It’s been said that every art movement is a rejection of the movement that came before, and that’s certainly true of Expressionism. In the late 1800’s Impressionism swept through Europe, sending artists outside to paint quiet rivers and genteel garden parties. The Impressionists brought subjectivity to art, exploring how perspective and light change how the world appears to us, but their composition and subject matter was as a whole, pastoral, romantic, and generally toothless.
As the 20th century dawned, painting flowers and girls knitting began to seem less relevant. A massive increase in industrialization stripped away folk culture and moved people and money into urban centers. Political tensions would explode into World War 1 within two decades, and Nietzsche’s doubt in the existence of god and the goodness of man mirrored a cultural wave of creeping anxiety. This new world needed a new art.
Expressionism was not an organized movement. There was no core group of artists or dedicated exhibitions like Impressionism. Instead, expressionist art was developed simultaneously by many artists throughout Europe, unified through bold colors and a haunting distortion of the human form. In many ways, the murky unease of Edvard Munch’s Anxiety is the prototypical Expressionist artwork, though James Ensor’s gleeful horror certainly contributed.
In 1905 two art groups laid the psychological underpinnings for Expressionism. Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian immigrant to Germany, founded the art group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) to express spiritual truths and subjective perspectives. The same year, the German artists Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff founded Die Brücke (The Bridge), a group who used woodcut prints and primitive styles to create a more crude, authentic art.
Over the next ten years, artists like Paula Modersohn-Becker and the sex-obsessed Egon Schiele would solidify what is now recognized at the Expressionist visual style — thick paint and heavy brush strokes, human forms, simplified or grotesqueified, but always rendered with feeling.