What is Expressionism in art?

   Expressionism is a movement in the arts, especially in painting and drama, that began in Germany just before World War I and lasted well into the 1930's. The members of this group reacted against the various schools of art that had nourished and died out since the middle of the 19th century. Naturalism, impressionism, and neoromanticism were the principal targets. Expressionism found followers in Italy, prerevolutionary Russia, Great Britain, and the United States. Painters and playwrights alike were determined to face a modern, mechanized world. Neither the realistic detail nor the fleeting moment attracted their attention. Psychological analysis of the individual, which was becoming so fashionable in art, they regarded as subordinate to a large moral and aesthetic purpose. Though interested in unconscious motivation, fantasy, and the dream world, the expressionists saw these psychological forces in relation to the typical human problems that confront men and women who are living in a departmentalized, mass-produced civilization.

   Dissatisfied with the impressionists' representations of nature, expressionist painters turned toward the violent and colorful canvases of Van Gogh and Edvard Munch. Not only did they do portraits in a highly charged emotional style, but they concentrated on typical modern themes: horror, fear, physical violence, and the brutality of war. Oskar Kokoschka painted intense, quivering landscapes in the manner of Van Gogh. Emil Nolde became absorbed in the portrayal of religious fervor. Paul Klee, not so desperately serious as the others, let his imagination go in free fantasy. His paintings sometimes have a sharp, satirical edge, but they are just as often playful and childlike. Klee, Kandinsky, and Franz Marc began to paint in a more abstract style, and eventually attracted a considerable following of younger painters who became known as abstract expressionists.

   With respect to expressionist plays, it was August Strindberg and Frank Wedekind who inspired the new kind of drama. The techniques of these dramatists rather than the problems they raised attracted the attention of expressionist writers. Like Strindberg's plays, many of those of the expressionists have short scenes, abrupt, evocative dialogue, and extremely simple stage settings. Fantasy is sometimes mingled with straight dramatic scenes in the plays of Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller. The favorite device of expressionist writers, including the novelist Franz Kafka, was symbolism. It was the type that interested them, rather than the particular person—man in society, man in a world driven by machines. The titles of many of their plays reveal these preoccupations: Georg Kaiser, Gas: Karel Capek, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots); Toller, Man and the Masses; and Elmer Rice, The Adding Machine. Characters are made symbolic to underline the typical, human response in dramatic situations.

   American playwrights influenced by the movement, apart from Elmer Rice, were Thornton Wilder and, in a few instances, Eugene O'Neill. Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera became immensely popular after it was set to music by Kurt Weill. The finest playwright to emerge from the expressionist movement was Sean O'Casey. By 1934 he had written an entire play in the symbolic manner of the expressionists. In two of his best known plays, Red Roses for Me and Purple Dust, he went far beyond the immediate and pressing concerns of the expressionists and wrote works that are regarded as having permanent value.