modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism


people, terms, and concepts: expressionism as a mode of art (vs. formalism and realism), expressive color (vs. decorative color and mimetic color), bourgeoisie (middle classes), proletariat (lower classes), social criticism, primitivism, woodcut printing

By now you should be pretty comfortable with the concepts of expressionism, realism, and formalism as modes of modernist art:  What is the primary aim of each?  How does each use the elements of art (line, shape, color, etc) to achieve its aim?  How does the viewer judge the success of works in each mode?  

The idea and practice of art as expression (with a lower-case ‘e’) stretches all the way back to Ancient times, but ‘modernist’ expressive artists became much more willing to depart from the visual appearances of things to convey powerful emotional effects.  Be able to analyze in some detail how any of the works below use formal elements (line, shape, brushwork, perspective, color, and so on) to make an emotional impact on the viewer (i.e. to 'tell' her or him how to feel about the subject being represented).  We already saw this modern understanding of expressionism in the Symbolists Van Gogh and Gauguin, of course.  How is it also true of Ensor, Rouault, and Munch?  Why do masks and prostitutes so often appear in expressionist works?  Your textbook puts Fauvism in a chapter entitled “Expressionism”:  how is this justifiable?  On the other hand, how is Expressionism generally distinguishable from Fauvism?

Expressionism (with a capital ‘E’) is also the name of a group of artistic movements, primarily in Germany, starting around 1905 and lasting well into the 30s and beyond.  Why was Expressionism (and the emotional condition of angst) particularly associated with and embraced by Nordic (German and Scandinavian) artists, writers, film-makers, and philosophers?

There are of course a lot of different emotions that one can express, but at the risk of being reductive, early-twentieth century Expressionism tended to concentrate on two major themes:

social criticism, particularly of the bourgeoisie, technology, and city life.  Like the Symbolists, then, the Expressionists were generally anti-modern modernists.  The use of art to criticize current social conditions (and the ruling classes) has become stereotypical of modern artists, but was relatively uncommon before the 20th century.  Why?

primitivism, a celebration of nature, rural life, and the proletariat/peasants.  We already saw this theme in Gauguin and the Symbolists, of course; all the same issues apply here (primitivism and the non-Western, primitivism and religion, the crude, primitivist style as authentic, etc).  Why was woodcut printing the perfect medium for the Expressionists?

How do the works below exemplify one or the other (or both) of these themes?

Although it dates much later than the works below, and although Picasso is primarily associated with Cubism, Guernica is one of the most famous examples of expressionist (with a lowercase ‘e’) art, so we also covered it here ....

Ensor, Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1888

Munch, the Scream, 1893

Käthe Köllwitz, The Peasants' Revolt, etching and drypoint, 1903

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace, 1906

Kirchner, Potsdam Square, Berlin, 1914

Nolde, The Prophet (woodcut print), 1913

Picasso, Guernica, 1937