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 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, 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).