modern life.

These artists each brought their own unique perspective to Expressionism, but they all shared a commitment to expressing emotion and personal experience through their work. And in doing so, they helped to redefine what art could be.

Impact of Expressionism on Modern Art

As we explore the definition of Expressionism, it's clear that this movement wasn't just a blip in the history of art—it left a lasting mark. The impact of Expressionism on modern art is still felt today, and here's why.

  • The Freedom of Emotion: Expressionism broke down the barriers of traditional art, allowing artists to freely express their emotions on canvas. This emotional honesty continues to inspire artists today, encouraging them to explore their feelings and personal experiences through their work.
  • Abstract Art: Expressionism brought us the first abstract paintings. Artists like Wassily Kandinsky began to move away from representing the world as it is, instead using color, form, and line to create an emotional experience. This opened the door for the abstract art movement, which continues to thrive today.
  • Interpretation Over Representation: Before Expressionism, art was often about portraying the world accurately. But Expressionists showed that art could be about how the artist feels, not just what they see. This shift towards interpretation over representation has had a huge impact on modern art, allowing artists to explore new ways of seeing and understanding the world.
  • Art as Social Commentary: Many Expressionists used their art to critique society and express their concerns about the modern world. This use of art as a tool for social commentary is still common in today's art world, reminding us of the power of art to provoke thought and inspire change.

From abstract art to emotional honesty, the impact of Expressionism on modern art is significant. It's a reminder that art isn't just about creating something beautiful—it's also a way to express our feelings, explore our identities, and engage with the world around us.

Expressionism in Different Art Forms

Now, let's expand our understanding of the definition of Expressionism beyond just paintings and sculptures. This powerful artistic movement influenced many different art forms, and it continues to do so today. Let's dive in!

  • Theater: In the world of theater, Expressionism played a big role in shifting the focus away from realism. Instead of trying to depict the world exactly as it is, Expressionist plays focused on portraying the inner emotional reality of the characters. This meant using non-realistic techniques like distortion and exaggeration to convey the characters' feelings and experiences.
  • Film: Expressionism also found a home in the world of film, particularly in Germany in the 1920s. Expressionist films like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" used distorted sets, high-contrast lighting, and unusual camera angles to create a sense of unease and to express the inner turmoil of the characters.
  • Literature: In literature, Expressionism was all about presenting the world from a subjective perspective, often using stream-of-consciousness techniques to delve into the inner emotional world of the characters. It was a stark departure from the objective, realistic portrayal of the world that was common in literature at the time.
  • Music: In music, Expressionism was characterized by a move away from traditional tonality towards atonality—music that doesn't have a key. This allowed composers to express a wider range of emotions and to create a sense of tension and unease.

So, as you can see, the influence of Expressionism can be seen in many different art forms. It was a movement that truly reshaped the world of art, pushing the boundaries of what was possible and encouraging artists to explore new ways of expressing their inner worlds.

How to Identify Expressionist Art

With all this talk about the definition of Expressionism, you might be wondering how to identify Expressionist art when you see it. Here are some pointers to guide you:

  • Emotional Intensity: Above all, Expressionist art is about expressing emotion. If a piece of art seems to be bursting with feeling—whether it's joy, fear, sadness, or anything else—there's a good chance it could be Expressionist.
  • Distortion and Exaggeration: Expressionist artists often distort or exaggerate reality in order to better express their emotions or ideas. So, if you see a painting where the shapes or colors seem a bit off, or a play where the dialogue or actions are heightened, you might be looking at Expressionism.
  • Subjectivity: Expressionism is all about the artist's personal, subjective experience of the world. If a piece of art seems to be showing you the world through someone else's eyes, giving you a glimpse of their innermost thoughts and feelings, it could well be an Expressionist work.
  • Rejection of Realism: Expressionist artists were not interested in accurately depicting the world as it is. Instead, they sought to portray the world as they saw it or felt it. So, if you're looking at a piece of art that seems to reject realism in favor of a more subjective, emotional approach, it could be Expressionist.

Now that you know what to look for, you'll be able to spot Expressionist art wherever you go. And remember, the most important thing is not whether you can correctly identify the art movement, but whether the art speaks to you and moves you. That's the true power of Expressionism.

Expressionism in the 21st Century

Expressionism may have had its heyday in the early 20th century, but the movement is far from dead. In fact, it's alive and kicking in the 21st century. You may wonder, how does Expressionism look like in our time?

  • Modern Media: Today's Expressionists are using modern media to convey their message. This includes digital art, film, and even social media. If you've ever seen a digital painting that seemed to be more about emotion than accuracy, or a movie that prioritized the inner world of its characters over the external reality, then you've seen 21st century Expressionism in action.
  • Contemporary Issues: Expressionism has always been a movement that responds to the world around it. Today's Expressionists are no different. They're grappling with the issues of our time—things like climate change, social inequality, and mental health—and expressing their responses through their art.
  • Global Reach: In the early 20th century, Expressionism was largely a European movement. But in the 21st century, Expressionism is global. Artists from all over the world are using the language of Expressionism to tell their stories and express their feelings.

So, while the definition of Expressionism may have been established over a hundred years ago, it's a movement that continues to evolve and adapt. It's as relevant today as it ever was, and it's fascinating to see how today's artists are using it to explore the human condition.

If you enjoyed this comprehensive guide on understanding Expressionism and want to further explore your own artistic vision, we highly recommend checking out the workshop 'Expressing Your Unique Artistic Vision' by Michael Ryan. This workshop will provide you with the inspiration and guidance you need to develop a distinctive and expressive style in your art.