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German Expressionism

 Art born out of a desire for self-expression

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff - Mond Im August 1963
Mond Im August 1963
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
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If you could capture your unconscious thoughts, what would you see? This preoccupation with inner emotions propelled the German Expressionists to paint what they felt. This resulted in canvasses with lots of bright colors and flat shapes aimed at making a psychological rather than a descriptive statement.

Some say that German Expressionist art has become so popular in recent decades because French art of the same period has been snapped up by collectors. But its greater significance lies in the fact that it paved the way for later 20th century art.

A Perspective
Anyone can see what something looks like, so the Expressionists sought to tell the viewer more. Take the famous Expressionist painting Berlin Street Scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Kirchner poises the people in his painting to evoke the hustle and bustle of a city street. One of the central figures even has his back to us! At the time, this was considered scandalous by older, academic painters, who faithfully recorded what they saw. But Kirchner had a different idea. He wanted you to see the congestion of the urban landscape — the anonymity of walking down a crowded street. And finally, he wanted you to see the increasing alienation of living in a community where you no longer talked to your neighbor.

Wassily Kandinsky - Swinging
Wassily Kandinsky
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Movement Seeks to Revitalize German Art
The German Expressionist movement started in 1905 when some artists formed a group called Die Brücke or The Bridge, in English. Hoping to revitalize German art, these artists lived and worked together as did the artisans of the medieval guilds. Members of Die Brücke reacted against traditional art, preferring distorted forms to express what they felt. They did not embrace the stylized forms of Jugendstil (see note below) and Art Nouveau popular at the time. Instead, they tried to create art that was personal and intimate.

Vincent van Gogh - Starry Night Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin helped to inspire this movement. Think about how they painted using startling color and brush strokes of thick paint. Van Gogh's Starry Night is a good example. His night sky, flecked with yellow stars and swirling blue, might look nothing like the night sky in your neighborhood, but van Gogh wanted you to think about gusts of wind and twinkling stars.

And this was just what the German Expressionists tried to accomplish with paint. They wanted their audience to not only see something, but to feel it too. Although many of the artists involved in this movement had formal artistic training, they were inspired by the work of folk painters and African artists.

The Die Brücke artists tackled all sorts of subjects such as still lifes, people and landscapes. Not only did they paint, but they also carved blocks of wood, slathered them in ink, and pressed them down on to pages to make prints. Because the artists carved the images by hand, many prints took on a primitive appearance.

Paul Gauguin - Women of Tahiti
Women of Tahiti
Paul Gauguin
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To ensure that as many people as possible saw their work, German Expressionists organized traveling exhibitions. To cover expenses, patrons funded the exhibitions, and in return received portfolios of woodblock prints. Imagine finding one of these today!

Die Brücke fueled another movement known as "Der Blaue Reiter," or The Blue Rider. Led by Wassily Kandinsky, this group created an increasingly abstract art, characterized by irregular shapes and colors that blended into other colors. Kandinsky believed that visual art and music share many qualities, and he named many of his paintings the way a composer names a symphony. (The Blue Four: Feininger, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, and Klee in the New World)

German Expressionist art tapered off shortly after World War I. The Nazis, who forced many Expressionist artists into exile during the 1930s, did not welcome its often sharp, social commentary.

Editor's Note: Jugendstil (Youth Style) was the German form of Art Nouveau. Developed first in England, the style spread to other countries — in Austria it was called Sezessionstil, in Italy it was Stile Floreale, in Spain it was Modernismo, and in Germany it was called Jugendstil.


German and Austrian Expressionism in the United States, 1900-1939
by Edward Hagemann

Primitive Renaissance: Rethinking German Expressionism (Modern German Culture and Literature Series)
by David Pan

German Expressionism: Art and Society
by Stephanie Barron

German Expressionist Painting.
by Peter Howard Selz

Haunted Screen Expressionism in the German Cinema
by Lotte Eisner

Expressionism: A Revolution in German Art
by Dietmar Elger

German Expressionist Woodcuts
by Shane Weller

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Berlin Street Scene
Berlin Street Scene
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
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German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity
by Jill Lloyd

The Expressionists (World of Art)
by Wolf-Dieter Dube

Lulu Plays and Other Sex Tragedies (German Expressionism)
by Frank Wedekind

Vincent van Gogh - Starry Night
Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh
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The Ideological Crisis of Expressionism: The Literary and Artistic German War Colony in Belgium 1914-1918
by Rainer Rumold, O.K. Werckmeister

Paul Klee - Comforts of the Orient
Comforts of the Orient
Paul Klee
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The Blue Four: Feininger, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, and Klee in the New World
by Vivian Endicott Barnett

by Jelena Hahl-Koch

Klee and Kandinsky in Munich and at the Bauhaus
by Beeke Sell Tower

Vasily Kandinsky: A Colorful Life: The Collection of the Lenbachhaus, Munich
by Vivian Endicott Barnett

Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Munter
by Annegret Hoberg, Wassily Kandinsky