Expressionism and Impressionism were two art movements that helped either to define each other, or to influence each other. In such movements, sometimes the lines are blurred. The styles of each movement seem to too closely represent the other, or else the same artist has done work in either movement. In the case of both of these movements, the design and style was in direct retaliation to the classical canon as defined by the Greeks and Romans.

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Art Periods: Impressionism & Expressionism

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This is more closely defined in Impressionistic art movements. This paper will compare and contrast these two artistic movements, especially in relation to how a specific artist best represents that period. For the Impressionist we have Vincent van Gogh and for the Expressionists we have Max Beckmann. These two similar but oppositional artists represent each movement and the styles and artistic expression uniquely found in them. The style that ties these two movements together is their approach to reality during the political upheaval of the time, and the movement from Impressionism to Modernism then to Expressionism as these terms are viscerally defined in each time period, separated only by a few decades.

Beckmann’s painting Still Life with Three Skulls has been established to be influence by the styles of van Gogh, especially as it relates to his painting, Skull. An Impressionist will focus on breaking away from the norm; so instead of an exact replica of a field, they will use pointillism in order to express their reality of the field (such as Seurat). This artistic movement began in France and went against the French school of art at the time. The artist felt like they were unable to rightfully and fully express themselves in the confine of the canon of beauty (classical Greek sculpture) and so began to express themselves otherwise. Van Gogh was an Impressionist. This means that he followed a the movements standard of no standard; that is, allowing certain elements from real life to be involved in the painting but altogether negating the reality that surrounds the object, as it done with Skulls (c1887).

While the Paris school of thought was greatly involved with staying with that classical canon of beauty and representation of life this painting goes beyond those practiced boundaries. The skull in this painting is a fairly decent representation of the characteristic of a skull but it is not a skull, per se. It is not a representation of human anatomy, as it would be with the classical period. Instead, since this is the Impressionists period, it is more or less an impression of a skull; a mere outline of the anatomy of the subject. This is seen with the fact that the lines on the skull are curved or wavy as opposed to straight or structured (something that the Paris School would not have put up with in their understanding of the canon and the canon making great art). Van Gogh also used an Impressionistic form of shading with his Skulls. The way in which the object bends is impressionistic and the way in which van Gogh breaks the line before the line, physically ought to be broken, are all telltale signs of Impressionism. These styles in the work allow the viewer to feel the texture of the skulls.

An Expressionist will present their version of reality as subjectively as possible in order to evoke an emotion from themselves or the audience (Munch was quite adept at this this). The movement began before the First World War and dealt in great amount with the feeling of angst. This was in large part due to the political temperature of the world at the time and it being on the cusp of war. Expressionists rejected realism and so their work connoted a very different way of seeing the world at the turn of the 20th century.

Max Beckmann’s (an Expressionist) painting Still Life with Three Skulls (c1945) is influenced by van Gogh but goes beyond van Gogh’s understanding of subjective reality. Beckmann, instead of giving the skulls life, gives them a minimum of definition. This goes along with the Expressionist movement in which humanity was trying to redefine itself in accordance with the death tolls taking place during the war in which human life seemed so insignificant, so why put any weight or clarity to it. Beckmann’s lines on his skull, like van Gogh’s, are wavy. Since they’re waving, they merely represent a skull, and the fact that they’re thick adds something more heavy to the work. Beckmann, like van Gogh, forwent shading, thereby allowing the lines to take on the shape and weight of the artist’s representation completely.

Van Gogh’s skull does have highlights that suggest more color than does Beckmann’s work. The viewer for each art movement would feel something entirely different looking at each work done of the same object. This was the intent of either artist, but perhaps more intentionally so of Beckmann. This is the commonality between the two art movements: both desire to redefine reality for the view beyond the classical Greek or Roman understanding of beauty.

Expressionism influenced the art world by allowed artists to feel as if they could break away from what is considered normal, or beautiful, and to call it art. This is presented by the movements’ masters such as Kandinsky and Schiele. German Expressionism was a influence on many American artists as American artists grew to know the work of the aforementioned artists. Thus, after the war many art studios and museums chose to invest in these paintings. This movement’s popularity in American would eventually lead to American Modernism.

The influence that the war had on these German artists and their influence on American artists is what allowed for the movement to be so widespread. The movement would eventually fracture into a series of other movements each laying claim to being influenced by Expressionism; movements such as American Expressionism, and American Figurative Expressionism. The point of Expressionism, in association with its roots in modernism is that Modernism took it’s key components with the idea of succumbing to the frailty of the human form because of the genius of war weapons and the newfound ways humanity had learned to kill each other. This idea then struck a chord with modernist artists.

The Expressionist Movement took this one step further and fractured reality completely. In Expressionism we find the death of humanity; the angst of it; the subjectivity and frailty of the human form. This is the movement that helped a post-war generation lay claim to the idea of humanity’s imperfection and how to express that discord. Thus, Expressionism left a stylistic influence on future generations of artistic movements. No more did artists have to define their reality on an objective level nor succumb to the edifice that reality is one-dimensional. The movement propelled artists to reshape how they saw their world and thus Cubism began around the same time as did Pointillism, and general abstract art. The moderns took it upon themselves to question their reality, their God, their leaders and Expressionism painted these feelings. The movement opened doors for other movements and thus it is in the style, the aberrant mirrored image that reflects back through Picasso, Schiele and Aronson.