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Expressionism is the tendency of an artist to distort reality for emotional effect. Expressionism is exhibited in many art forms, including painting, literature, film, and architecture. Additionally, the term often implies emotional angst - the number of cheerful expressionist works is relatively small.

In this general sense, painters such as Mathias Grünewald and El Greco can be called expressionist, though in practice, the term is applied mainly to 20th century works.

This article is part of the

Modernism series.
Next: Post-modernism

20th century
Modernism (music)
20th century classical music
Modernist poetry
Modernist poetry in English
Symbolism (arts)
Modern architecture
Modern dance

Origin of the Term

The term was coined by Czech art historian Antonin Matějček in 1910 as the opposite of impressionism: "An Expressionist wishes, above all, to express himself [sic]....[An Expressionist rejects] immediate perception and builds on more complex psychic structures....Impressions and mental images pass through his 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." (Gordon, 1987)

Some of the movement's leading painters in the early 20th century were:

There were a number of Expressionist groups in painting, including the Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke. Later in the 20th century, the movement influenced a large number of other artists, including the so-called abstract expressionists.

Expressionism is also found in other art forms - the novels of Franz Kafka are often described as expressionist, for example, and there was a concentrated Expressionist movement in early 20th century German theatre centred around Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller . In music, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg both wrote pieces described as expressionist (Schoenberg also made expressionist paintings).

In architecture, the work of Eric Mendelsohn comes under this category. An important building by him under this style is the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany. There is an organic quality to buildings using this approach.

Some sculptors also used this style, as for example Ernst Barlach.

There was also an expressionist movement in film, often referred to as German Expressionism: see expressionism (film).


  • Antonin Matějček cited in Gordon, Donald E. (1987). Expressionism: Art and Ideas, p.175. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 03:32:31
Last updated: 02-11-2005 17:47:38