Expressionism in Art


expressionism, term used to describe works of art and literature in which the representation of reality is distorted to communicate an inner vision. The expressionist transforms nature rather than imitates it.

In Art

In painting and the graphic arts, certain movements such as the Brücke (1905), Blaue Reiter (1911), and new objectivity (1920s) are described as expressionist. In a broader sense the term also applies to certain artists who worked independent of recognized schools or movements, e.g., Rouault, Soutine, and Vlaminck in France and Kokoschka and Schiele in Austria—all of whom made aggressively executed, personal, and often visionary paintings. Gauguin, Ensor, Van Gogh, and Munch were the spiritual fathers of the 20th-century expressionist movements, and certain earlier artists, notably El Greco, Grünewald, and Goya exhibit striking parallels to modern expressionistic sensibility. See articles on individuals, e.g., Ensor.


See C. Zigrosser, The Expressionists (1957); F. Whitford, Expressionism (1970); J. Willett, Expressionism (1970); W. Pehnt, Expressionist Architecture (1973).

In Literature

In literature, expressionism is often considered a revolt against realism and naturalism, seeking to achieve a psychological or spiritual reality rather than record external events in logical sequence. In the novel, the term is closely allied to the writing of Franz Kafka and James Joyce (see stream of consciousness). In the drama, Strindberg is considered the forefather of the expressionists, though the term is specifically applied to a group of early 20th-century German dramatists, including Kaiser, Toller, and Wedekind. Their work was often characterized by a bizarre distortion of reality. Playwrights not closely associated with the expressionists occasionally wrote expressionist drama, e.g., Karel Čapek's R.U.R. (1921) and Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1921). The movement, though short-lived, gave impetus to a free form of writing and of production in modern theater.


See E. Krispyn, Style and Society in German Literary Expressionism (1964); P. Vogt et al., Expressionism: A German Intuition, 1905–1920 (1980); P. Rabbe, ed., The Era of German Expresionism (tr. 1986); J. Weinstein, The End of Expressionism (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Expressionism in Art: Selected full-text books and articles

The German Expressionists: A Generation in Revolt By Bernard S. Myers Frederick A. Praeger, 1966
Twentieth Century Painters: From Cubism to Abstract Art By Bernard Dorival; Arnold Rosin Universe Books, 1958
Librarian’s tip: "The Reaction of Irrational Forces: The Painters of Anguish and the Second Expressionist Growth" begins on p. 34
Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology By Francis Frascina; Charles Harrison; Deirdre Paul Harper & Row, 1982
Librarian’s tip: Section Four "Expressionism"
Gateway to the Twentieth Century: Art and Culture in a Changing World By Jean Cassou; Emil Langui; Nikolaus Pevsner McGraw-Hill, 1962
Librarian’s tip: "Independent Expressionists: From Kokoschka to Chagall" begins on p. 153
Expressionism By Hubbard, Guy Arts & Activities, Vol. 130, No. 3, November 2001
Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany By Norma Broude; Mary D. Garrard Icon Editions, 1982
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 14 "Gender or Genius?: The Women Artists of German Expressionism"
Masters of Modern Art By Alfred H. Barr Jr Simon and Schuster, 1954
Librarian’s tip: "The German Expressionists" begins on p. 58
A Concise History of Modern Painting By Herbert Read Frederick A. Praeger, 1959
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of expressionism begins on p. 50
A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Art By Ian Chilvers Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of expressionism begins on p. 201
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