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expressionism, term used to describe works of art and literature in which the representation of reality is distorted to communicate an inner vision. The expressionist transforms nature rather than imitates it.

In Art

In painting and the graphic arts, certain movements such as the Brücke (1905), Blaue Reiter (1911), and new objectivity (1920s) are described as expressionist. In a broader sense the term also applies to certain artists who worked independent of recognized schools or movements, e.g., Rouault, Soutine, and Vlaminck in France and Kokoschka and Schiele in Austria—all of whom made aggressively executed, personal, and often visionary paintings. Gauguin, Ensor, Van Gogh, and Munch were the spiritual fathers of the 20th-century expressionist movements, and certain earlier artists, notably El Greco, Grünewald, and Goya exhibit striking parallels to modern expressionistic sensibility. See articles on individuals, e.g., Ensor.


See C. Zigrosser, The Expressionists (1957); F. Whitford, Expressionism (1970); J. Willett, Expressionism (1970); W. Pehnt, Expressionist Architecture (1973).

In Literature

In literature, expressionism is often considered a revolt against realism and naturalism, seeking to achieve a psychological or spiritual reality rather than record external events in logical sequence. In the novel, the term is closely allied to the writing of Franz Kafka and James Joyce (see stream of consciousness). In the drama, Strindberg is considered the forefather of the expressionists, though the term is specifically applied to a group of early 20th-century German dramatists, including Kaiser, Toller, and Wedekind. Their work was often characterized by a bizarre distortion of reality. Playwrights not closely associated with the expressionists occasionally wrote expressionist drama, e.g., Karel Čapek's R.U.R. (1921) and Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1921). The movement, though short-lived, gave impetus to a free form of writing and of production in modern theater.


See E. Krispyn, Style and Society in German Literary Expressionism (1964); P. Vogt et al., Expressionism: A German Intuition, 1905–1920 (1980); P. Rabbe, ed., The Era of German Expresionism (tr. 1986); J. Weinstein, The End of Expressionism (1989).

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A northern European style that did not treat buildings only as purely functional structures, but as sculptural objects in their own right. Works typical of this style were Rudolph Steiner in Austria, Antonio Gaudí in Spain, P. W. Jensen Klint in Denmark, and Eric Mendelsohn and Hans Poelzig in Germany.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a tendency in European art and literature from approximately 1905 through the 1920’s. Arising in response to the extremely acute social crisis of the first quarter of the 20th century (including World War I and the subsequent revolutionary upheavals), expressionism turned into a protest against the ugliness of modern bourgeois civilization.

A spirit of social criticism distinguishes many expressionist works from the avant-gardist schools of art, such as cubism and surrealism, that developed parallel to or immediately after expressionism. Protesting against world war and social contrasts, against the dominance of material objects and the social mechanism’s suppression of the individual, and sometimes addressing the theme of revolutionary heroism, the expressionists mixed protest with mystified horror before the chaos of existence. The crisis of modern civilization was seen by the expressionists as part of the apocalyptic catastrophe facing nature and humanity. The term “expressionism” was first used in print, in 1911, by H. Walden, the founder of the expressionist journal Der Sturm.

The expressionists held to the principle of the author’s subjective and all-encompassing interpretation of reality prevailing over the world of primary sensations (which was the basis of artistic representation for the impressionists); this resulted in the expressionists’ tendency toward irrationality, exaggerated emotionality, grotesque fantasy, and often the complete or partial elimination of the boundary between human figures and the surrounding natural (or urban) landscape. The clearest manifestation of the principles of expressionism can be found in German and Austrian art.

In literature, expressionism was ushered in by the Austrian G. Trakl and the German G. Heym and E. Stadler; in their tragic poetry, life was perceived as whirling motion, arising not only from the driving rhythm of modern civilization (as portrayed by the Italian futurists) but also from the sensation of impending historic upheavals and the feeling of the individual’s inevitable dependence on his own existence in society.

Analogous themes were developed in the lyric poetry of G. Benn, J. Becher, J. Van Hoddis, F. Werfel, and E. Lasker-Shiiler—poetry that was full of rhetorical tension, to the point of exaltation, and that broke the traditional norms of style, versification, and syntax; in the drama (and especially in the drama dealing with topical issues) of W. Hasenclever, G. Kaiser, L. Rubiner, E. Toller, F. von Unruh, and H. H. Jahnn—whose plays are actually passionate monologues by the authors; and in the prose works—primarily poetic or with predominantly grotesque elements—of the early A. Döblin and of G. Meyrink, L. Frank, and K. Edschmid. Another writer who was close to expressionism was F. Kafka.

At the center of the expressionists’ artistic universe was the human heart, tormented by the soullessness of the modern world and its contrasts—the contrast between what is alive and what is dead, between the spirit and the flesh, and between “civilization” and “nature.” The transformation of reality that was passionately called for by many of the expressionists was to begin with the transformation of man’s consciousness. The artistic consequence of this thesis was that the internal and the external were given equal standing; any upheaval in the hero, or in the “landscape of the soul,” was represented as an upheaval and transformation of reality.

The expressionists did not propose to study the complexity of life processes, and many of their works were conceived as proclamations. In fact, the art of the left expressionists was basically agitational; it was not a “many-faceted” and full-blooded picture of reality embodied in palpable images (that is, cognition), but rather the pointed expression, achieved by all kinds of exaggerations and artistic conventions, of an idea that was important to the author.

The expressionist writers, as well as many of the expressionist artists, were grouped around various journals—namely, Der Sturm (1910 to 1932), which on the whole was far removed from pointedly political issues; Die Aktion (1911 to 1933), which was altogether socially oriented, opposed to war, and permeated with humanist and often revolutionary ideas; and the similarly minded German magazine Die weissen Blätter (1913 to 1921), published in Switzerland. By the end of the 1920’s, such authors as Becher, F. Wolf, and R. Leonhard had moved into the stream of socialist realism.

The stirrings of literary expressionism were felt in Belgium, the Scandinavian countries, Hungary, Croatia, Rumania, and— somewhat later—Poland. In Russian literature, the works of L. Andreev are representative of expressionist tendencies.

The mark that expressionism left in art was a new quality of sharpened imagery. The expressionist tradition is most noticeable in modern German poetry, in the prose work of G. Grass and W. Borchert (Federal Republic of Germany), and in the drama of P. Hacks (German Democratic Republic), P. Weiss (Federal Republic of Germany), Borchert, and M. Frisch and F. Dürrenmatt (Switzerland).

In the representational arts, expressionism had its precursors in such artists as P. Gauguin in France, V. Van Gogh in Holland, E. Münch in Norway, J. Ensor in Belgium, and F. Hodler in Switzerland, who in varying degrees were all close to symbolism. The artists whose work most consistently embodied the principles of expressionism were members of a group named Die Brüke (The Bridge)—E. L. Kirchner, M. Pechstein, E. Heckel, and K. Schmidt-Rottluff; E. Nolde was close to the group. To the dominance of material objects and the suppression of the individual by the social mechanism, the group’s members juxtaposed their commitment to a “primordially free” perception of the world; their creative striving toward heightened self-expression and toward a subjective interpretation of reality became inevitably tinged with anarchic rebelliousness.

Works that were more contemplative in their figurative structure were produced by members of the group called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), which included W. Kandinsky and F. Marc. In many respects their work was close to the mystical ideals of the German romantics, and it gave rise to some of the earliest examples of abstract art.

Artists who were not associated with these groups included the painter, graphic artist, and writer O. Kokoschka, the sculptor, graphic artist, and writer E. Barlach, the painter and graphic artist M. Beckmann, and the sculptor W. Lehmbruck. As a result of the growth of antiwar attitudes and the influence of the masses’ revolutionary movement, the work of many of the expressionist artists—for example, Barlach, G. Grosz, O. Dix, L. Meidner, and O. Nagel—took on an antimilitary and anti-imperialist coloration. In addition to painting and sculpture, whose prevailing tone was “ragingly” emotional and which tended toward sharp color contrasts or abrupt spatial displacements, book graphics and other small-scale graphic works occupy an important (if not a central) place in expressionism. The success achieved by such works is due to their bold use of the grotesque combined with hyperbole and to the extraordinarily intense contrasts between light and shadow.

Expressionism had a wide influence in the artistic culture of Belgium—among many of the artists of the Laethem school and in some of the work of F. Mazereel—as well as in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe; a considerable degree of kinship existed between expressionism and French fauvism.

In architecture (for example, in the work of R. Steiner, E. Mendelsohn, H. Poelzig, and B. Taut), expressionism continued to a great extent the traditions of “modernism”; the expressionists advocated the use of novel constructions and materials, and they strove to create new forms, derived from living matter and growing, as it were, out of the soil.

Expressionism gave definite shape to a form of theater known as Stationendrama, in which the action did not develop gradually but rather moved forward in jumps from one scene to another. Each scene was designed above all to express the same idea—the one idea that was most important to the author; expressionism had adopted this form from F. Wedekind and from Strindberg. Conflict usually unfolded in a historically conventional or in an imaginary setting and was frequently shown in extremely schematic form. The characters, intentionally deprived of individualized traits, were often nameless (being called, for example, “the father,” “the son,” or “the girl”) and were used as mouthpieces for ideas. The language of expressionist drama was marked by passionate intensity.

The drama directors R. Weichert, G. Hartung, L. Jessner, and K. H. Martin worked out some specific expressionist directing and acting techniques in their productions of plays by Becher, Werfel, Hasenclever, Kaiser, Toller, and C. Sternheim. Each character was based on a single trait, or “function,” and became in effect a mask. Much attention was given to unusual stage lighting, abstract stage sets (with predominantly oblique and sloping surfaces), and symbolic props. The early work of B. Brecht evolved in complex interaction with expressionist theater. M. Reinhardt used expressionist techniques in staging various works (for example, the plays of Shakespeare and F. von Schiller). The influence of expressionist theater extended beyond the borders of Germany and Austria—for example, to the USSR (as manifested in the art of the TRAM groups, or theaters of young workers, and in various productions by E. B. Vakhtangov, K. A. Mardzhanov, V. E. Meyerhold, and A. Ia. Tairov).

In film, expressionism came into being and reached its peak from 1915 to 1925. Its themes were characteristically gloomy, mystical, and imbued with the perception of man’s doomed fate in a hostile world antithetical to any form of life. In the imaginary world created by expressionism, nature was replaced by stage sets, with sharp contrasts of light and shadow and optical effects. The use of deformed objects was seen as a way of heightening expressiveness. Hallucinations, dreams, and madmen’s nightmares, which were given prominent play, were depicted by means of multiple exposures and dissolves. It was denied that drama was bound to reveal the true nature of the human psyche; instead, actors used exaggerated gesture and mime, and their performance resembled that of the masque.

Among the best-known expressionist films are The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919, directed by R. Wiene), Nosferatu (1922, F. W. Murnau), Paganini (1923, H. Goldberg and C. Veidt), and Waxworks (1925, P. Leni). Film expressionism had exhausted its possibilities by 1925, but the plastic expressiveness of its best films influenced the development of representational cinematic techniques.

Expressionism first appeared in music in the first decade of the 20th century. Certain elements of expressionism can be found in the late work of G. Mahler (Das Lied von der Erde, 1908; Symphony No. 9, 1909; and Symphony No. 10, unfinished) as well as in the operas of R. Strauss (Salome, 1905, and Elektra, 1908). Primarily, however, expressionism is associated with the composers of the “new Vienna school”—A. Schönberg (the school’s leader), A. Berg, and A. von Webern. Schönberg, whose early compositions were close to the works of late romanticism, subsequently rejected romantic ideals and replaced them with moods of unaccountable anxiety, fear of reality, pessimism, and skepticism.

The expressionists inclined toward sharply contrasting psychic states, such as extreme excitement, spiritual exhaustion, or irremediable depression. Expressionist music lacks equilibrium; it turns predominantly to the sphere of the subconscious that lies hidden in the depths of the human psyche, and it shuns definite or clearly delineated images and finished forms. The composers who leaned toward expressionism worked out a set of special means of musical expression, rejecting the use of broad and tuneful melody and clear tonal foundations; the principle of atonality made it possible to express unstable mental states and vague inexplicable anxiety. Many musical compositions were laconic, merely hinting at some image or some spiritual experience; for example, in Webern’s cycle for orchestra Five Pieces (1913), some sections last less than a minute.

In the early 1920’s, aware of the need for a unifying structural and organizational principle that would match the basic ideas shared by the composers of the new Vienna school and new forms of expression, Schönberg worked out an original system of composition—dodecaphony, or twelve-tone music. Compositions that use the twelve-tone system are based on different kinds of repetitions of a “series” (seeSERIAL MUSIC). According to its proponents, the twelve-tone system was developed from the principles of baroque and early classical musical composition.

A typical early example of expressionism is Schönberg’s mono-drama Erwartung (1909); its dominant mood of oppressive anxious foreboding is resolved by an explosion of despair and terror. Schönberg’s melodrama Pierrot Lunaire (1912) embodies the world of secret and fearsome “night moods.”

Social criticism is another motif that is uniquely refracted in the work of Schönberg and of the other expressionist composers. This motif is particularly clear in Berg’s music; his opera Wozzeck (1921), conceived by him during World War I, is permeated with profound compassion for the socially disenfranchised and with condemnation of the powers that be, with their violence and satisfied self-complacence. In Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte (1942) and A Survivor From Warsaw (1947), Schönberg exposed the horrors of the Nazi terror. These compositions, however, are not grounded in active affirmation; in them, hatred and indignation are combined with pessimism and the sense of doom. Schönberg’s works written after World War II represent the last clear manifestation of the expressionist tendency.

In Webern’s work, expressionism is reborn as a new stylistic form dominated by the constructive principle of abstract rationalism. That, in fact, is why Webern is recognized as the founder of postwar musical avant-gardism.


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N. S. PAVLOVA (literature), M. S. SHATERNIKOVA (film), and IU. V. KELDYSH (music)

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


an artistic and literary movement originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, which sought to express emotions rather than to represent external reality: characterized by the use of symbolism and of exaggeration and distortion
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