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The Expressionism Art Movement Explained


From the stage set by European modernists and the economic devastation of the Great Depression, Expressionism carved a visceral path in the art world by channeling the tumultuous spirit of the era. Marked by vibrant colors and deep abstraction, this intense emotionality and focus on individual perspective laid the groundwork for the rise of American Abstract Expressionism in the mid-20th century.

Abstract Expressionism, a broad term for abstract art developed by artists in the United States, is often characterized by an air of spontaneity and gestural brushstrokes.

Artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko transformed raw emotion and existential angst into groundbreaking works, altering the abstract art landscape for generations to come. Join us as we unravel the history behind the bold innovations that defined this pivotal moment in art.

The Genesis of Expressionism

The roots of Expressionism can be traced back to the German avant-garde movement that developed in the early 20th century as a reaction against Impressionism and realist art. Where the Impressionists sought to explore the effects of light and the ephemerality of nature, the first Expressionists wanted to push the bounds of how to physically emulate the complexity of human emotions.

In 1905, Ernest Ludwig Kirchner led a group of four German students in founding Die Brücke in Dresden. Six years later, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) burst onto the scene in Munich with members Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc (the two founders), Paul Klee and others.

Rapallo-Stürmischer Tag by Wassily Kandinsky. 1906. Oil on canvas board. M.S. Rau.
Rapallo-Stürmischer Tag by Wassily Kandinsky. 1906. Oil on canvas board. M.S. Rau.

The groups’ push to explore the anxious emotions associated with their dissatisfaction with reality was innately tied to the period of German history from 1910 to 1925. On the brink of World War I, Germany suffered from rapid industrialization’s massive impact on rural life and traditional values.

Artists from the Die Brücke group, such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, sought to alienate themselves from the materialistic reality of the modern world. They employed abstract forms to bridge the past and present, creating a new artistic language. In contrast, the Der Blaue Reiter group, inspired by Fauvism, embraced an exuberant use of color to express their vision and emotional intensity. Wassily Kandinsky’s 1903 painting Der Blaue Reiter, where the group’s name came from, symbolized the belief that artists should paint with the freedom and spirit to explore spirituality through abstraction.

Blue Horse I by Franz Marc. 1911. Oil on canvas. Städische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Blue Horse I by Franz Marc. 1911. Oil on canvas. Städische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Unfortunately, World War I was detrimental to both movements, with artists like Marc and Auguste Macke perishing on the front lines and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner being admitted to a sanatorium following a mental breakdown. Germany’s loss in the war only further deteriorated national morale, and German expressionists created works rife with sardonic responses to the dire sociopolitical situation of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933).

First Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 1929.
First Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 1929.

Expressionism Evolves

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, venues for European avant-garde art began opening in New York after the First World War. While the iconic Armory Show in 1913 first shocked American audiences with its display of Fauvism, Expressionism and Futurism all in one space— the exhibition only lasted one month.

In 1929, the Museum of Modern Art (1929) broke ground, and its founder, Alfred Barr, began rapidly collecting from artists like Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso and the German Expressionists. The Museum of Living Art (1927-1943) at New York University exposed American artists to the playful abstractions of Piet Mondrian and the Dadaists.

Foggy Morning by Wolf Kahn. 1973. Oil on canvas. M.S. Rau.
Foggy Morning by Wolf Kahn. 1973. Oil on canvas. M.S. Rau.

In 1932, German expressionist Hans Hofmann emigrated to the United States, and in 1934 began teaching art students the way of European abstraction in New York. His impact as a forward-thinking instructor with a hands-on teaching method paved the way for many modern American artists, including Wolf Kahn, Ray Eames, Helen Frankenthaler, Marisol Escobar and many others. Through these avenues, American artists aspired to transcend the status quo of realistic, figural depictions, pushing the boundaries of artistic expression.

Transition to Abstract Expressionism

World War II profoundly impacted the trajectory of Abstract Expressionism throughout the world. The turmoil of the spread of Nazism and the label of degeneracy on abstract art by Adolph Hitler led many European artists to seek refuge in the United States, including Salvador Dalí, Mondrian, Léger, Max Ernst and André Breton.

The Three Sphinxes of Bikini by Salvador Dalí. 1947. Oil on canvas. Morohashi Museum of Modern Art, Japan.
The Three Sphinxes of Bikini by Salvador Dalí. 1947. Oil on canvas. Morohashi Museum of Modern Art, Japan.

The war precipitated a moral crisis, prompting artists to grapple with themes of existential angst, human suffering and the search for meaning in a fractured world. Abstract Expressionists paired Surrealism’s aim at exploring the subconscious mind through art with the post-war lessons of humanity’s irrationality and anxiety.

The movement marked a radical departure from the traditional representations before the war, namely the preeminence of figurative art. Figurative art, with its emphasis on recognizable subjects, seemed inadequate when confronting the existential questions entrenched in the heart of the post-war era. Instead, abstract expressionists believed abstract forms, liberated from the constraints of depicting reality, could more capably capture the raw essence of the human experience. This evolution underscored the movement’s central tenet: art as an immediate, visceral expression of the human condition.

Key Figures in Abstract Expressionism

The shift towards spontaneity, gesture and the physical act of painting itself can be seen in members of the New York School, such as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and Willem de Kooning’s dynamic brushstrokes. Abstract Expressionism is split into two: action painters and color field painters.

Convergence by Jackson Pollock. 1952. Oil on canvas. Buffalo AKG Art Museum.
Convergence by Jackson Pollock. 1952. Oil on canvas. Buffalo AKG Art Museum.

Masters of Motion: The Action Painters

Jackson Pollock, born in Wyoming in 1912, was a member of the action painter group. Action painters worked spontaneously to transform their inner emotions onto the canvas.

Pollock is most well-known for his “drip technique,” where he placed his canvas on the ground and splashed liquid household paint across the surface as if conducting an improvisational dance. This approach allowed him to engage with his work from all angles and create paintings with intricate webs of color brimming with emotion. Considered a shining star among modern American painters of the 1950s, Pollock was monumentally famous in his life before he tragically died in 1956 at age 44 in an alcohol-related single-car collision.

Gaea by Lee Krasner. 1966. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Gaea by Lee Krasner. 1966. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Despite often being overshadowed by her husband, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner carved out her own powerful legacy as an Abstract Expressionist. Krasner’s style was distinguished by her bold, dynamic style and her role as a leading female artist in a male-dominated field. Krasner's resilience and determination helped her overcome the challenges of being a woman in the art world and paved the way for future generations of female artists. Her oils and house paint on canvas are characterized by vigorous brushstrokes, making up complex compositions with vibrant colors.

Krasner remained committed to experimentation throughout her career and pulled from various inspirations, such as Cubism, her studies under Hans Hofmann, and Surrealism, to form her own unique style. Her ability to reinvent her techniques throughout her career—whether through her early collages, her energetic "Little Images" series, or her later monumental works—demonstrated her enduring relevance and formidable talent, securing her place as a pioneering force in modern art.

Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red) by Mark Rothko. 1949. Oil on canvas. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red) by Mark Rothko. 1949. Oil on canvas. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Chromatic Landscapes of the Color-Field Painters

While action painters explored emotion through a riotous canvas experience, color field painters created simplified compositions using large areas of flat colors. Color field painters used mythology and novel psychoanalytic theories on dreams and the subconscious as the baseboard for exploring deeper human emotions.

Mark Rothko, perhaps one of the most famous of this grouping, is renowned for his profound exploration of color. His signature style enveloped large canvases with soft-edged, rectangular fields of color to evoke deep emotional responses and transcendent viewing experiences. The simplicity of the work belied his technique, which required a meticulous layering of pigments and careful attention to the interplay of light and shadow to produce a luminosity that invited contemplation.

Despite his significant contributions to modern art, Rothko’s personal life was marked by struggles with mental illness and health issues that led to an early death by suicide. Themes of isolation and depression permeated throughout his work, especially the later series known as “Black on Grays.” His ability to convey complex emotions through seemingly simple forms continues to captivate audiences, cementing his place as a controversial yet visionary artist.
Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV by Robert Motherwell. 1953-1954. Dedalus Foundation.

Robert Motherwell, one of the youngest members of the New York school born in 1915, also relied heavily on philosophical debates for his approach to art. Motherwell’s work explored the human psyche, reflecting profound engagement with existentialism, struggle and the subconscious.

Motherwell’s paintings often featured bold, gestural strokes and somber color palettes, while his collages filled with exuberant colors and patterns reflected the tumult and violence of the 1940s and post-war period. Reflecting on his early collages, Motherwell said, “It was here that I found... my ‘identity.’”

Influenced by his background in philosophy and his exposure to Surrealism, Motherwell's art was imbued with a sense of intellectual rigor and emotional resonance. Central to his oeuvre was his “Elegies to the Spanish Republic” series, which he completed from 1948 to 1967 and spanned 108 paintings.

These works, which he considered a “lamentation or a funeral song” after the Spanish Civil War, are characterized by their stark black-and-white forms and were a poignant meditation on mourning and the human condition. The psychological dimension of his work set him apart, making him a key figure in the movement who bridged the gap between abstract form and profound emotional content.

Quick Guide to Expressionist Painters You Should Know:

  • Edvard Munch (1863–1944) - Known for his iconic painting "The Scream," Munch explored themes of existential angst and human emotion.
  • Egon Schiele (1890–1918) - An Austrian painter famous for his raw, erotic, and emotionally intense works, often featuring distorted figures.
  • Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) - A pioneer of abstract art, Kandinsky’s work is characterized by vibrant colors and geometric shapes. He sought to convey spiritual and emotional experiences, most notably the body’s auditory response to music, through his art.
  • Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) - A founding member of the Die Brücke group, Kirchner's work is known for its vivid colors and dynamic compositions.
  • Franz Marc (1880–1916) - A key figure in the Der Blaue Reiter group, Marc is renowned for his depictions of animals in natural settings, using bright, symbolic colors.
  • Emil Nolde (1867–1956) - Nolde's works are known for their expressive brushwork and bold use of color, often depicting religious and fantastical themes.
  • Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980) - His portraits and landscapes are marked by their intense emotionality and bold, expressionistic style.
  • Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976) - Another member of the Die Brücke group, Schmidt-Rottluff's work features strong colors and simplified forms.
  • Max Beckmann (1884–1950) - Known for his dramatic, often dark compositions, Beckmann's work spans both the expressionist and new objectivity movements.
  • Paul Klee (1879–1940) - Although his style is varied, Klee's work often includes expressionist elements, characterized by playful lines and vivid colors.

Legacy and Continuing Influence

Untitled Spin Painting by Damien Hirst. 2010. Household gloss on canvas. M.S. Rau.
Untitled Spin Painting by Damien Hirst. 2010. Household gloss on canvas. M.S. Rau.

Each of the artists discussed above, as well as countless other members of the abstract expressionist movement, can be found in art museums across the globe. Despite the decades that have passed since the peak of the movement, the large-scale and frenetic energy of the works continues to reverberate, with modern audiences still grappling with the severity of the human condition.

The emphasis on automatism, or creating artwork without any conscious intention, in Abstract Expression is reflected in the work of contemporary artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and George Condo. Condo’s early work “American Cancer” from 1981 demonstrates his mastery of vibrant expressionism. The acrylic on canvas has a saturated color palette and feverish brushwork that captures the sensation of American life as he knew it, all evident in this electric composition.

There are recognizable references to the American flag and map, urban architecture and the traditional female nude, but Condo purposefully obscures a logical narrative to instead evoke the dizzying experience of the American metropolis. His merging of abstraction with figurative elements creates a powerful and unique visual language.

American Cancer by George Condo. 1981. Acrylic on canvas. M.S. Rau.
  American Cancer by George Condo. 1981. Acrylic on canvas. M.S. Rau.

The cultural love for Expressionist paintings is steadfast. The philosophical meaning imbued in Expressionist art allows for a continued reinterpretation, including its impact on subsequent art movements and relevance to contemporary art practices. Through exhibitions, publications and academic discourses, scholars continue the conversation of Abstract Expressionism alive, ensuring its significance remains prominent in the canon of art history. Explore our collection of modern art and dive in!


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