What is Expressionism? The Art of the Emotional Over the Physical

 In Art & Gallery News, Articles
"The Bastille" (1954; M. 111), Marc Chagall, Expressionism, Expressionist Art

“The Bastille” (1954; M. 111), Marc Chagall

In realist art circles, objectivity is the name of the game. Say that an artist’s subject is a bowl of fruit, for example. Some would want a painter to depict the fruit in the most accurate way possible, with every blemish and curve perfectly rendered.

But what about the artists who don’t wish to objectively remove their emotions from the work? Does subjectivity disqualify an artwork from galleries and museums? I’ll let Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” a pioneering work of the Expressionism movement, answer that question for you.

What do we mean when we say “Expressionism”? While Impressionism and the works of Impressionist artists like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir sought to depict light, motion, and color as accurately as they could in a two-dimensional medium, Expressionism is a lot less concerned about reality.

"Umbrella Man at Sea" (2006), Peter Max, Expressionism, Expressionist Art

“Umbrella Man at Sea” (2006), Peter Max

Instead, Expressionism puts the personal and emotional at the forefront of art, with subject matter and accuracy as the last of its worries. In fact, the term “Expressionism” was coined by Czech historian Antonin Matějček in 1910 to specifically mean the “opposite” of Impressionism.

Granted, it would be incredibly difficult to find a work of art that lacks any emotion. An artist’s desire to create comes from their emotions, both positive and negative.

However, Expressionist artists bring those emotions into their depictions, elevating their emotional interpretations over any sense of trying to convey the objective “truth” of their subjects. By pushing back at centuries of artistic tradition, Expressionism changed the entire landscape of modern art and inspired numerous 21st-century artists to let their emotions take the reins.

But how did this movement begin in the first place?

"Last Light" (2018), Alexandre Renoir

“Last Light” (2018), Alexandre Renoir


Bridge Over Impressionist Waters: The Origins of Expressionism

At the turn of the 20th century in Western Europe, society was evolving at a rapid pace. Intense industrialization had taken the continent by storm, with innovations in the manufacturing and communication worlds creating a sense of unease in the general public. The breakneck growth of technology and the urbanization of large cities brought with it feelings of isolation and disconnect with the natural world.

Understandably, these emotions and anxieties began bleeding into the art of the era.

The two art groups that created Expressionism as we know it today—Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter—formed in Germany in the early 20th century. In Dresden, four architecture students Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner created a communal art group called Die Brücke (The Bridge). They wanted to serve as a “bridge” to the future of art by evoking intense emotional responses using unnatural forms, colors, and compositions, all inspired by the modern world.

"Street, Dresden" (1919), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Image via MOMA), , Expressionism, Expressionist Art

“Street, Dresden” (1919), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Image via MOMA)

Their works shared similarities with the Fauvism movement in France, led by Henri Matisse, in their usage of bright colors and atypical shapes to convey emotion.

In its founding, Die Brücke was meant to be a youthful response to centuries of realism in art. In a 1906 manifesto made on a woodcut print, Die Brücke wrote, “With a belief in continuing evolution, in a new generation of creators as well as appreciators, we call together all youth. And as youth carrying the future, we intend to obtain freedom of movement and of life for ourselves in opposition to older, well-established powers. Whoever renders directly and authentically that which impels him to create is one of us.”

Through this call to action, the young artists of Western Europe were tasked to build a new art movement—Expressionism.

"Tete de Femme a la Couronne de Fleurs" (1964), Pablo Picasso. Currently on display at Park West Museum, Expressionism, Expressionist Art

“Tete de Femme a la Couronne de Fleurs” (1964), Pablo Picasso. Currently on display at Park West Museum.

Die Brücke artists concentrated largely on depicting the mass chaos of the new urbanization surrounding them, painting cityscapes with exaggerated, jagged peaks and vibrant colors. Pushing boundaries more than the Fauves did, Die Brücke brought the underground German culture of nightclubs and lower-class decadence into their art while still conveying their own personal sense of emotion and unrest.

A second group, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), named after the Wassily Kandinsky painting, was formed in Munich in 1911. This art collective was made of Russian emigrants like Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky, and Marianne von Werefkin and German artists Franz Marc, August Macke, and Gabriele Münter. The Kandinsky painting was chosen as the group’s namesake because of its depiction of a figure on horseback riding from reality into a spiritual and emotional realm.

"Der Blaue Reiter" (1903), Wassily Kandinsky (public domain), Expressionism, Expressionist Art

“Der Blaue Reiter” (1903), Wassily Kandinsky (public domain)

If the Kandinsky painting didn’t give it away, Der Blaue Reiter artists were fascinated with rendering the spiritual as opposed to the physical. While their styles varied, interests in Primitivism and the emotional landscape dominated their works.

As opposed to Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter was a large force in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Expressionism and Abstract Art both reject realism and try to convey emotions, however, Expressionism retains a sense of form and symbolism while Abstract Art abandons all recognizable images. Der Blaue Reiter merged these ideas, creating a completely new branch of Expressionism that influences modern art to this day.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter disbanded, but their legacy lives on. As seen by these artists below, Expressionism continues to grow in popularity and is still practiced in the 21st century.


Expressionism in the 20th and 21st Centuries

From the genesis of Expressionism to today, artists have embraced the movement’s focus on capturing emotions through evocative imagery. Here are three artists who brought their own unique Expressionist energy to different moments over the past 100 years.


Marc Chagall

If we’re ranking the most powerful emotions, it’s hard to top love. But how can something as complex as love make its way onto a canvas? In the words of Russian-born artist Marc Chagall, “In our life, there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.”

"Femme de Cirque" (1960), Marc Chagall

“Femme de Cirque” (1960), Marc Chagall

After fleeing the jailing of Jewish artists in St. Petersburg and studying art in Paris in the early 20th century, Chagall returned to his hometown of Vitebsk, Russia to develop his Expressionist style. Taking what he learned from the Surrealists and Fauves in Paris, Chagall built upon their traditions of channeling the unconscious and abandoning realist form to render pure emotions through his artwork.

A large amount of Chagall’s inspiration initially came from his wife Bella Rosenfeld and, after her death, from other relationships throughout the rest of his life. While his works maintain some connection to form as opposed to fully embracing abstraction, his use of bright, vibrant colors and varying techniques make his emotions apparent.

"Le Cercle Rouge" (1966; M. 440), Marc Chagall

“Le Cercle Rouge” (1966; M. 440), Marc Chagall

Chagall reiterated repeatedly that his faith in love was the primary inspiration for his art. “Only love interests me and I am only in contact with things that revolve around love,” he once said.


Peter Max

Expressionism could also be found all over American Pop Art and visual art of the 1960s. With so many emotions present in that era of U.S. politics, creatives turned to their art to express themselves. And, it’s safe to say that few artists had more of an impact on ‘60s Expressionism than Peter Max.

"Flower Blossom Lady" (2012), Peter Max

“Flower Blossom Lady” (2012), Peter Max

Max’s family traveled extensively during his formative years. Living in Germany, China, Israel, and Brooklyn before starting his adult life, Max quickly developed an obsession with art that followed him everywhere. From a young age, Max was fascinated with how color and sound interact, creating canvases meant to convey auditory subjects through color.

It was when Max moved to Brooklyn in the 1950s that he was first able to channel his love of American pop culture into his art, pioneering the Neo-Expressionist movement. In 1961, Max opened a graphic design studio with his friends and began receiving national praise for his psychedelic Expressionist works, full of abstraction and raw emotion.

"Zero Prism' (2012), Peter Max

“Zero Prism’ (2012), Peter Max

Like most Pop Artists and graphic designers, Max’s work wasn’t confined to galleries or museums. Many of his prints could be found on movie posters, billboards, or hanging on the walls of college dorm rooms. His artwork became so ubiquitous during this period that Max truly helped set the emotional tone of the 1960s through his art.



Carrying the torch for modern Expressionism, David Le Batard, otherwise known as Lebo, blends folk art, comic visuals, and graffiti influences to create his signature “Postmodern Cartoon Expressionism.”

"This is a Holy Place" (2019), David "Lebo" Le Batard

“This is a Holy Place” (2019), David “Lebo” Le Batard

Lebo, the child of Cuban immigrant parents, was surrounded by Cuban art from an early age, which influenced his future works immensely. Like most children, he was fascinated with cartoons and brought this enthusiasm into his art, creating graphic illustrations with varying brushstrokes and styles.

Above all things, Lebo is a storyteller. Instead of simply recreating visuals, Lebo reinvents and builds emotional stories through his abstract imagery and calligraphy.

"Through the Seasons" (2016), David "Lebo" Le Batard

“Through the Seasons” (2016), David “Lebo” Le Batard

This connection to storytelling involves large amounts of research to achieve the emotional response he looks for from his works. “Within the storytelling part and narrative aspect of what I do, the research that goes into it is the cornerstone of it,” he says.

A proud believer in the postmodern theory that history is continuous and culture has no concrete boundaries, Lebo’s works display cross-cultural narratives through his vibrant, Expressionist compositions.

"I am Here" (2019), David "Lebo" Le Batard

“I am Here” (2019), David “Lebo” Le Batard

“It’s discovering similarities, researching them, and the themes that I want to fill my life with, so that is love, spirituality–things that I think speak to something much higher,” he says.


Without emotion, art as we know it wouldn’t exist. Artists are driven to create as a way to grapple with their feelings and viewers are drawn to their works because these emotions are universal.

The Expressionists took this relationship and asked their audiences, in the words of Peter Frampton, “Do you feel like we do?”

Nine times out of ten, the answer was, and still is, “Yes.”


If you’re interested in collecting Expressionist art or want to know more about artists who specialize in Expressionism, register for our exciting online auctions or contact our gallery team at 1-800-521-9654, ext. 4 or at sales@parkwestgallery.com.




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Detail from "Picador" (1953), Pablo Picasso. (White earthenware clay plate painted with brown and green pigments and glaze.)