Expressionism is one of the most intense and influential movements in art. Its defining characteristic is the artistic interpretation of the emotions that arise from experiencing daily realities, rather than a portrayal of the realities themselves.
In visual art, Expressionism arose in Germany around the time of WWI, growing in response to the dehumanising effects of the war and the increasing industrialisation and depersonalisation of society. No longer interested in producing aesthetically pleasing impressions of artistic subject matter, leading Expressionist painters, including Egon Schiele and Ernst Kirchner portrayed vivid emotional reactions through dynamic structural composition and powerful juxtapositions of shapes and colours.
Expressionism in music arose slightly earlier than in visual art. The increasing harmonic complexity of late Brahms, Wagner, and early Scriabin had resulted in tonal ambiguity, and ultimately a breakdown of traditional tonal hierarchy and expectations. With the creation of his ‘mystic chord’ in 1908, Alexander Scriabin ushered in the vibrant, highly charged, often self-referential world of musical Expressionism. Shortly after, in response to Scriabin, Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern – the Second Viennese School – extended musical architecture, and therefore audiences’ musical experiences, by creating daring compositions of heightened Expressionist intensity that stretched contextual and structural musical relationships in deeply expressive ways.
The ban on foreign films enacted by Germany in 1916 led to a rapid increase of domestic filmmaking. However, limited budgets and creative planning resulted in set designs with walls and floors painted to give the illusion of light and shadow, intentionally resulting in non-realistic, often jarring, backgrounds. Rather than adventure or romantic films, the experiences of WW1 were portrayed – betrayal, madness, dystopia – with directors such as Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang creating subjective emotional realities through distortions in expression. Expressionist film subsequently influenced directors of film noir, including Alfred Hitchcock, Werner Herzog, and Tim Burton.