Who Were The Expressionists?

Art Blog | 10 Dec, 2012

Expressionism was an art movement which in return produced a
vast array of exciting and wonderful works of art, but it was not only the art
works which were colourful and stimulating but also the artists themselves,
each with their own unique takes on Expressionism.  The meaning of the word ‘expressionism’ can
be used to describe art from different times and places but the most commonly
known Expressionist artists derived from Germany and practiced from 1905 to
1920. Many other artists influenced the German Expressionists and indeed shared
some of their beliefs. Those beliefs were to defragment society in a bid to
make it much less conservative. The art work of an Expressionist painter would
express the energy of nature – following in the footsteps of artistic legend
Vincent van Gogh – and personal feeling rather than simply imitating and
representing nature. Expressionist art should feel ‘uncomfortable’ to view,
challenging the traditional ways of looking at the world. Opposing this was
Henri Matisse’s humble opinion where he believed that art should be
‘comfortable’. Expressionist art should be inspired by folk art, and the art of
what were then called ‘primitive’ peoples, for example natives from Africa.

There was an overlying aim of the Expressionists which
characterised their art works. Their aim was to express personal feeling about
what they were painting rather than representing it in a blatant and literal

A typical Expressionist painting should have strong shapes
and colours, be relatively direct, untutored and unplanned and should still
contain recognisable things and people, but again unrealistic. Much like a
dream at times or a fantasy from an inner thought. The lines could be
distorted, and the colours could be strengthened or changed as in the art
movement that began in 1905 called Fauvism.

Expressionism was more than a style in painting. It was also
found in cinema and theatre, architecture and literature. It was a sharing of
ideas and experiences across all of these media. The life stories of the Expressionist
artists show just how much they had in common. Many began by studying applied art, such as furniture design,
often to please their parents. Although they later made more personal art, they
continued to make use of those technical skills. Both art critics and the
public received this new movement with derision and outrage. Expressionist
artists were trying to shock by challenging the traditional, conservative views
held by many people. Gradually, however, it became accepted and even admired.

During the First World War (1914-18) all of the
Expressionists were affected. Some fled from Germany and lived their years in
exile, some never returned to their homeland and most others served in the war
where some would sadly be killed. At first some of the Expressionists hoped a
war would change society for the better but they were soon disillusioned when
they saw the destruction and suffering that it caused. In the year following on
from the war, a good many Expressionist artists revealed in their artworks the
horror which they experienced during this inhumane period in history.

After World War 1 Expressionism became very fashionable in
Germany, where art was allowed to flourish. This freedom was quashed in 1933
when Hitler declared all Expressionists were ‘degenerate’. This led to them
being acquitted from their jobs or even worse forced to leave Germany. In 1937
the Nazis took thousands of art works from German museums and put them in an
enormous art display called the Degenerate Art Exhibition, to show how bad and decadent this type of art was. To no
surprise Hitler believed Expressionist art presented a view of the world that went
against his political and cultural ambitions to rid Germany of all inferior

The Nazis disliked Expressionist artists because many lived in
an unconventional, bohemian way. They
did not tend to settle in their home town because they needed to search for
like-minded artists and new ideas for their art. They travelled outside their
countries to see other artists’ work, as good colour reproductions were not
available. This is how committed some Expressionists were to their chosen art
movement. In particular, they wanted to visit France to see art by van Gogh,
Derain, Matisse and Delaunay, whom they especially admired. They were also keen
to meet thinkers and artists from other countries. A large percentage of
Expressionists taught in art schools and were quite intellectual thinkers and
writers. Expressionism was about more than personal emotions. Most were members
of active artist groups, so that they could display their art together and make
public, sometimes shocking statements about their beliefs.

Although a great deal was shared, above all Expressionism
was about the strength of the individual. Through their art the Expressionists
stated that emotions matter and should not be repressed, that our feelings
distort our vision, making us all see the world in unique ways.

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