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  • Writer's pictureAccessible Art History

20th Century Expressionism

Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! For this post, I wanted to think outside my comfort zone. I don’t dive into 20th century art or contemporary art very often. I am much more familiar with the ancient and medieval eras! However, a subscriber suggest the Expressionism era a while back and I thought that it was a good opportunity to expand my horizons!

The Expressionists were a group of artists that focused on creating art that would evoke deep emotions in the viewers. Many of them saw the horrors of World War I and what humanity was capable of. In this post, I’ll dive into both information about the movement as well as about specific artists and their works. So, to learn more, keep on reading!


Expressionism began at the start of the 20th century in Germany. It was a chaotic time for global politics and economy, in addition to the horrific battles of World War I. Artists reacted to this and drew from the past to create a new style. For example, they utilized the color theory used by Post-Impressionists like Vincent van Gogh. But, they also were inspired by the forms and compositions found in Late Medieval Germany with artists like Matthias Grünewald. This combination was jarring and did achieve the goal of evoking emotional responses from the audience.

The Expressionists artists formed two groups/schools of thought. The first was Die Brücke, or “The Bridge”. It was created by a group of artists in Dresden who sought to change the landscape of the art world. They were: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. These artists primarily focused on the emotional response of color.

Secondly was Der Blaue Reiter. This group was based out of Munich and was led by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Their perspective was that there was a spirituality to art and that art is more than just a painting, more than meets the eye and that color could be used as symbolism to achieve understanding.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

The first artist in today’s post is Ernst Ludvig Kirchner. He was born in 1880 in Bavaria. His parents supported his art but they also wanted him to earn an education, so he studied architecture at university. There he met Fritz Bleyl and they came up with the idea for the group due to their shared ideas about art. Kirchner volunteered to fight in WWI in 1914, but was discharged in 1915 due to a nervous breakdown and other health issues. For the rest of his life, he worked as an artist in between the times that he spent in mental hospitals for his illnesses. He died on June 15, 1938 at age 58. Sadly for future generations, his works were labelled as degenerate and hundreds of his pieces were destroyed by the Nazis.

One of Kirchner’s most famous works that did survive is Self Portrait as a Soldier dating from

1915. He painted it shortly after coming home from the front and his emotional agony is clear. The work shows a bloody man in a soldier’s uniform. He sits in an artist’s studio, but is clearly not interested in his work. His amputated limb is meant to symbolize his failure to continue fighting for his country.

Besides the subject matter, Kirchner’s use of color and a flat composition are jarring. It gives the feeling that something isn’t quite right and that is a bit disturbing to the viewer. In addition, we can feel the main subject’s pain and feel a bit of sympathy for him.

Otto Dix

Another Expressionist artist that was crucial to the style’s development was Otto Dix. He was born on December 2 1891 in Gera, Germany. His family encouraged his artistic inclinations, but they were put on hold when he left to fight in World War I. This experience would have a profound effect on him and influence his art heavily. Much of his work focused on portraiture, but Dix did branch off into other genres as well. In the late 1920’s, he accepted a job teaching art. However, with the rise of the Nazi regime, Dix was labelled as a degenerate. He was fired and no longer allowed to teach. Some of his work, around 260 pieces, was also confiscated. Otto Dix died of a stroke on 25 July 1969.

This work, called Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas, is one of Dix’s most jarring pieces. It is an etching with aquatint and was created in 1924. This work was inspired by the artist’s time on the front. The soldiers look alien like in their protective gear, but their weapons also give a menacing air. The jarring shapes and composition show the horrors of war and make the viewer uncomfortable. It is an uncomfortable response, but a response nonetheless.

Wassily Kandinsky

The final artist of this video is Wassily Kandinsky. He was born on December 16, 1866 in Russia, but spent most of his youth in Ukraine. (Kandinsky also spent time in Germany and France). Fascinatingly, he didn’t become an artist until around 30. Beforehand, Kandinsky studied law and economics and worked as a professor. He was inspired to change careers after seeing an exhibition on Monet. Struck by his use of color and texture, Kandinsky ended up moving to Germany to pursue his new dream. While there, he helped to found the Der Blaue Reiter and taught at the art and crafts school The Bauhaus. However, with the Nazi’s rise to power, the school was shut down and Kandinsky fled to France. He continued to work in art until his death on 13 December 1944.

Funnily enough, one of Kandinsky’s most famous works wasn’t intended to be anything other

than a study. It is called Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles and was created in 1913. In this piece, Kandinsky was experimenting with different color combinations to see how they interacted with each other and what emotional response they would evoke. It is a fascinating piece because it not only achieves the artist’s goal, but there is a sense of chaos from the multiple combinations. This is a fascinating piece and shows us the workings of Kandinsky’s mind.


Expressionism was a new movement that strove to change ideas about the composition of art, especially when it came to color. It idealized the emotional response that art could provide and tried to help people achieve it.


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