German Expressionism Art Movement & Characteristics

German Expressionism Art Movement & Characteristics

Roughly a hundred years ago, a group of artists took Germany by storm and cut ties with the predecessors' style.

Via vivid imagery, bright colors, and bold ideas, German expressionists created something unique that lasted for some time but still influenced artists today.

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German Expressionism Art Movement

German Expressionism was an art movement that preferred ideas over reality, emotion over reason, and boldness over tradition. In the upcoming paragraphs, we'll discuss German Expressionism, its main figures, and its characteristics.


What is German Expressionism?

German Expressionism was a 20th-century art movement focused on emotion and imagery rather than reality. It was both bold and vivid. When compared to previous artists who preferred to ground themselves in reality and depict nature as is, this movement was an artistic revolution.

The boldness of German Expressionism made its predecessors look opaque and dull in comparison. While German Expressionism was an artistic movement that encompassed painting, sculpting, film-making, and a broad number of art activities, many believe this movement was more than a way of expression.

For the younger generation, it was a way of life. German Expressionism was very influential during the first half of the 20th century and still is.

While its reign was short-lived, its influence over the next generation of artists and everyone who came after is palpable. Many still love German Expressionist pieces today. Paintings from that era are still sold for a considerable amount of money.

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Who are the most important German Expressionist painters?

Countless German expressionists left their mark during the first half of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, it's important to mention two artists: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky; each one led a group of expressionist artists, Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter respectively.

Ernst Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is a foremost figure in German Expressionism. The foundation of his artistic collective Die Brucke (German for "The Bridge") was vital in the creation and evolution of the already-mentioned movement.

His work is a clear reflection of what German Expressionism is. Even during his early work, you can see the defining characteristics of Expressionism, such as employing basic forms and bright colors.

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Unfortunately, his life was cut short before he reached 60 years of age. The German government labeled him a degenerate and sold or destroyed more than 600 pieces of his work during the 1930s.

Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was a Russian-born artist who had a large influence on Russian and German artistic movements. He first started as an art theorist, then became a painter after his 30th birthday.

At age 33, he moved to Germany to continue his studies. He then moved back to Russia after the Soviet revolution to help establish a museum but was declared too foreign for the materialistic Soviet society. He spent his final years traveling throughout Western Europe.

Unlike Kirchner, Kandinsky was more eclectic when expressing himself in painting. Nevertheless, his involvement in art was fundamental for German Expressionism and abstraction in western art.

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Main characteristics of German Expressionism

Breakaway from tradition

One of the most striking characteristics of German Expressionism - perhaps, the one thing contemporary art lovers and critics noticed right away - is its clean break from tradition.

It's not difficult to see why: this peculiar 1920s art movement existed not to represent reality but to express inner feelings. Nevertheless, it's important not to confuse German Expressionism with more abstract ways of expressing inner turmoil via art and painting.

Expressionists usually articulated themselves via basic forms and bright colors - and while they played with certain elements, they always grounded their models and portrayals in reality.

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Basic forms

Sweeping yet precise brushstrokes became the norm for German expressionists who dabbled and dwelt in constant turmoil during the beginning of the 20th century.

This way of creating art could be the result of an uncertain time, where artists found themselves standing on a somewhat contradictory platform: using basic forms to express complicated thoughts and feelings.

Using basic forms doesn't mean artists explored basic ideas or created basic pieces - far from it. You can only accomplish a certain degree of intensity when your strokes create simple results, which become the background for a more playful act featuring bright colors and vivid imagery.

Bright colors

In what seems to be a response to 1800s art movements, expressionists went out of their way to create a contrast with artists who came before them.

German expressionist pieces are bright, colorful, and intense when compared to neoclassic pieces, which appear to be opaque in comparison.

As you now know, one of the defining characteristics of German Expressionism is breaking away from tradition in a clear-cut way that may feel rash and, perhaps, wrathful or dreadful - not because of the art itself but the intent behind cutting ties with previous painters and artists.

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Vivid imagery

Bold scenery, nude, and unnatural lines juxtaposed together in a violent yet glamorous clash come together and true to create most if not all German expressionist paintings.

There's an effort to capture your attention and draw you in. Some of these paintings work as a shock to the system. Such vivid imagery may force you to look away - only to come back for a second take.

Vast personal expression

Some German expressionists worked in similar ways, while others decided to break away from their past and contemporary colleagues just the same.

Germany during the early 1900s was a tumultuous time, and artists broke conventions and rules as they created their way of expressing themselves. An incredible artistic landscape full of vast personal expression was the result of that process.

In that landscape, each blank canvas had a certain mystery, which often culminated in a brilliant, vivid, and unique result - a reflection of the time these artists went through.

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