German Expressionism: A Break From Tradition

Franz Marc, "Mandrill," 1913.

German Expressionism was an art movement that emerged in the early 20th century and was characterized by a focus on emotion and ideas as inspiration. The basis of the movement came in stark contrast with other movements that preceded it, which focused on more accurate depictions of reality and nature. German Expressionism also encompassed social, cultural, and political perspectives of younger generations at the time. German Expressionism was more than just a style, it was a state of mind.

Painting was the dominant medium of the genre, and the resulting works represented epitomize the principles of the German Expressionist movement today. Sculpture, architecture, and film also played important roles. Beyond the visual arts, it transcended many industries and disciplines, including literature, music, theater, and even economics. Works from the movement have sustained popularity to this day, and though the genre’s active years were relatively brief, German Expressionism has remained an influential movement for artists and patrons alike.

A Brief History of German Expressionism

German Expressionism began during the reign of Wilhelm II, German Kaiser and King of Prussia. At a time when the world was undergoing significant shifts—from industrial developments to the dawn of World War I—German Expressionism provided a lens through which audiences could comprehend and contribute to the changes at hand by challenging norms and encouraging bold demonstrations of thought. For example, works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner depicted a growing trend of communal and nudist lifestyles in Germany with vivid colors and brushstrokes.

In 1905, a group of architectural students—founded by Kirchner and including Fritz Bleyl and Erich Heckel—formed Die Brücke (The Bridge), an artists’ group in Dresden. They opposed tradition and used art as a tool for self-expression. The group expanded to include others, producing works that displayed elements of traditional German art, as well as African and South Pacific tribal art. Their 1906 manifesto stated their desires to “achieve freedom of life and action against the well established older forces,” which was supported by patrons who paid subscriptions for annual portfolios of pieces.

Wassily, Kandinsky, “Klänge,” 1913. Sold for $31,200 via Swann Auction Galleries (January 2019).

Another group emerged in Munich, which was dubbed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). In 1909, a group of avant-garde artists formed the Neue Kunstler Vereiningung, or New Artist Association (N.K.V.). Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky and German artist Franz Marc separated from the group in 1911 to form Der Blaue Reiter, and had their first exhibition in December of that year. Though a more informal group than Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter helped crystallize the beginnings of German Expressionism and provide artists with a new platform.

Much of the original tenets of the movement were forced to evolve once World War I officially began, and artists such as August Macke and Franz Marc were killed during their service in the war. There was a new reality to face, and the widespread mortality brought on by the war forced the movement to shift from political thought and social self-expression. Though various explorations of thought continued after the war, the original ideologies that were central to the movement peaked in the 1920s.

Characteristics of German Expressionism

The bold nature of German Expressionism was a defining factor of early 20th century Europe. As a result, innovative and striking pieces made their way out of studios and challenged audiences to think differently, across a number of industries and disciplines.


Ludwig Meidner, “My Night Visage,” 1913. Sold for £1,532,000 via Sotheby’s (February 2007).

Bright and vivid colors, sweeping brushstrokes, bold markings and basic forms came together to create compositions that reflected emotion and expression. Artists interpreted reality through the lens of their own inner thoughts and feelings, providing a platform for audiences to explore the events happening around them in a deeper way. In turn, this encouraged audiences to expand their views of art as well.

This personal expression that defined the movement manifested in a variety of ways. Interpretive depictions of landscapes with bold scenery and unnatural lines, as well as nude portrayals of rebellion — the artists of Die Brücke swimming nude in lakes around Dresden, for example — were a definitive break with the past. Nudes had been depicted for centuries, but acts of rebellion such as this were new to society. Academic norms were no longer convention, and this shift became as much of a central characteristic of the movement as painting style itself.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, film by Robert Wiene, 1920.

While German Expressionism was predominantly defined by its paintings, it also had a heavy hand in film. Film was a burgeoning industry and was considered a blank slate for creative expression, so the avant-garde tendencies of Expressionism translated well on screen. At the time of new Expressionist film, Germany had just lost World War I and its film industry was facing an overhaul. Independent filmmakers who did not subscribe to the newly structured, state-sponsored industry faced the issue of not just getting their movies produced, but also making sure audiences had a reason to watch them. This introduced small studios and small-scale production for large-scale ideas that, like the early days of German Expressionism, went against the grain of what was being offered by tradition and society.

Films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari drew upon themes of reality, such as a soldier’s experience in World War I and the reality of a new social and political structure. A wariness of authoritarian leadership underpinned the themes of horror and dramatic distortions of sets, costumes, and props. Lighting was a critical element in capturing Expressionism on film—shadows and angular portrayals mirrored the statements made by brushstrokes and color in German Expressionist paintings. To this day, filmmakers such as Tim Burton and M. Night Shyamalan have drawn inspiration from the dramatic renderings of German Expressionism in film.

Notable Expressionist Artists

While German Expressionism was a wide-reaching movement that encompassed more than art, paintings and films from the era have stood the test of time. Read on to review some notable artist that emerged from the era and the works they created.

Marianne von Werefkin

Marianne von Werefkin, “Self Portrait I,” 1910.

A contributor to Der Blaue Reiter, artist Marianne von Werefkin depicted intense emotional states through landscapes and self-portraits. Quoted as saying “color bites at my heart,” her works leveraged dramatic hues as a tool of expression. Her relationship in Munich with artist Alexej von Jawlensky was characterized by turbulence: as a champion of his work and primary financial support for the relationship, it served as a catalyst for much of what she put on canvas.

Käthe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz was one of the best-known practitioners of the movement. Born in what is now Kaliningrad, Russia, she left a significant mark on a male-dominated field. She was known for her self-portraits and depictions of women and the working class. She did so at a time when such representation in the arts wasn’t easily achievable, and focused on universal human experiences like grief and mourning, which were prescient issues following the war. After her initial training as a painter, she gave up the practice in 1890 in favor of printmaking and sculpture. She worked in etching, woodcut, and lithography, through which she championed her advocacy for the less fortunate and compassion for those in need.

Franz Marc

Franz Marc, “Der Wasserfall,” 1913. Sold for $20,201,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2007).

Franz Marc was the son of a landscape painter and went on to study art himself. Marc suffered from severe depression and drew inspiration from Japanese woodcuts, Impressionists (such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh), the Cubists, and fellow German Expressionist artists. As a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter, he was deeply troubled by World War I and the deaths of fellow artists. His works were often melancholy in style and represented the relationship between humans and nature.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Ernest Ludwig Kirchner wood cut print. Sold for €10500 via Neumeister (December 2016).

Another pivotal figure in German Expressionism and a founder of Die Brücke, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was known for his woodcuts and paintings. Early in his career, he drew inspiration from Neo-Impressionists, and his focus on color and shape can be seen in many of his works. After Die Brücke moved to Berlin, his depictions of frenzied urban life reflected the pre-World War I state of metropolitan Europe. After his discharge from the army due to a mental breakdown, he spent the rest of his life in Switzerland, where he painted mountainscapes and became one of the most important contributors to landscape painting.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, “Dune Landscape (Leba).”

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff was one of the founders of Die Brücke and a pivotal figure of the German Expressionist movement. He focused primarily on sweeping landscapes and nude paintings. His representation of mountains and fields in “Dune Landscape” can be interpreted as such, but is by no means an exact replication of the subject matter. The bold colors, unnatural lines, and amalgamation of scenery mirrors what one may remember or interpret a particular location to look like, not a perfect replica.

Fritz Lang

Left: Metropolis Film Poster, sold for $492 via Crescent City Auction Gallery (May 2018). Right: Metropolis Original Release Insert Poster. sold for $40,000 via Profiles in History (December 2013).

One of the best examples of German Expressionism transcending fine art is the work of filmmaker Fritz Lang. He created Metropolis in 1927, a futuristic melodramatic science-fiction piece that drew heavily on Gothic style for inspiration. His depiction of an urban dystopia demonstrated the conflict between good and evil, similar themes that had gripped Germany during World War I. Like the distinctive brushstrokes and shades of German Expressionist paintings, set lighting in Metropolis served as a notable characteristic of the film, and illustrated how lighting served as an important visual tool for creating a mood or experience on screen in German Expressionist film.

German Expressionism was a pivotal part of the early 20th century, and emerged during a time when the world experienced exponential change. The push for creative freedom and a lens through which to view the world provided artists and patrons alike with the outlets needed for a new wave of self expression. From landscape paintings and woodcuts to Film Noir, German Expressionist art continues to inspire audiences today.

Sources: Tate | MoMA | University of Maryland | Open Culture | The Art Story | Encyclopedia Britannica