Obelisk Art History

A more authentic, anxious, and grotesque reality

Expressionism, Modernism

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’sAnxiety 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.


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Reed Enger, "Expressionism, A more authentic, anxious, and grotesque reality," in Obelisk Art History, Published April 05, 2015; last modified July 21, 2019, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/modernism/expressionism/.

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Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889, James Ensor

Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889

James Ensor, 1888
The Assassination, James Ensor

The Assassination

James Ensor, 1890
The Intrigue, James Ensor

The Intrigue

James Ensor, 1890
Man of Sorrows, James Ensor

Man of Sorrows

James Ensor, 1891
Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man, James Ensor

Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man

James Ensor, 1891
The Despair of Pierrot, James Ensor

The Despair of Pierrot

James Ensor, 1892
Anxiety, Edvard Munch


Edvard Munch, 1894
Madonna, Edvard Munch


Edvard Munch, 1894
Love and Pain (Vampire), Edvard Munch

Love and Pain (Vampire)

Edvard Munch, 1895
Puberty, Edvard Munch


Edvard Munch, 1894-1895
The Day After, Edvard Munch

The Day After

Edvard Munch, 1894-1895
The Scream, Edvard Munch

The Scream

Edvard Munch, 1895
Separation, Edvard Munch


Edvard Munch, 1896
The Dangerous Cooks, James Ensor

The Dangerous Cooks

James Ensor, 1896
The Skeleton Painter, James Ensor

The Skeleton Painter

James Ensor, 1896
Self-portrait — 1897, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Self-portrait — 1897

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1897
Pregnant Woman with Folded Hands, Käthe Kollwitz

Pregnant Woman with Folded Hands

Käthe Kollwitz, 1898-1899
Dance of Life, Edvard Munch

Dance of Life

Edvard Munch, 1899-1900
Red and White, Edvard Munch

Red and White

Edvard Munch, 1899-1900
Self portrait in front of flowering trees, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Self portrait in front of flowering trees

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1902
The Wretched, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller

The Wretched

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1902
Four Girls in Åsgårdstrand, Edvard Munch

Four Girls in Åsgårdstrand

Edvard Munch, 1903
La Vie, Pablo Picasso

La Vie

Pablo Picasso, 1903
Peasant War print 5: Outbreak, Käthe Kollwitz

Peasant War print 5: Outbreak

Käthe Kollwitz, 1903
Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt, James McNeill Whistler

Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt

James McNeill Whistler, 1897-1903
The Brooch / Eva Mudocci, Edvard Munch

The Brooch / Eva Mudocci

Edvard Munch, 1903
The Old Guitarist, Pablo Picasso

The Old Guitarist

Pablo Picasso, 1903-1904
Woman Ironing, Pablo Picasso

Woman Ironing

Pablo Picasso, 1904
After the Concert, at the Fireplace, Mikhail Vrubel

After the Concert, at the Fireplace

Mikhail Vrubel, 1905
Peasant War print 3: Whetting the Scythe, Käthe Kollwitz

Peasant War print 3: Whetting the Scythe

Käthe Kollwitz, 1905
Child with Crane, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Child with Crane

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906
In the Theatre I, Marianne von Werefkin

In the Theatre I

Marianne von Werefkin, 1906
Italian woman with a plate in her raised hand, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Italian woman with a plate in her raised hand

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906
Old Woman in the Garden, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Old Woman in the Garden

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906
Portrait of Lee Hoetger with Flowers, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Portrait of Lee Hoetger with Flowers

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906
Reclining Mother and Child 2, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Reclining Mother and Child 2

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906
Peasant War print 4: Seizing Weapons, Käthe Kollwitz

Peasant War print 4: Seizing Weapons

Käthe Kollwitz, 1906
Self Portrait — 1906, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Self Portrait — 1906

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906
Sitting Girl and Nude, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Sitting Girl and Nude

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906
Peasant War print 6: Battlefield, Käthe Kollwitz

Peasant War print 6: Battlefield

Käthe Kollwitz, 1907
Figure Ashore, Wenzel Hablik

Figure Ashore

Wenzel Hablik, 1904-1907
Jealousy, Edvard Munch


Edvard Munch, 1907
Joys of Life, Wenzel Hablik

Joys of Life

Wenzel Hablik, 1904-1907
Self Portrait — 1907, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Self Portrait — 1907

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906-1907
Self-portrait with a camellia branch, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Self-portrait with a camellia branch

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1907
Self-portrait with hat and veil, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Self-portrait with hat and veil

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906-1907
Still life: child's head with white cloth, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Still life: child's head with white cloth

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1907
Peasant War print 1: The Tiller, Käthe Kollwitz

Peasant War print 1: The Tiller

Käthe Kollwitz, 1907
Peasant War print 2: Raped, Käthe Kollwitz

Peasant War print 2: Raped

Käthe Kollwitz, 1907-1908
Staffelsee Lake, Bavaria, Gabriele Münter

Staffelsee Lake, Bavaria

Gabriele Münter, 1908
Next Movement
Futurism, Modernism


Blood, speed and violence.


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