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Expressionism, in the visual, literary, and performing arts, is a movement or tendency that strives to express subjective feelings and emotions rather than to depict reality or nature objectively. The movement developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a reaction against the academic standards that had prevailed in Europe since the Renaissance (1300-1600), particularly in French and German art academies. In expressionism the artist tries to present an emotional experience in its most compelling form. The artist is not concerned with reality as it appears, but with its inner nature and with the emotions aroused by the subject. To achieve these ends, the subject is frequently caricatured, exaggerated, distorted, or otherwise altered in order to stress the emotional experience in its most intense and concentrated form.

Painting and Sculpture 
Although the term expressionism was not applied to painting until 1911, the qualities attributed to expressionism are found in the art of almost every country and period. Some Chinese and Japanese art emphasizes the essential qualities of the subject rather than its physical appearance. Painters and sculptors of medieval Europe exaggerated their work for the Romanesque and early Gothic cathedrals to intensify the spiritual expressiveness of the subjects. 

Intense religious emotions expressed through distortion are found also in the 16th-century works of the Spanish painter El Greco and the German painter Matthias Grünewald. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, the French artist Paul Gauguin, and the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch used violent colors and exaggerated lines to obtain intense emotional expression. 

The Scream (1893), with its sinuous forms, violent colors, and screaming subject, is the most famous of his paintings. Munch’s expressive and anguished works profoundly influenced the development of German expressionism. 

  • Norway 1963. Edvard Munch, self-portrait, issued in commemoration of the artist's 100th birth anniversary.   

Due to current copyright legislation I am, unfortunately, unable to show any of Munch's paintings on postage stamps from his native Norway. 

Norway 1963. Expressionism. Edvard Munch. Self-portrait.

The most important expressionist group in the 20th century was the German school. The movement was originated by the painters Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, who in 1905 organized a group in Dresden called Die Brücke (German for “The Bridge”). They were joined in 1906 by Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein and in 1910 by Otto Müller. In 1912 this group exhibited paintings along with a Munich group that called itself Der Blaue Reiter (German for “The Blue Rider”). The latter included the German painters Franz Marc, August Macke, Gabriele Münter, and Heinrich Campendonk; the Swiss artist Paul Klee, and the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. This phase of expressionism in Germany was marked by the conscious exposition of emotions and a heightened sense of the possibilities for expressive content. Die Brücke was dissolved by 1913, and World War I (1914-1918) halted most group activity. The Fauves in France (headed by Henri Matisse), as well as the French painter Georges Braque and the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, at a certain period of their development, were influenced by expressionism. Due to current copyright legislation I am, unfortunately, unable to show any postage stamps by the mentioned artists. 

A new phase of German expressionism called Die Neue Sachlichkeit (German for “The New Objectivity”) grew out of the disillusionment following World War I. 

Germany 1991. Expressionism. Otto Dix. Self-portrait.

Germany 1986. Expressionism. Oskar Kokoschka. Self-portrait.

Founded by Otto Dix and George Grosz, it was characterized by both a concern for social truths and an attitude of satiric bitterness and cynicism. 

Expressionism meanwhile had become an international movement, and the influence of the Germans is seen in the works of such artists as the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka, the French artist Georges Rouault, the Lithuanian-born French painter Chaïm Soutine, the Bulgarian-born French painter Jules Pascin, and the American painter Max Weber. 

  • Germany 1991. Otto Dix. Self-portrait. Issued for the artist's 100th birth anniversary. 

  • Germany 1986. Oskar Kokoschka. Self-portrait. issued for the artist's 100th birth anniversary. 

Twilight German-born artist George Grosz is known for merciless caricatures of his fellow Germans, and he was among the first German artists to openly criticize the Nazi party. 

Abstract expressionism 
appeared in the United States following the end of World War II in 1945. Abstract expressionist painters, such as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, attempted to transmit basic emotions through vivid colors, bold forms, and spontaneous methods of dripping and flinging paint -- all without recognizable subjects. The Spanish painters Salvador Dali and Joán Miro both began their career as abstract expressionists, but developed later Surrealism. An outstanding exponent of Abstract Expressionism is the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. 

Die Brücke (The Bridge)
Emil Nolde was a member of Die Brücke, a group of German expressionist painters. He is known for his brilliant colors both in oil paintings and in watercolors like Still Life, Tulips, painted about 1930, which is in the collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. 

Expressionist sculpture has its roots in the work of the 19th-century French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who expressed the inner states of his subjects within representational forms. He strongly influenced the work of his assistant Antoine Bourdelle, the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrovic, the British sculptor Jacob Epstein, and the German Ernst Barlach. 

All of their work, expressed in the human figure, involves various forms of distortion, such as exaggeration, elongation, and massiveness. 

  • France 1937. Auguste Rodin in front of his sculpture "The Thinker". 

Expressionism in architecture manifested through the Bauhaus Movement, that originated in Germany and spread to Denmark through Functionalism, and to The Netherlands through the artistic movement "De Stijl". The Bauhaus style is also known as the International Style, and was marked by the absence of ornament and ostentatious façades and by harmony between function and the artistic and technical means of manufacture.

USA 1982. Expressionism. Architecture.

Among the foremost modern architects ("Expressionist Architects") are the Danish Jorn Utzon, the Danish Johann Otto von Spreckelsen, the French le Corbusier, the Finnish-born Eero Saarinen, and the American Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Literature, Drama, Film
The objectives of expressionism in literature, notably in the novel and the drama, are similar to those in art. The characters and scenes are presented in a stylized, distorted manner with the intent of producing emotional shock. The German painter Alfred Kubin, a member of Der Blaue Reiter, wrote one of the earliest expressionist novels, Die Andere Seite (The Other Side). He exerted a profound influence on the Czech novelist Franz Kafka and other writers. The early expressionist playwrights, August Strindberg of Sweden and Frank Wedekind of Germany, exerted an international influence on the next generation of playwrights. These included the Germans Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller, the Czech Karel Capek, and the Americans Eugene O’Neill and Elmer Rice.

Expressionist drama gave rise to a new approach to staging, scene design, and directing. The object was to create a totally unified stage picture that would increase the emotional impact of the production on the audience. Among prominent directors were the Germans Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator and the Russian Vsevolod Meyerhold. Set designers such as Edward Henry Gordon Craig of Britain and Robert Edmond Jones of the United States used techniques similar to those of expressionist painters to provide visual stimulation consonant with the dramas. Expressionist painting and drama also influenced the cinema, as can be seen in the German films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), with its nightmarish perspectives and mask like makeup, and The Last Laugh (1924), notable for the brilliant use of lighting and camera angles to convey the bitter story. 

Sources and links:

Important Expressionist painters, sculptors, architects, and authors in alphabetical order. Click on any of the active links to go to the individual artist's page. Those marked with an asterisk are represented on this page.


  • Otto Dix (German painter) *

  • George Grosz (German painter) 

  • Erich Heckel (German painter) 

  • Zacharias Heinesen (Faeroese painter) 

  • Friedensreich Hundertwasser (Austrian painter)

  • Sámal Joensen-Mikines (Faeroese painter) 

  • Wassily Kandinsky (Russian painter) 

  • Harm Kamerlingh Onnes (Dutch painter)

  • Paul Klee (Swiss painter)

  • Oskar Kokoschka (Austrian painter) *

  • August Macke (German painter) 

  • Franz Marc (German painter) 

  • Amadeo Modigliani (Italian painter)

  • Edvard Munch (Norwegian painter) * 

  • Emil Nolde (German painter)

  • Ingálvur av Reyni (Faeroese painter) 

  • Georges Rouault (French painter) 

  • Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (German painter)

  • Egon Schiele (Austrian painter)

  • Mark Rothko (American painter)


  • Cobra Group (not shown for copyright legislation)




Off-springs from Expressionism

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