Not to be confused with Impressionistic Music, which has different characteristics from this type of music.
The term expressionism "was probably first applied to music in 1918, especially to Schoenberg", because like the painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) he avoided "traditional forms of beauty" to convey powerful feelings in his music (Sadie 1991, 244). Theodor Adorno sees the expressionist movement in music, as seeking to "eliminate all of traditional music's conventional elements, everything formulaically rigid". This he sees as analogous "to the literary ideal of the 'scream' ". As well Adorno sees expressionist music, as seeking "the truthfulness of subjective feeling without illusions, disguises or euphemisms". Adorno also describes it 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).
Expressionist music often features a high level of dissonance, extreme contrasts of dynamics, constant changing of textures, "distorted" melodies and harmonies, and angular melodies with wide leaps (Anon. 2014).
The three central figures of musical expressionism are Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and his pupils, Anton Webern (1883–1945) and Alban Berg (1885–1935), the so-called Second Viennese School. Other composers that have been associated with expressionism are Ernst Krenek (1900–1991) (the Second Symphony, 1922), Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) (Die junge Magd, Op. 23b, 1922, setting six poems of Georg Trakl), Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) (Three Japanese Lyrics, 1913), Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) (late piano sonatas) (Adorno 2009, 275). Another significant expressionist was Béla Bartók (1881–1945) in early works, written in the second decade of the 20th century, such as Bluebeard's Castle (1911) (Gagné 2011, 92), The Wooden Prince (1917) (Clements 2007), and The Miraculous Mandarin (1919) (Bayley 2001, 152). American composers with a sympathetic "urge for such intensification of expression" who were active in the same period as Schoenberg's expressionist free atonal compositions (between 1908 and 1921) include Carl Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, and, "to a certain extent", Charles Ives, whose song "Walt Whitman" is a particularly clear example (Carter 1965, 9). Important precursors of expressionism are Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), and Richard Strauss (1864–1949) (Anon. 2000; Mitchell 2005, 334). Later composers, such as Peter Maxwell Davies (1934–2016), "have sometimes been seen as perpetuating the Expressionism of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern" (Griffiths 2002), and Heinz Holliger's (b. 1939) most distinctive trait "is an intensely engaged evocation of … the essentially lyric expressionism found in Schoenberg, Berg and, especially, Webern" (Whittall 1999, 38).
Musical expressionism is closely associated with the music Arnold Schoenberg composed between 1908 and 1921, which is his period of "free atonal" composition, before he devised twelve-tone technique (Schoenberg 1975, 207–208). Compositions from the same period with similar traits, particularly works by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern, are often also included under this rubric, and the term has also been used pejoratively by musical journalists to describe any music in which the composer's attempts at personal expression overcome coherence or are merely used in opposition to traditional forms and practices (Fanning 2001). It can therefore be said to begin with Schoenberg's Second String Quartet (written 1907–08) in which each of the four movements gets progressively less tonal (Fanning 2001). The third movement is arguably atonal and the introduction to the final movement is very chromatic, arguably has no tonal centre, and features a soprano singing "Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten" ("I feel the air of another planet"), taken from a poem by Stefan George. This may be representative of Schoenberg entering the "new world" of atonality (Fanning 2001).
In 1909, Schoenberg composed the one-act 'monodrama' Erwartung (Expectation). This is a thirty-minute, highly expressionist work in which atonal music accompanies a musical drama centered around a nameless woman. Having stumbled through a disturbing forest, trying to find her lover, she reaches open countryside. She stumbles across the corpse of her lover near the house of another woman, and from that point on the drama is purely psychological: the woman denies what she sees and then worries that it was she who killed him. The plot is entirely played out from the subjective point of view of the woman, and her emotional distress is reflected in the music. The author of the libretto, Marie Pappenheim, was a recently graduated medical student familiar with Freud's newly developed theories of psychoanalysis, as was Schoenberg himself (Carpenter 2010, 144–46).
In 1909, Schoenberg completed the Five Pieces for Orchestra. These were constructed freely, based upon the subconscious will, unmediated by the conscious, anticipating the main shared ideal of the composer's relationship with the painter Wassily Kandinsky. As such, the works attempt to avoid a recognisable form, although the extent to which they achieve this is debatable.
Between 1908 and 1913, Schoenberg was also working on a musical drama, Die glückliche Hand. The music is again atonal. The plot begins with an unnamed man, cowered in the centre of the stage with a beast upon his back. The man's wife has left him for another man; he is in anguish. She attempts to return to him, but in his pain he does not see her. Then, to prove himself, the man goes to a forge, and in a strangely Wagnerian scene (although not musically), forges a masterpiece, even with the other blacksmiths showing aggression towards him. The woman returns, and the man implores her to stay with him, but she kicks a rock upon him, and the final image of the act is of the man once again cowered with the beast upon his back.[original research?]
This plot is highly symbolic, written as it was by Schoenberg himself, at around the time when his wife had left him for a short while for the painter Richard Gerstl. Although she had returned by the time Schoenberg began the work, their relationship was far from easy (Biersdorfer 2009). The central forging scene is seen as representative of Schoenberg's disappointment at the negative popular reaction to his works. His desire was to create a masterpiece, as the protagonist does. Once again, Schoenberg is expressing his real life difficulties.
In around 1911, the painter Wassily Kandinsky wrote a letter to Schoenberg, which initiated a long lasting friendship and working relationship. The two artists shared a similar viewpoint, that art should express the subconscious (the "inner necessity") unfettered by the conscious. Kandinsky's Concerning The Spiritual In Art (1914) expounds this view. The two exchanged their own paintings with each other, and Schoenberg contributed articles to Kandinsky's publication Der Blaue Reiter. This inter-disciplinary relationship is perhaps the most important relationship in musical expressionism, other than that between the members of the Second Viennese School. The inter-disciplinary nature of expressionism found an outlet in Schoenberg's paintings, encouraged by Kandinsky. An example is the self-portrait Red Gaze (see Archived link), in which the red eyes are the window to Schoenberg's subconscious.
Anton Webern and Alban Berg
Anton Webern's music was close in style to Schoenberg's expressionism, c. 1909–13, and subsequently his music "became increasingly constructivist on the surface and increasingly concealed its passionate expressive core" (Fanning 2001). His Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 (1911–13) are from this period.
Alban Berg's contribution includes his Op. 1 Piano Sonata, and the Four Songs of Op. 2. His major contribution to musical expressionism, however, were very late examples, the operas Wozzeck, composed between 1914 and 1925, and unfinished Lulu (Reich 2013). Wozzeck is highly expressionist in subject material in that it expresses mental anguish and suffering and is not objective, presented, as it is, largely from Wozzeck's point of view, but it presents this expressionism within a cleverly constructed form. The opera is divided into three acts, the first of which serves as an exposition of characters. The second develops the plot, while the third is a series of musical variations (upon a rhythm, or a key for example). Berg unashamedly uses sonata form in one scene in the second act, describing himself how the first subject represents Marie (Wozzeck's mistress), while the second subject coincides with the entry of Wozzeck himself. This heightens the immediacy and intelligibility of the plot, but is somewhat contradictory with the ideals of Schoenberg's expressionism, which seeks to express musically the subconscious unmediated by the conscious.
Berg worked on his opera Lulu, from 1928 to 1935, but failed to complete the third act. According to one view, "Musically complex and highly expressionistic in idiom, Lulu was composed entirely in the 12-tone system" (Reich 2013), but this is by no means a universally accepted interpretation. The literary basis of the opera is a pair of related plays by Frank Wedekind, whose writing is virtually a "reversal of the expressionist aesthetic", because of its complete indifference to the characters' psychological states of mind, and portrayal of characters whose "personalities have little or no basis in reality and whose distortions are not the product of psychological tension" (Gittleman 1968, 134). The plainly evident emotion of Berg's music is dislocated from its cause and "deflected onto something else impossible to define", thereby contradicting its own intensity and undermining the listener's "instinctive obedience to emotive instructions", contrary to expressionism, which "tells its listeners pretty unambiguously how to react" (Holloway 1979, 37). In contrast to the plainly expressionist manner of Wozzeck, therefore, Lulu is closer to the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) of the 1920s, and to Bertolt Brecht's epic theatre (Jarman 1991, 19–20, 94–96).
Indeed, by the time Wozzeck was performed in 1925, Schoenberg had introduced his twelve-tone technique to his pupils, representing the end of his expressionist period (in 1923) and roughly the beginning of his twelve-tone period.
As can be seen, Arnold Schoenberg was a central figure in musical expressionism, although Berg, Webern, and Bartók did also contribute significantly, along with various other composers.
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"Everyone who renders directly and honestly whatever drives him to create is one of us."
Expressionism emerged simultaneously in various cities across Germany as a response to a widespread anxiety about humanity's increasingly discordant relationship with the world and accompanying lost feelings of authenticity and spirituality. In part a reaction against Impressionism and academic art, Expressionism was inspired most heavily by the Symbolist currents in late nineteenth-century art. Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and James Ensor proved particularly influential to the Expressionists, encouraging the distortion of form and the deployment of strong colors to convey a variety of anxieties and yearnings. The classic phase of the Expressionist movement lasted from approximately 1905 to 1920 and spread throughout Europe. Its example would later inform Abstract Expressionism, and its influence would be felt throughout the remainder of the century in German art. It was also a critical precursor to the Neo-Expressionist artists of the 1980s.
The arrival of Expressionism announced new standards in the creation and judgment of art. Art was now meant to come forth from within the artist, rather than from a depiction of the external visual world, and the standard for assessing the quality of a work of art became the character of the artist's feelings rather than an analysis of the composition.
Expressionist artists often employed swirling, swaying, and exaggeratedly executed brushstrokes in the depiction of their subjects. These techniques were meant to convey the turgid emotional state of the artist reacting to the anxieties of the modern world.
Through their confrontation with the urban world of the early twentieth century, Expressionist artists developed a powerful mode of social criticism in their serpentine figural renderings and bold colors. Their representations of the modern city included alienated individuals - a psychological by-product of recent urbanization - as well as prostitutes, who were used to comment on capitalism's role in the emotional distancing of individuals within cities.
Most Important Art
Expressionism Artworks in Focus:
The Scream (1893)
Artist: Edvard Munch
Throughout his artistic career, Munch focused on scenes of death, agony, and anxiety in distorted and emotionally charged portraits, all themes and styles that would be adopted by the Expressionists. Here, in Munch's most famous painting, he depicts the battle between the individual and society. The setting of The Scream was suggested to the artist while walking along a bridge overlooking Oslo; as Munch recalls, "the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence...shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature." Although Munch did not observe the scene as rendered in his painting, The Scream evokes the jolting emotion of the encounter and exhibits a general anxiety toward the tangible world. The representation of the artist's emotional response to a scene would form the basis of the Expressionists' artistic interpretations. The theme of individual alienation, as represented in this image would persist throughout the twentieth century, captivating Expressionist artists as a central feature of modern life.Read More ...
Expressionism Overview Continues Below
With the turn of the century in Europe, shifts in artistic styles and vision erupted as a response to the major changes in the atmosphere of society. New technologies and massive urbanization efforts altered the individual's worldview, and artists reflected the psychological impact of these developments by moving away from a realistic representation of what they saw toward an emotional and psychological rendering of how the world affected them. The roots of Expressionism can be traced to certain Post-Impressionist artists like Edvard Munch in Norway, as well as Gustav Klimt in the Vienna Secession, and finally emerged in Germany in 1905.
Edvard Munch in Norway
The late nineteenth-century Norwegian Post-Impressionist painter Edvard Munch emerged as an important source of inspiration for the Expressionists. His vibrant and emotionally charged works opened up new possibilities for introspective expression. In particular, Munch's frenetic canvases expressed the anxiety of the individual within the newly modernized European society; his famous painting The Scream (1893) evidenced the conflict between spirituality and modernity as a central theme of his work. By 1905 Munch's work was well known within Germany and he was spending much of his time there as well, putting him in direct contact with the Expressionists.
Gustav Klimt in Austria
Another figure in the late nineteenth century that had an impact upon the development of Expressionism was Gustav Klimt, who worked in the Austrian Art Nouveau style of the Vienna Secession. Klimt's lavish mode of rendering his subjects in a bright palette, elaborately patterned surfaces, and elongated bodies was a step toward the exotic colors, gestural brushwork, and jagged forms of the later Expressionists. Klimt was a mentor to painter Egon Schiele, and introduced him to the works of Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh, among others, at an exhibition of their work in 1909.
The Advent of Expressionism in Germany
Although it included various artists and styles, Expressionism first emerged in 1905, when a group of four German architecture students who desired to become painters - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Erich Heckel - formed the group Die Brücke (the Bridge) in the city of Dresden. A few years later, in 1911, a like-minded group of young artists formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich, after the rejection of Wassily Kandinsky's painting The Last Judgment (1910) from a local exhibition. In addition to Kandinsky, the group included Franz Marc, Paul Klee, and August Macke, among others, all of whom made up the loosely associated group.
The Term "Expressionism"
The term "Expressionism" is thought to have been coined in 1910 by Czech art historian Antonin Matejcek, who intended it to denote the opposite of Impressionism. Whereas the Impressionists sought to express the majesty of nature and the human form through paint, the Expressionists, according to Matejcek, sought only to express inner life, often via the painting of harsh and realistic subject matter. It should be noted, however, that neither Die Brücke, nor similar sub-movements, ever referred to themselves as Expressionist, and, in the early years of the century, the term was widely used to apply to a variety of styles, including Post-Impressionism.
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Concepts and Styles
Die Brücke: Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel, and Bleyl
Influenced by artists such as Munch, van Gogh, and Ensor, the members of the Dresden-based Die Brücke group sought to convey raw emotion through provocative images of modern society. They depicted scenes of city dwellers, prostitutes, and dancers in the city's streets and nightclubs, presenting the decadent underbelly of German society. In works such as Kirchner's Street, Berlin (1913), they emphasized the alienation inherent to modern society and the loss of spiritual communion between individuals in urban culture; fellow city dwellers are distanced from one another, acting as mere commodities, as in the prostitutes at the forefront of Kirchner's composition.
Unlike the pastoral scenes of Impressionism and the academic drawings of Neoclassicism, Die Brücke artists used distorted forms and jarring, unnatural pigments to elicit the viewer's emotional response. The group was similarly united by a reductive and primitive aesthetic, a revival of older media and medieval German art, in which they used graphic techniques such as woodblock printing to create crude, jagged forms.
The group published a woodcut broadsheet in 1906, called Programme, to accompany their first exhibition. It summarized their break with prevailing academic traditions calling for a freer, youth-oriented aesthetic. Although mostly written by Kirchner, this poster served as manifesto stating the ideals of Die Brücke. The members of Die Brücke drew largely from the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in terms of both their artistic project and their philosophical grounding. Their name came from a quote from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85) that states, "What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end." The group exhibited and collaborated through 1913, when Kirchner penned Chronik der Brücke (Brücke Chronicle) and the collective effectively dissolved.
Der Blaue Reiter: Kandinsky, Macke, Klee, and Marc
The artists of Der Blaue Reiter group shared an inclination towards abstraction, symbolic content, and spiritual allusion. They sought to express the emotional aspects of being through highly symbolic and brightly colored renderings. Their name emerged from the symbol of the horse and rider, derived from one of Wassily Kandinsky's paintings; for Kandinsky, the rider symbolized the transition from the tangible world into the spiritual realm and thus acted as a metaphor for artistic practice. For other members such as Franz Marc, Paul, Klee, and Auguste Macke, this notion became a central principle for transcending realistic depiction and delving into abstraction.
Although Der Blaue Reiter never published a manifesto, its members were united by their aesthetic innovations, which were influenced by medieval and primitivist art forms, Cubism, and Fauvism. However, the group itself was short-lived; with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Franz Marc and Auguste Macke were drafted into German military service and were killed soon after. The Russian members of the group - Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky, and others - were all forced to return home. Der Blaue Reiter dissolved immediately thereafter.
French Expressionism: Rouault, Soutine, and Chagall
Expressionism's elasticity has meant that many artists beyond Germany's borders have been identified with the style. Georges Rouault, the French artist sometimes described as an Expressionist, may have influenced the Germans, rather than the other way around. He learned his vivid use of color and distortion of form from Fauvism, and, unlike his German Expressionist counterparts, Rouault expressed an affinity for his Impressionist predecessors, particularly for the work of Edgar Degas. He is well known for his devotion to religious subjects, and particularly for his many depictions of the crucifixion, rendered in rich color and heavy layers of paint.
The Russian-French Jewish artist Marc Chagall drew upon currents from Cubism, Fauvism, and Symbolism to create his own brand of Expressionism in which he often depicted dreamy scenes of his Belarusian hometown, Vitebsk. While in Paris during the height of the modernist avant-garde, Chagall developed a visual language of eccentric motifs: "ghostly figures floating in the sky, the gigantic fiddler dancing on miniature dollhouses, the livestock and transparent wombs and, within them, tiny offspring sleeping upside down." In 1914, his work was exhibited in Berlin, and had an impact on the German Expressionists extending beyond World War I. He never associated his work with a specific movement, and considered his repertoire to be a vocabulary of images meaningful to himself, but they inspired many, including the Surrealists. Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, "When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is."
Chaim Soutine, the Russian-Jewish, Paris-based painter, was a major proponent of the development of Parisian Expressionism. He synthesized elements from Impressionism, the French Academic tradition, and his own personal vision into an individualized technique and version of the style. The artist's expressive style has proved highly influential on subsequent generations.
Austrian Expressionism: Kokoschka and Schiele
Austrian artists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, were inspired by German Expressionism, but interpreted the style in their individual and personalized manners never forming an official association like the Germans. Kokoschka and Schiele sought to express the decadence of modern Austria through similarly expressive representations of the human body; by sinuous lines, garish colors, and distorted figures, both artists imbued their subjects with highly sexual and psychological themes. Although Kokschka and Schiele were the central proponents of the movement in Austria, Kokoschka became increasingly involved in German Expressionist circles; he left Austria and moved to Germany in 1910. Initially Kokoschka worked in a Viennese Art Nouveau style, but starting in 1908 he instinctively worked as an Expressionist, passionately seeking to expose an inner sensibility of the sitter in his early portraits. Schiele left Vienna in 1912 but remained in Austria, where he worked and exhibited until his death in the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918.
While certain artists rejected Expressionism, others would continue to expand upon its innovations as a style. For example, in the 1920s, Kandinsky transitioned to completely non-objective paintings and watercolors, which emphasized color balance and archetypal forms, rather than figurative representation. However, Expressionism would have its most direct impact in Germany and would continue to shape its art for decades afterwards. After World War I, Expressionism began to lose impetus and fragment. The Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement developed as a direct response to the highly emotional tenets of Expressionism, while the Neo-Expressionists emerged in Germany and then in the United States much later in the twentieth century, reprising the earlier Expressionist style.
New Objectivity: Dix, Grosz and Beckmann
Already by 1918, the Dada manifesto claimed, "Expressionism...no longer has anything to do with the efforts made by active people." But its ethos would have a vivid afterlife; it was crucial in the early formation of artists Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Max Beckmann, who together formed the movement known as the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). These artists sought, as the name suggests, an unsentimental and objective approach to artistic production. Their naturalistic renderings of individuals and urban scenes highlighted this new aesthetic and paralleled the general attitude of practicality that characterized Weimar culture.
Neo-Expressionism: Baselitz, Kiefer, and Schnabel
The emergence of Georg Baselitz's paintings of layered, vibrant colors and distorted figures in the 1960s, and of Anselm Kiefer's images buried amidst thick impasto built up from a variety of materials on the canvas in the 1970s, signaled an important and influential revival of the style within Germany, which would eventually culminate in a global Neo-Expressionist movement in the 1980s. Artists in New York City, like Julian Schnabel, also employed thick layers of paint, unnatural color palettes and gestural brushwork to hearken back to the Expressionist movement earlier in the twentieth century.
The original Expressionist movement's ideas about spirituality, primitivism, and the value of abstract art would also be hugely influential on an array of unrelated movements, including Abstract Expressionism. The Expressionists' metaphysical outlook and instinctive discomfort with the modern world impelled them to antagonistic attitudes that would continue to be characteristic of various avant-garde movements throughout the century.