Do you ever feel that history is spinning out of control, and you feel disoriented and disillusioned by where things are heading? Have you ever thought that others' expectations of you weigh down your life, and you just want to do what you want? If you said yes to these questions, you have quite a few things in common with Expressionism, a movement that is more than 100 years old. 

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Table of contents

    Expressionism meaning

    Expressionism is a movement starting in the early 20th century, which united a range of artistic mediums from prose, drama, poetry, art, painting, film, and music. Expressionism is characterised by a distorted style and form which is highly subjective and abandons conventional narrative and meter.

    Born out of growing disillusionment in society, the Expressionists wanted a total break from tradition. Expressionism revolted against two previous movements called Realism and Naturalism, of which the former was criticised for their bourgeois and middle-class representations.

    Realism is a literary movement that wanted to depict life as realistically as possible. This included using dialect, natural speech, and set and costume design.

    Naturalism grew out of literary realism. Using the literary techniques of realism, they wanted to focus more on the working class and the struggles of real life.

    Unlike these movements, Expressionism refused to believe that one can accurately portray life by focusing on the exterior world. Instead, they thought the inner world was real rather than the external world. Expressionists wanted to show life beyond the surface and tap into the emotions and inner spirit of the individual. As such, an emphasis is placed on the individual and their subjective self-expression.

    Expressionism is also characterised by themes of disillusion, disorientation and alienation. This is influenced by the historical context, as Expressionists found themselves at a time of great upheaval resulting from an increasingly urbanised and mechanised world.

    The movement is heavily influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the desire to intensify and enhance the experience of life.

    History of expressionism

    While Expressionism as a literary movement started in the early 20th century, Expressionism in painting can be traced back to earlier.

    The term's first use was in 1850 to categorise paintings with strong emotions. Then in 1905, four German architecture students in Dresden founded Die Brücke (the Bridge), which is perceived as the forerunner of Expressionism. Later in 1911, Expressionism gained popularity through the artist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich, established 1911 by founders such as Wassily Kandinsky.

    Expressionism began to spread to other artistic mediums, with playwrights, poets, directors, and musicians penning Expressionist techniques. While Expressionism is most predominant in Germany (sometimes called German Expressionism), it also expanded to writers in Austria, Russia, France and the US.

    Historical context

    Expressionism arose out of a period of great societal and political upheaval. The Industrial Revolution had created an extensively mechanised and industrialised world. Industry and machines often hold a central role in Expressionist texts, such as Georg Kaiser's Gas trilogy (1917–1919), which is set in a gas plant. The film Metropolis (1927), directed by Fritz Lang, depicts an unequal society where the working class becomes a cog in the machine.

    The outbreak of World War One horrified and yet inspired Expressionism. While some artists from Der Blaue Reiter lost their lives in the war, other writers took pen to paper to depict the horrors of mass death and destruction.

    World War One shattered the concept that things will always get better and technology will improve our lives. Expressionist texts presented a modern disillusioned society whose values and beliefs had been destroyed in the chaos of war.

    Influence of Friedrich Nietzsche

    The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche profoundly influenced the Expressionist movement.

    In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1885), Nietzsche famously declared that 'God is dead!' Namely, humans have killed God by no longer believing in him, yet we have removed any real sense of meaning in our lives. Rather than seeking external sources of meaning, such as God or money, Nietzsche proposed the concept of the Übermensch: "Beyond Human".

    The Übermensch is an enlightened individual who can tear away the shackles of societal expectations to design a new life brimming with human vitality. To become an Übermensch, one must break free from all socially constructed ideals and design a life that fully fulfils one's desires.

    Nietzsche presented his theory by contrasting 'to want (wollen)' and "should (sollen)'. Nietzsche believed that social constructs and pressures have restricted our ability 'to want' as our lives and choices are nearly wholly influenced by 'I should'.

    This philosophy greatly influenced Expressionism, as we will see later as we explore the characteristics of the "New Man" in Expressionism.

    You may have heard of the term Übermensch used by the Nazis, who took many of Nietzsche's ideas out of context to fit their own ideology.

    Expressionism, Friedrich Nietzsche, StudySmarterFriedrich Nietzsche.

    Expressionism characteristics

    Here we will look at key characteristics of Expressionism found in many plays, poems and films.

    Abstraction of character

    Realism presented characters with complex psychological and social backgrounds. Instead, Expressionism thought that defining a character would limit the text. Expressionists believed that the audience would become too distracted by the superficial details instead of focusing on the principles they symbolise. Instead, characters become types reduced to their social function. Characters are symbolic of society.

    Often characters do not receive names but are instead termed by their social category: such as the Mother, Daughter, Worker, and Writer.

    This lack of individuality could point to a loss of self and identity in modernity: characters become interchangeable, and human beings are reduced to hollow speakers.

    Fragmented structure

    Expressionism often abandons conventional structure, where the scenes, sentences or words are clearly and logically linked. Instead, expressionist texts are structured into stations: a loosely knitted succession of autonomous scenes.

    These events are only disjointedly related. This means that the only underlying narrative thread is the protagonist's presence.

    The fragmented structure was meant to mirror life in a post-meaning world. As life is purely a collection of unrelated events that we inhabit, our presence is the only constant. Life is merely the narrative that we decide to draw from these random events.

    The fragmented structure also means that the events are not determined by narrative but by character development. Individuals should focus their energy on creating their personal narrative amongst the sea of the meaninglessness of life.

    Pursuit to become the "New Man"

    Expressionism is greatly influenced by Nietzsche's concept of Übermensch. Expressionism wanted to facilitate the "New Man" and the regeneration of humanity. They wanted their characters – and society – to move past the social pretensions and constructions and live their lives entirely on their own terms. This "New Man" would construct a world to live entirely by their desires rather than be shaped by society's expectations.

    Suddenly free from the weight of society and external pressures to conform and work, the enlightened being could realise the full potential of human existence.

    While Expressionism often focused on the pursuit of becoming the "New Man", this individual renewal is not always successful.

    Georg Kaiser's From Morn to Midnight (1912) follows the Cashier who is trapped in the prison of the financial machine as an automat restricted to the banal monotonous actions of handling money. After the Cashier decides to embezzle thousands of marks, he undergoes an ecstatic realisation of humanity's immense potential. The embezzlement acts as a catalyst to ignite the death of his old restricted self, facilitating the pursuit of his regeneration into a "New Man".

    Types of expressionism

    Expressionism was a movement spanning multiple mediums involving poetry, drama, prose, art, music, and film. Below, we will look at the mediums of theatre, film, and poetry.

    Expressionist theatre

    Expressionist theatre is characterised by:

    • The episodic structure of stations

    • Jagged and dynamic set and stage design

    • Frequent monologues and soliloquies reveal the workings of the mind

    • Highly stylised and dramatic costume and makeup

    • Regular use of exclamation marks and short sentences.

    Perhaps the most representative of the movement, Georg Kaiser wrote a range of Expressionist plays and papers. Georg Kaiser's From Morn to Midnight (1912) traces the potential regeneration of the Cashier as he drastically changes the course of his life. Through episodic stations, the Cashier meets the abstracted figures of the Mother, Daughter, Fat Man, Young Man and a Salvation Army Girl, amongst others.

    Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1920) includes Expressionist elements to present the disorientation of the modern world. O'Neill frequently uses interior monologues to show the workings of the character's minds. The search of the protagonist Jones to find his soul and self-understanding fits into the Expressionist quest for regeneration and desire to become the New Man.

    Expressionist film

    In the new and exciting medium of the early 20th century, directors soon took the Expressionist techniques from drama to film. The burgeoning film culture in Germany at the time, which rivalled Hollywood, led to an incredible array of Expressionist films.

    Fritz Lang's early films are significantly Expressionistic, such as Metropolis (1927) and M (1931).

    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiene, is focalised through the subjective mind of one character, questioning the line between sanity and insanity.

    Expressionism, Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, StudySmarter

    Dramatic Set Design in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

    Expressionist poetry

    Characteristics of Expressionist poetry include:

    • Ecstatic lyricism

    • Lack of clear meter or form

    • Telegram style

    • Condensed poetry with strings of nouns and verbs

    • Removal of all superfluous descriptions as they wanted to present feeling in its purest form.

    Key Expressionist poets include Georg Trakl, Franz Werfel and Else Lasker-Schüler.

    Importance of expressionism

    Expressionism marked a radical shift in expression. As one of the leading modernist movements, Expressionism paved the way for other literary movements such as The Theatre of the Absurd.

    Whereas Expressionism focuses on the despair and disillusionment of the meaningless, The Theatre of the Absurd comments that if nothing has meaning anyway, we might as well have fun in life.

    Expressionism also hugely influenced Epic Theatre, a concept proposed by Bertolt Brecht. In fact, Bertolt Brecht’s early plays were Expressionist. Expressionism wanted to ignite renewal, which Epic Theatre drew upon. As the latter more explicitly wished to change the audience and society through didactic elements. Both also use the abstraction of characters.

    Epic Theatre is a didactic drama that clearly shows the workings of the theatre to remind the audience they are in a play. This encourages logical thinking and a better understanding of the didactic moral.

    Expressionism - Key takeaways

    • Expressionism is a movement starting in the early 20th century that spans theatre, poetry, prose, film, music and art.
    • Expressionism is greatly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy, inspiring the key characteristic of the "New Man".
    • Characters in Expressionist texts are often abstracted to become symbols and types for society.
    • Fragmented structures characterise Expressionist literature.
    • Expressionism marked a radical shift in expression and has influenced many other movements, such as The Theatre of the Absurd and Epic Theatre.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Expressionism

    What are the characteristics of Expressionism?

    Expressionism is characterised by fragmented structures, abstraction of character and the topic of the "New Man". 

    What are the styles of Expressionism?

    Expressionism is characterised by a distorted style and form which is highly subjective and abandons conventional narrative and meter. The style of Expressionist theatre is characterised by jagged and dynamic set and stage design as well as dramatic costume and makeup. The style of Expressionist poetry includes strings of nouns and verbs, ecstatic outbursts and a lack of clear meter or form. 

    What is the function of Expressionism?

    Expressionists wanted to show life beyond the surface and tap into the emotions and inner spirit of the individual.

    What is the purpose of Expressionism?

    Expressionism wanted to facilitate the “New Man” and the regeneration of humanity.

    What is Expressionism?

    Expressionism is a movement starting in the early 20th century, which united a range of artistic mediums from prose, drama, poetry, art, painting, film, and music.

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