Expressionism is an avant-garde artistic and literary movement, which has developed in Germany between the end of the 19th century and about 1925; in an uncomfortable and turbulent atmosphere that preceded the war of 1914; from a pictorial point of view, it appeared as a clear reaction to Impressionism, whose objectivity and scientific optimism were rejected.
The term was born in the context of art criticism (in 1901 the French painter J.-A. Hervé referred it to one of his cycles of paintings; in 1911 W. Worringer used it in an essay dedicated to Van Gogh, Matisse and Cézanne, in the magazine “Der Sturai”), and the first affirmation of an expressionist address, however never configured in an organic movement, was precisely in the field of figurative arts.
Germany was the chosen land of expressionism with Conrad Fiedler, Theodor Lipps and Worringer, whose Abstraktion und Einfühlung came out in 1908; with them the accent shifted to the irreducible determination of the creator (innerer Drang, or inner necessity, the “inner need”, a fundamental principle that Kandinsky would take up again), as well as to the process of deterioration of the relationship between man and the external world, betrayed by the more or less extreme degree of abstract stylization.
Expressionism matures in years in which cultural references are transformed: the whole of Europe rediscovers its “primitives”, the arts of distant peoples (Africa, Oceania, North America, the Far East) supplant Greek-Roman classicism. The Germans recovered the Gothic and Grünewald (first monograph in 1911), the Belgians Bruegel, the French Romanesque frescoes and paintings of the fifteenth century. El Greco was rediscovered. The variety of stimuli explains the diversity of works, especially since the immediate precursors of expressionism come from very different horizons.
Expressionism in art manifested itself essentially as a rejection of classical harmony: emotional and spiritual facts were represented not through the rendering of “natural” forms, but through the use of accentuations or deformations of different character. At the base of the artistic operation were therefore placed dissonance (the disharmonious relationship between the constituent elements of the work) and dissimilarity (the antagonistic relationship between the artist’s work and visible reality). Artistic creation became a meeting point between an “inside” and an “outside”, between the visible and the invisible, between subjective experience and reality.
Expressionism made use of a whole series of stylistic resources right from the start: in painting, the two-dimensionality, the use of violent colors and very marked outlines, the “gestural” immediacy of the sign and the brushstroke; in sculpture, the search for the veristic and the grotesque, the exaggerated plasticism, the frequent quotation from works extraneous to the postclassicist practice (such as from the Middle Ages or from non-European primitives); in architecture, the notable simplification of forms, the abandonment of criteria of proportionality, the provocative incongruity in the combination of materials and colors.
Born in the bosom of the German art and supported basically to the groups Die Briicke and Der Blaue Reiter, the expressionism has considerable contacts, for analogy of themes and for mutual influence, with addresses manifested outside Germany (in France, in Italy, in Spain, in Russia), and can be considered one of the greatest artistic trends of the first half of the twentieth century. Already towards 1890 the Dutch Van Gogh, the Belgian J. Ensor, the Norwegian E. Munch transformed the principles of Impressionism in an expressionistic sense (modifying, for example, the speckles of color of pointillism in real stripes more suitable to express directly an intense emotional charge).
Even the exasperated language of the bodies sculpted by A. Rodin represents a sort of expressionist proposal. In France, P. Gauguin, H. Toulouse-Lautrec and the self-taught H. Rousseau, in opposition to Impressionism, realized an energetic formal simplification that aimed at reflecting the artist’s emotions more intensely and immediately. In their footsteps, at the beginning of the twentieth century, are the Fauves, especially H. Matisse and G. Rouault. Matisse and G. Rouault. In Germany, Paula Modersohn-Becker creates a naive and “emotional” painting, while Käthe Kollwitz gives vent to a vibrant social protest. From the neo-impressionists, expressionism takes up, but with opposite intentions, the principle of the autonomy of pure color: it now conveys emotions and moods and is no longer functional to the definition of light and atmospheric phenomena.
Deep is the influence of symbolism and Jugendstil (which marks the formative period of almost all German expressionists). Moreover, the interest in the emotional perception of reality clarifies the guidelines of the expressionistic discovery of the primitive: on the one hand, the anti-naturalistic sculptures coming from the islands of the South Seas (art as magic, direct and symbolic visualization of the invisible); on the other hand, the northern European Gothic art (the text by W. Worringer, The Formal Problems of Gothic Art, 1912, provides a theoretical framework for the inspiration of the expressionists by rediscovering the creative spirit of medieval Germany and indicating the coordinates of the Gothic spirit: fantasy, mysticism, tendency to the imponderable, linearity, distortions, dissonances).
Around 1903, some students of architecture elaborate together, in Dresden, a program of pictorial work: it is born so, in 1905, Die Brücke, that assumes, above all at its beginning and in antagonism to the existing social order, a character of medieval guild: the artists live and work in common dedicating ample space to an operativity of handicraft type.
After experiments, some of them conflicting, in the direction of Neo-Impressionism and Jugendstil, the group, stimulated by Van Gogh, Munch and the examples of non-European primitives, elaborated around 1908-09 its own peculiar style, characterized by large chromatic surfaces and violent contrasts; The rediscovery of xylography, a technique widely practiced in Germany since the end of the Middle Ages, also contributed to this evolution. Through the sharp contrast of whites and blacks in compact and simplified forms, it allows the violence of a deliberately barbaric and rebellious language. K. Schmidt-Rottluff, in his landscapes and outdoor nudes, emphasizes dynamic and violent content; E.L. Kirchner analyzes the neurosis of relationships in the jungle of the metropolis; O. Milller emphasizes lyrical cues.
At the same time, the lyrical naturalism of E. Nolde (who very soon broke away from the group) evolved decisively into a form of expressionism marked by theatrical clangour and insistent abandonment to the fairy tale. In these same years, as part of a research in many ways similar, Picasso made his famous painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1906-07), in which contrasts the lyricism of the blue period and the pink period a brutal treatment of surfaces (which in part recalls that of primitive wooden sculpture): from here was to develop, from 1909, in a completely different direction, cubism.
The indications that emerge, on the other hand, from the almanac of the group Der Blaue Reiter reveal a marked romantic character that can be considered a relevant aspect of the expressionist taste: a strong mystical component has a notable importance in the cultural formation of W. Kandinsky; typically romantic, on the other hand, is the idea of a direct relationship between different artistic forms (between figurative arts and music, above all), as well as the recognition of the formal validity of children’s drawing, of popular art, and of the art of the mentally ill.
The second exhibition of the group (Munich, 1912), which had become an international coterie, also saw the participation of artists from the Brücke and other European avant-gardes (G. Braque, P. Picasso, A. Derain, N. Goncarova, M. Lario-nov, K. MaleviC, P. Klee, H. Arp, etc.). Other draftsmen and painters, such as the German L. Corinth, the Austrian A. Kubin, the Lithuanian Ch. Soutine, active in France, elaborate their languages, fundamentally free and instinctive, in singular consonance with elements of German impressionism; a particular role, moving from the decorativism of the Viennese secession, is played by O. Kokoschka, also active in the literary field.
At the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century the area of diffusion of the phenomenon of expressionism is now very large. In Italy, obeying a similar vitalistic drive, the Futurists turn to represent the tension inherent in every event as assumed the quality of artistic fact, as well as protest against classicism, they ask the painting to assimilate and express the meaning of new times, machines, speed, using figurative means such as analysis of movement and figures, repetition of forms, perspective “deep”, “opening fan”, radiant structures, acute angles. As for the languages, in many ways original, of the Belgians and the Dutch, such as C. Permeke, G. de Smet, J. Torop, are also related to German expressionism. In France, only two expressionists are to be found: G. Rouault, who, moving from the gloomy figuration of the world of the uprooted and the irregular, arrives at an expressionism of religious content, based on the suggestion of medieval art; M. de Vlaminck, who creates a violently chromatic style very similar to that of Munch and the Brücke.
As far as sculpture is concerned (where wood is the preferred material), the greatest stylistic achievements are linked to the names of E. Barlach, who, influenced by the expressive form of Gothic wooden sculpture, developed a melancholic and almost obsessive expressionism, and W. Lehmbruck (who was also influenced by the expressive linearism of the German Gothic tradition), whose atelier transformed Jugendstil types into cubic forms, assuming an expressionistic charge thanks to the expressive nature of the German Gothic tradition. Lehmbruck (who was also influenced by the expressive linearism of the German Gothic tradition), in whose atelier the Jugendstil types were transformed into cubic forms, taking on an expressionistic charge thanks to movements that reproduced tensions within the artist’s soul. At the end of the First World War, these artistic groups did not reform and the new trend, rather than protest, was aimed at a drastic renewal.
Among the new expressionist currents, those headed by O. Dix and G. Grosz. Dix and G. Grosz evoke with a striking naturalism the terrors of war and the arbitrariness and abuses of the post-war period, arriving now to the effects of theatrical symbolism, now to caricature, in the framework of precise programs of political denunciation. The greatest personality of expressionism, after the First World War, is that of M. Beckmann, who infuses a new vital force to the angular forms of the artists of the Brücke. The subject of his painting is the active reaction of the artist to the attraction of the environment, signified above all by a typical erotic symbolism.
As for sculpture around the ’20s, the expressionist direction is to stop violent and sharp movements and forms in an almost dance-like tension. The German G. Kolbe developed from Rodin and the Jugendstil; the French H. Laurens and the Lithuanian J. Lipchitz are converted from the cubist fragmentism to the figure, albeit decomposed, the Swiss A.. Giacometti accentuates the neurosis of the figures reducing and thinning the volume to the extreme.
In the field of architecture, expressionistic elements were already being manifested, starting from the early twentieth century, by artists of different backgrounds. For example, in the works of A. Gaudi in Barcelona (1900 ca), which evolving from the neo-Gothic freely rework motifs of ari nouveau: crooked or acute angles, grotesque or popular inventions, contrasting proportions and colors. Stylistic elements that, moreover, are found in art nouveau architects such as C.R. Mackintosh, H. Van de Velde, J. Olbrich.
In the Expressionist generation alongside a prevailing impulse of rigorous concreteness, there coexist shots of individual sensibility, unexpected disharmonies and exaggerations, which are found from time to time in almost all the major architects of this period, from P. Behrens, B. Hoetger, O. Bartning, E. Mendelsohn to W. Gropius, H. Scharoun, M. de Klerk, W.M. Dudok, W.B. Griffin, W.A. Dummond. Expressionistic characters are particularly evident in the German F. Höger, who invents, with the famous Chilehaus in Hamburg (1923), a dynamic and tense architecture, explicit also as an ideological allusion (the building is called Prua di Nave, alluding to the fact that it is a large warehouse for nitrates imported from Chile).
Figurative expressionism found its natural end in the form it took around 1930: it had essentially accomplished its revolutionary mission. Any further development was destined to be definitively interrupted by Fascism and World War II. Only once, in the following decades, was the concept of expressionism invoked in the context of theoretical programs. This happens with the so-called “abstract expressionism” of the American J. Pollock. Of all the ideas of Expressionism, Pollock almost exclusively grasps the reduction of art to an act of individual expression.