What do we think of when we think of expressionism? We vaguely realize that it is the name of an art movement, basically centered in Germany post-World War I, yet the root word, ‘expression’, remains topmost and we look to that word for our first information about the movement. An expression is centered on the human face, changing its shape according to its mood, eyebrows lifting to question, chin quivering in sadness, mouth turning up at the corner for a full-on smile. An artist we may said to be, each one of us, as we paint our faces to express our innermost feelings. Of course, we mature and school our expression to an adult’s equanimity to a great degree, yet sometimes the feelings are simply too powerful to shove aside or hide and they burst forth for the world to see. An artist does this all the time, his mood and the expression of it translating itself to the canvas before him. He feels, he expresses himself to the canvas, and so expressionism is defined.
Moving on to the Expressionism Movement that centered around Germany, the mood of the country was grim: her army disbanded, her currency devalued and her populace facing monumental unemployment, Germany’s artists worked a great deal in chiaroscuro, juxtaposing shades of gray with white and all subjects shadowed by uncertainty. Even the shadows themselves were surreal, jagged splotches of darkness that mirrored the times. The movement technically began prior to Germany’s defeat in the war, but it came to international notice and its full flowering after the war, especially since its influence on not only art, but architecture, music and writing. Movies, too, a moving form of art, showed the influence of expressionism’s darker aspects, and the movie Nosferatu was a prime example of this. Since movies at that time did not talk, the international scene translated very well into a sort of pan-language accessible to everyone on earth. A certain loss was experienced with the coming of sound to the moving picture.
Expressionism in later years is linked to abstract expressionism, the form of art in which artists allow their spontaneous movements to release the creativity of their subconscious minds. Most often, the image that the public has is of the abstract expressionist painting rapidly with a large brush, hurling, spackling or slapping paint on a canvas. Their work is actually carefully planned, though it resembles a slap-dash of chaos. Most artists believe that the method of painting is as important as the finished work itself. In general, the subject matter is represented as a feeling, for example, white paint portraying innocence and red paint, passion or violence. The size of the canvas says a lot about the movement, because the canvases in general are larger than what is thought of as normal and they represent the sheer magnitude of emotions that flavor our daily lives. Artists, with their heightened sensibilities, need such a large canvas to express their artistic vision to the world.