A more authentic, anxious, and grotesque reality

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.

Reed Enger, "Expressionism, A more authentic, anxious, and grotesque reality," in Obelisk Art History, Published April 05, 2015; last modified July 21, 2019,

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Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889

James Ensor, 1888

The Assassination

James Ensor, 1890

The Intrigue

James Ensor, 1890

Man of Sorrows

James Ensor, 1891

Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man

James Ensor, 1891

The Despair of Pierrot

James Ensor, 1892


Edvard Munch, 1894


Edvard Munch, 1894-1895

The Day After

Edvard Munch, 1894-1895

The Scream

Edvard Munch, 1895


Edvard Munch, 1896

The Dangerous Cooks

James Ensor, 1896

The Skeleton Painter

James Ensor, 1896

Self-portrait — 1897

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1897

Pregnant Woman with Folded Hands

Käthe Kollwitz, 1898-1899

Dance of Life

Edvard Munch, 1899-1900

Red and White

Edvard Munch, 1899-1900

Self portrait in front of flowering trees

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1902

The Wretched

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1902

Four Girls in Åsgårdstrand

Edvard Munch, 1903

La Vie

Pablo Picasso, 1903

Peasant War print 5: Outbreak

Käthe Kollwitz, 1903

Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt

James McNeill Whistler, 1897-1903

The Brooch / Eva Mudocci

Edvard Munch, 1903

The Old Guitarist

Pablo Picasso, 1903-1904

Woman Ironing

Pablo Picasso, 1904

After the Concert, at the Fireplace

Mikhail Vrubel, 1905

Peasant War print 3: Whetting the Scythe

Käthe Kollwitz, 1905

Child with Crane

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906

In the Theatre I

Marianne von Werefkin, 1906

Italian woman with a plate in her raised hand

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906

Old Woman in the Garden

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906

Portrait of Lee Hoetger with Flowers

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906

Reclining Mother and Child 2

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906

Peasant War print 4: Seizing Weapons

Käthe Kollwitz, 1906

Self Portrait — 1906

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906

Sitting Girl and Nude

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906

Peasant War print 6: Battlefield

Käthe Kollwitz, 1907

Figure Ashore

Wenzel Hablik, 1904-1907


Edvard Munch, 1907

Joys of Life

Wenzel Hablik, 1904-1907

Self Portrait — 1907

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906-1907

Self-portrait with a camellia branch

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1907

Self-portrait with hat and veil

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906-1907

Still life: child's head with white cloth

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1907

Peasant War print 1: The Tiller

Käthe Kollwitz, 1907

Peasant War print 2: Raped

Käthe Kollwitz, 1907-1908

Staffelsee Lake, Bavaria

Gabriele Münter, 1908

Peasant War print 7: The Prisoners

Käthe Kollwitz, 1908

Giulia Leonardi

Ferdinand Hodler, 1910
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