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Expressionism is a modernistmovement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists have sought to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality.
The term is sometimes suggestive of angst. In a historical sense, much older painters such as Matthias Grünewald and El Greco are sometimes termed expressionist, though the term is applied mainly to 20th-century works. The Expressionist emphasis on individual and subjective perspective has been characterized as a reaction to positivism and other artistic styles such as Naturalism and Impressionism.
Origin of the term
While the word expressionist was used in the modern sense as early as 1850, its origin is sometimes traced to paintings exhibited in 1901 in Paris by obscure artist Julien-Auguste Hervé, which he called Expressionismes. An alternative view is that the term was coined by the Czech art historian Antonin Mat?j?ek in 1910 as the opposite of impressionism: "An Expressionist wishes, above all, to express himself... (an Expressionist rejects) immediate perception and builds on more complex psychic structures... Impressions and mental images that pass through ... people's soul as through a filter which rids them of all substantial accretions to produce their clear essence [...and] are assimilated and condense into more general forms, into types, which he transcribes through simple short-hand formulae and symbols."
In 1905, a group of four German artists, led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, formed Die Brücke (the Bridge) in the city of Dresden. This was arguably the founding organization for the German Expressionist movement, though they did not use the word itself. A few years later, in 1911, a like-minded group of young artists formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich. The name came from Wassily Kandinsky's Der Blaue Reiter painting of 1903. Among their members were Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, and Auguste Macke. However, the term Expressionism did not firmly establish itself until 1913. Though mainly a German artistic movement initially and most predominant in painting, poetry and the theatre between 1910 and 1930, most precursors of the movement were not German. Furthermore, there have been expressionist writers of prose fiction, as well as non-German-speaking expressionist writers, and, while the movement had declined in Germany with the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, there were subsequent expressionist works.
Expressionism is notoriously difficult to define, in part because it "overlapped with other major 'isms' of the modernist period: with Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism, Surrealism and Dadaism." Richard Murphy also comments, "the search for an all-inclusive definition is problematic to the extent that the most challenging expressionists such as Kafka, Gottfried Benn and Döblin were simultaneously the most vociferous `anti-expressionists.' "
What can be said, however, is that it was a movement that developed in the early twentieth century, mainly in Germany, in reaction to the dehumanizing effect of industrialization and the growth of cities, and that "one of the central means by which expressionism identifies itself as an avant-garde movement, and by which it marks its distance to traditions and the cultural institution as a whole is through its relationship to realism and the dominant conventions of representation." More explicitly, that the expressionists rejected the ideology of realism.
The term refers to an "artistic style in which the artist seeks to depict not objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse within a person." It is arguable that all artists are expressive but there are many examples of art production in Europe from the 15th century onward which emphasize extreme emotion. Such art often occurs during times of social upheaval and war, such as the Protestant Reformation, German Peasants' War, and Eighty Years' War between the Spanish and the Netherlands, when extreme violence, much directed at civilians, was represented in propagandist popular prints. These were often unimpressive aesthetically but had the capacity to arouse extreme emotions in the viewer.
Expressionism has been likened to Baroque by critics such as art historian Michel Ragon and German philosopher Walter Benjamin. According to Alberto Arbasino, a difference between the two is that "Expressionism doesn't shun the violently unpleasant effect, while Baroque does. Expressionism throws some terrific 'fuck yous', Baroque doesn't. Baroque is well-mannered."
The style originated principally in Germany and Austria. There were a number of groups of expressionist painters, including Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke. Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider, named for a painting) was based in Munich and Die Brücke was originally based in Dresden (although some members later relocated to Berlin). Die Brücke was active for a longer period than Der Blaue Reiter, which was only together for a year (1912). The Expressionists were influenced by various artists and sources including Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh, and African art. They were also aware of the work being done by the Fauves in Paris, who influenced Expressionism's tendency toward arbitrary colours and jarring compositions. In reaction and opposition to French Impressionism, which emphasized the rendering of the visual appearance of objects, Expressionist artists sought to portray emotions and subjective interpretations. It was not important to reproduce an aesthetically pleasing impression of the artistic subject matter, they felt, but rather to represent vivid emotional reactions by powerful colours and dynamic compositions. Kandinsky, the main artist of Der Blaue Reiter group, believed that with simple colours and shapes the spectator could perceive the moods and feelings in the paintings, a theory that encouraged him towards increased abstraction.
The ideas of German expressionism influenced the work of American artist Marsden Hartley, who met Kandinsky in Germany in 1913. In late 1939, at the beginning of World War II, New York City received a great number of major European artists. After the war, Expressionism influenced many young American artists. Norris Embry (1921-1981) studied with Oskar Kokoschka in 1947 and during the next 43 years produced a large body of work in the Expressionist tradition. Norris Embry has been termed "the first American German Expressionist". Other American artists of the late 20th and early 21st century have developed distinct styles that may be considered part of Expressionism. Another prominent artist who came from the German Expressionist "school" was Bremen-born Wolfgang Degenhardt. After working as a commercial artist in Bremen, he migrated to Australia in 1954 and became quite well known in the Hunter Valley region.
After World War II, figurative expressionism influenced worldwide a large number of artists and styles. Thomas B. Hess wrote that "the 'New figurative painting' which some have been expecting as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism was implicit in it at the start, and is one of its most lineal continuities."
The artist and playwright Oskar Kokoschka's 1909 playlet, Murderer, The Hope of Women is often termed the first expressionist drama. In it, an unnamed man and woman struggle for dominance. The man brands the woman; she stabs and imprisons him. He frees himself and she falls dead at his touch. As the play ends, he slaughters all around him (in the words of the text) "like mosquitoes." The extreme simplification of characters to mythic types, choral effects, declamatory dialogue and heightened intensity all would become characteristic of later expressionist plays. The German composer Paul Hindemith created an operatic version of this play, which premiered in 1921.
Expressionist plays often dramatise the spiritual awakening and sufferings of their protagonists. Some utilise an episodicdramatic structure and are known as Stationendramen (station plays), modeled on the presentation of the suffering and death of Jesus in the Stations of the Cross. August Strindberg had pioneered this form with his autobiographical trilogy To Damascus. These plays also often dramatise the struggle against bourgeois values and established authority, frequently personified by the Father. In Sorge's The Beggar, (Der Bettler), for example, the young hero's mentally ill father raves about the prospect of mining the riches of Mars and is finally poisoned by his son. In Bronnen's Parricide (Vatermord), the son stabs his tyrannical father to death, only to have to fend off the frenzied sexual overtures of his mother.
In Expressionist drama, the speech may be either expansive and rhapsodic, or clipped and telegraphic. Director Leopold Jessner became famous for his expressionistic productions, often set on stark, steeply raked flights of stairs (having borrowed the idea from the Symbolist director and designer, Edward Gordon Craig). Staging was especially important in Expressionist drama, with directors forgoing the illusion of reality to block actors in as close to two-dimensional movement. Directors also made heavy use of lighting effects to create stark contrast and as another method to heavily emphasize emotion and convey the play or a scene's message.
In prose, the early stories and novels of Alfred Döblin were influenced by Expressionism, and Franz Kafka is sometimes labelled an Expressionist.
Some further writers and works that have been called Expressionist include:
Theodor Adorno describes expressionism as concerned with the unconscious, and states that "the depiction of fear lies at the centre" of expressionist music, with dissonance predominating, so that the "harmonious, affirmative element of art is banished" (Adorno 2009, 275-76). Erwartung and Die Glückliche Hand, by Schoenberg, and Wozzeck, an opera by Alban Berg (based on the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner), are examples of Expressionist works. If one were to draw an analogy from paintings, one may describe the expressionist painting technique as the distortion of reality (mostly colors and shapes) to create a nightmarish effect for the particular painting as a whole. Expressionist music roughly does the same thing, where the dramatically increased dissonance creates, aurally, a nightmarish atmosphere.
^John Willett, Expressionism. New York: World University Library, 1970, p.25; Richard Sheppard, "German Expressionism", in Modernism:1890-1930, ed. Bradbury & McFarlane, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976, p.274.
^Cited in Donald E. Gordon, Expressionism: Art and Ideas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, p. 175.
^R. S. Furness, Expressionism. London: Methuen, pp.2-14; Willett, pp. 20-24.
^Note the parallel French movement Fauvism and the English Vorticism: "The Fauvist movement has been compared to German Expressionism, both projecting brilliant colors and spontaneous brushwork, and indebted to the same late nineteenth-century sources, especially Van Gogh." Sabine Rewald, "Fauvism", In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/fauv/hd_fauv.htm (October 2004); and "Vorticism can be thought of as English Expressionism." Sherrill E. Grace, Regression and Apocalypse: Studies in North American Literary Expressionism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989, p. 26.
^Sherrill E. Grace, Regression and Apacaypse: Studies in North American Literary Expressionism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989, p.26).
^Richard Murphy, Theorizing the Avant-Garde: Modernism, Expressionism, and the Problem of Postmodernity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1999, p. 43.
^Pedullà, Gabriele; Arbasino, Alberto (2003). "Sull'albero di ciliegie - Conversando di letteratura e di cinema con Alberto Arbasino" [On the cherry tree - Conversations on literature and cinema with Alberto Arbasino]. CONTEMPORANEA Rivista di studi sulla letteratura e sulla comunicazione. L'espressionismo non rifugge dall'effetto violentemente sgradevole, mentre invece il barocco lo fa. L'espressionismo tira dei tremendi «vaffanculo», il barocco no. Il barocco è beneducato (Expressionism doesn't shun the violently unpleasant effect, while Baroque does. Expressionism throws some terrific "Fuck yous", Baroque doesn't. Baroque is well-mannered.)
^Ian Chilvers, The Oxford dictionary of art, Volume 2004, Oxford University Press, p. 506. ISBN0-19-860476-9
^Ian Buruma, "Desire in Berlin", New York Review of Books, December 8, 2008, p. 19.
^Stokel, p.1; Lois Oppenheimer, The Painted Word: Samuel Beckett's Dialogue with Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000, pp.74, 126-7, 128; Jessica Prinz, "Resonant Images: Beckett and German Expressionism", in Samuel Beckett and the Arts: Music, Visual Arts, and Non-Print Media, ed. Lois Oppenheim. New York: Garland Publishing, 1999.
^Ulf Zimmermann, "Expressionism and Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz, in Passion and Rebellion
^R. S. Furness, Expressionism. London: Methuen, 1973, p.81.
^Cowan, Michael (2007). "Die Tücke Des Körpers: Taming The Nervous Body In Alfred Döblin's 'Die Ermordung Einer Butterblume' And 'Die Tänzerin Und Der Leib'". Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies. 43 (4): 482-498. doi:10.3138/seminar.43.4.482.
^Walter H. Sokel, The Writer in Extremis. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1959, pp 3, 29, 84 especially; Richard Murphy, Theorizing the Avant-Garde. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1999, especially pp 41,142.
^Silvio Vietta, Franz Kafka, Expressionism, and Reification" in Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage, eds. Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner. New York: Universe Books, 1983 pp, pp.201-16.
^Richard Murphy, Theorizing the Avant-Garde: Modernism, Expressionism and the Problem of Postmodernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp.74-141; Ulf Zimmermann, "Expressionism and Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz " in Passion and Rebellion, pp.217-234.
^Sheila Watson, Wyndham Lewis Expressionist. Ph.D Thesis, University of Toronto, 1965.
^Sherrill E. Grace, Regression and Apocalypse: Studies in North American Literary Expressionism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989, pp.141-162.
^Raymond S. Nelson, Hemingway, Expressionist Artist. Ames, Iowa University Press, 1979; Robert Paul Lamb, Art matters: Hemingway, Craft, and the Creation of the Modern Short Story. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, c.2010.
^Walter H. Sokel, The Writer in Extremis. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1959, p.1; R. S. Furness, Expressionism. London: Methuen, 1973, p. 81.
^Jeffrey Stayton, "Southern Expressionism: Apocalyptic Hillscapes, Racial Panoramas, and Lustmord in William Faulkner's Light in August". The Southern Literary Journal, Volume 42, Number 1, Fall 2009, pp. 32-56.
^Ken Worpole, Dockers and Detectives. London: Verso Editions, 1983, pp. 77-93.
^The Norton Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, ed Stanley Sadie. New York: Norton1991, p. 244.
^Theodor Adorno, Night Music: Essays on Music 1928-1962. (London: Seagull, 2009), p.274-8.
^Nicole V. Gagné, Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music (Plymouth, England: Scarecrow Press, 2011), p.92.
^Andrew Clements, "Classical preview: The Wooden Prince", The Guardian, 5 May 2007.
^"Expressionism," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-10-30. Retrieved .CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link); Donald Mitchell, Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years: Chronicles and Commentaries. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2005
^Edward Rothstein New York Times Review/Opera: "Wozzeck; The Lyric Dresses Up Berg's 1925 Nightmare In a Modern Message". New York Times February 3, 1994; Theodor Adorno, Night Music (2009), p.276.