Expressionism: An Art Movement

Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night

Expressionism is an art movement that emphasized the importance of self-expression.

The Dutch Post impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) saw the world differently from most of the Impressionist painters who surrounded him. Instead of capturing the light and colors of the natural landscape as a dispassionate observer, as the Impressionists had done, van Gogh looked inside his troubled psyche and discovered a new style of self-expression. Van Gogh’s art provided a mirror for his angst-ridden soul and, years later, it would lead to the formalization of an entirely new kind of painting.

Van Gogh once wrote in a letter to his brother, Theo, “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily to express myself forcibly.” Van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889) depicts the view from his sanatorium window at night, but its swirling sky and luminous stars are no faithful representation of what he saw; exaggerated and distorted, they suggest his inner reality. The Starry Night is now seen as a pivotal painting in the march toward Expressionism.

The Scream (1893) by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch Four years later came The Scream (1893) by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944), another icon of Expressionism. The painting depicted Munch himself, pausing while crossing a bridge and crying out in desperation from the blur of his anxiety informed world. Edvard Munch once said, “My art is self-confession. Through it, I seek to clarify my relationship to the world”

Like The Starry Night, Munch’s painting has the ingredients of Expressionism—the use of strong, nonnaturalistic colors and distorted lines—many years before the Expressionist movement had its “official” beginnings with the German artistic group Die Brucke (The Bridge), who met together for the first time in Dresden in 1905.

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