What is Expressionism

Expressionism was an artistic movement through which the authors expressed emotions and feelings through their works. This expression occurred in an exaggerated, depraved and subversive manner, and with pessimism. This article highlights some key Characteristics of Expressionism.

Characteristics of Expressionism

Themes such as loneliness, misery and madness were frequently addressed. Check out the main features of expressionism:

1. Use of intense colors

Fränzi before a carved chair (1910), by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Fränzi before a carved chair (1910), by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

One of the main characteristics of expressionism is the use of strong and vibrant colors , often unreal, that is, not representing reality directly.

2. Thick and distorted strokes

The expressionist works had strong and well marked features, but there was no linearity in the contours.

The lines had twisted shapes, were somewhat aggressive, and did not precisely determine the contour of the shapes.

The lines were thick and angular.

3. Focus on subjective aspects

Van Gogh's Starry Night (1889).
Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889).

Expressionist art is a dramatic and subjective art that reflects the author’s perception, emotions, and feelings about the subject portrayed.

Van Gogh ‘s painting above, for example, reflects the artist’s perception of what he saw through his bedroom window when he was admitted to the Saint-Rémy-de-Provence asylum.

Not all components of the work could really be seen through the window. Some images added by Van Gogh, such as the village, were imaginary and subjective, that is, they were related to reference elements of the artist himself.

Some scholars consider the village depicted in the painting to be the place where Van Gogh spent his childhood.

4. Tragic view of the human being

The Dead Mother and Child (1899), by Edvard Munch
The Dead Mother and Child (1899), by Edvard Munch

The fact that expressionism is a subjective art form allowed the authors of the works to portray their respective views on life.

This form of expression often addressed more dramatic issues of human feelings such as fear, loneliness, jealousy, misery, prostitution, etc.

Sometimes situations were portrayed about life, death, and the spirit world.

5. Exposure of the pessimistic side of life

One of the main features of expressionism was the depiction of intense emotions .

There were no major concerns about standards of aesthetic beauty. Often the works reflected the emotional and mental states of the artists who, through their art, expressed a pessimistic approach to the reality they lived.

This pessimism was attributed mainly to the historical moment that humanity was going through and which was reflected in a great feeling of anxiety before, during and after World War I.

6. Deformation of world reality

The reality exposed by expressionist artists was not governed by an idea of ​​objectivity.

Given that subjectivity is one of the main characteristics of expressionism, the artists of this European avant-garde felt free to present reality according to their own perception.

The main purpose of this representation was to prioritize emotions and feelings over an objective description of reality.

7. Expression of individual freedom

The expressionist movement defended individual freedom through irrationalism and subjectivity .

Subjectivity allowed the knowledge of everything that was external to the artist to take place according to his own references.

Irrationalism, in turn, as its name implies, opposes what is rational.

The concept of irrationalism argues that the capacity for learning is superior when man goes beyond the limits imposed by what is rational.

Learn more about subjectivity

8. Use of three-dimensionality in works

Girls on the Pier (1899), by Edvard Munch
Girls on the Pier (1899), by Edvard Munch

Expressionist artists used to make use of three-dimensionality in their works.

However, this effect was achieved in an illusory way, that is, there was no real relief in the works. The illusion was created intentionally through the traits.

Top artists of expressionism

Check below who were the main expressionist artists.

Edvard Munch

Considered one of the forerunners of expressionism, his most emblematic work was The Scream .

Munch’s works quite explicitly portrayed the deformed reality so typical of expressionism.

In the chart below, for example, we can see a face without definite shapes and a meandering body.

Another characteristic very present in Munch’s expressionist pictures is the expression of fear, pain and suffering that the portrayed beings reflect.

There are those who attribute the expression of these details to the pained life of the painter, who, when he was still young, was plagued by the premature death of his mother and sister, and the psychological disorders he experienced in adulthood.

The Scream (1893), by Edvard Munch
The Scream (1893), by Edvard Munch

Van gogh

In his art, he portrayed humans and nature, painting what he felt and not necessarily what he saw.

Besides Starry Night , one of his major works was Field of Wheat with Crows .

This work came to be Van Gogh’s last painting. In it is possible to observe the strong stroke of the brush and the subjective representativeness of feelings and perception of reality, both typical of expressionism.

The threatening sky, crows and dead end are said to convey the painter’s idea that he was already at the end of his life.

Crows Wheat Field (1890) by Van Gogh
Crows Wheat Field (1890) by Van Gogh


Gauguin’s paintings were characterized by stylized dimensional shapes and allegorical nature.

Gauguin not only made the traditional use of vivid colors of expressionism, but also used them representatively to express his feelings.

In one of his most famous paintings, Christ Yellow , the use of colors was intended not for the logical representation, but for the symbolism of a feeling of peace.

Yellow Christ (1889), by Gauguin
Yellow Christ (1889), by Gauguin

Expressionism in Brazil

Brazil had two prominent expressionist artists:

Cândido Portinari

The artist’s works were known to represent the difficulties of the northeastern people and the exploitation of the human being by the elite.

The artist used to paint people with very large feet, exhibiting a distortion of reality, as was characteristic of expressionism.

This exaggerated representation was intended to demonstrate the close relationship of the human being with the earth.

One of his major works was The Coffee Farmer .

The coffee farmer

Picture The coffee farmer (1934) exhibited at MASP (São Paulo, Brazil)

Anita Malfatti

Anita Malfatti’s works were known for featuring nude portraits, landscapes and everyday scenes.

One of his major works was The Man of Seven Colors .

The influences of expressionism are evidenced in the artist’s works through the use of strong colors.

In the table below, for example, we can also note the deformation of reality expressed through a representation of the human being that resembles nothing like a real human.

The man of 7 colors

The Man of Seven Colors (1916), by Anita Malfatti

Along with Characteristics of Expressionism, learn more about Expressionism.

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