Get SmART: Expressionism
The “Get SmART” series of blog posts act as a brief introduction to different eras of art history. We will explore how these eras developed, who was involved, what was created, and the impact they had on the world.
Guest Post by Kevin Twitchell, MOA Marketing Intern
The Anxiety of Modern Life
“The pace of change in Germany [in the early 1900s] was probably greater than any other country in Europe. No country was moving as rapidly as Germany, and at the same time, no country had social divisions as deep as in Germany.” – Jay Winter, emeritus professor of history at Cambridge University¹.
At the early turn of the century, Germany was a place of progress, change, and anxiety. The nation was facing an industrial revolution that filled its cities with factories and its banks with capital. Its development into a technological and economic power was swift, inviting those living in less-fortunate circumstances across Europe to flock to its cities to seek a better life. Over the course of only a decade, some German cities nearly doubled in size, their populations exploding as immigrants flocked to work in its factories, foundries, and farms. Germany was flourishing.
But while the nation as a whole benefited from increasing economic prosperity, there were some who felt only anxiety at the hectic lives that progress seemed to offer. They found it difficult to face the overcrowded streets, the noise of new machinery, and the smoky skies, even if it did lead to wealth.
Between 1905 and 1920, painters in cities across Europe turned to a new style of painting to express the uneasiness they felt about modern life. They turned away from creating accurate depictions of the world around them and instead sought to depict the emotional and psychological effects of modern life. Using swirling, swaying, exaggerated brushstrokes the artists created images that were meant to send a message about their emotions rather than about real locations or people. They used intense colors in their distorted depictions of people and places, using these forms to explore their personal anxieties and yearnings. They focused on subject matter they thought would best help express their message such as solitary individuals, distorted scenes of nature and city life, and other symbolic content they thought would best represented the intense emotions they felt.
Following the end of the First World War, Expressionism reached it climax as artists sought to express their disillusionment with what the modern world had to offer. And although several years later many painters would drift away into other styles of painting, Expressionist works by artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and others were still regarded as masterpieces in their own right. Even today, their works continue to serve as a powerful commentary on change, progress, urbanization, and emotion.
Image: Max Thalmann (1890-1944), Figure and Shooting Stars, c.1920, woodcut, 9 3/4 x 8 1/2 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of Milton D. Heifetz.