Expressionism vs Abstract Expressionism

Art which values the subjective perspective, processes or experience of the artist


Expressionism is a Modern Art movement that first emerged in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, in poetry and painting, and then spread globally. Expressionist art takes as its subject matter the subjective perspective or experience of the artist rather than an objective, observed reality. The artist distorts his or her mindset, or view of the world, to create an expression of their emotional experiences, inner feelings or ideas. This is then represented artistically, and is meant to cause an emotional response from the audience when they look at the artwork.

History and Famous Artists:

The movement first emerged prior to WWI in Germany (1914) as an avant-garde, experimental form of art, and remained very popular in Berlin particularly throughout the Weimar Republic. This particular instance of Expressionism is referred to as German Expressionism, and was spearheaded by famous artists such as Edvard Munch, and was dominated by two main groups of artists. The first group was named Die Brücke, and was lead by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. The second was called Der Blaue Reiter and was headed by Wassily Kandisnky and Franz Marc. The work of both groups and of German Expressionist art in general is characterised by bright, bold and intense paint colours applied to canvas to form simplified shapes with gestural brushstrokes. It is extremely abstract, and can either refer to real world object or merely illustrate shapes and forms.

In the US, Expressionism only became popular in the 1940s and 1950s, and took on a slightly different form known as Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionist artists were inspired by Surrealism and Automatism, taking from it that art should should be sourced from the unconscious. Identically to German Expressionism, the movement comprises artworks that are abstract, yet also produce emotional expressions. Differently, Abstract Expressionism is a lot more abstract. There are two main types of abstract expressionist painting: action painting and colour field painting.

Action painting was led by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and is distinguished by spontaneity and improvisation in paint application. Colour field painting is exemplified by three pioneering artists Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clifford Still, who explored religion and myth through creating massive canvases characterised by their limited colour palette and large flat areas of singular colour. The audience’s experience when looking at both action painting and colour field painting is of key importance, and the artist aims to evoke an emotional response when viewing the works of this kind.

Contemporary Context:

The expressive use of colour, shape and line has continued to be utilised throughout the 20th century and today. Famous artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, produced highly expressive works through the use of bright colour and jarring lines. Others artists include Peter Doig, Julie Mehretu, Nicole Eisenman, Brice Marden, and Adrianne Rubenstein.

Famous Examples:

Edvard Munch (1863-1944)  The Scream

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) - The Scream, 1893
Oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard - 91 cm × 73.5 cm; 36 in × 28.9 in
National Gallery, Oslo/NO

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976)  Bildnis Rosa Schapire (Dr Rosa Schapire)

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976) - Bildnis Rosa Schapire (Dr Rosa Schapire), 1919
Oil paint on canvas - 100.6 x 87.3 cm
Collection of Tate, London/UK
Presented by the executors of Dr Rosa Schapire 1954

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1939)  Straße, Berlin (Street, Berlin)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1939) - Straße, Berlin (Street, Berlin), 1913
Oil on canvas - 120.6 × 91.1 cm; 47 1/2 × 35 7/8″
The Museum of Modern Art, New York NY
Purchased, 2008

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)  Cosaques (Cossacks)

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) - Cosaques (Cossacks), 1910
Oil paint on canvas - 94.6 x 130.2 cm
Presented by mrs Hazel McKinley 1938
Tate, London/UK

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)  One: Number 31, 1950

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) - One: Number 31, 1950
Oil and enamel paint on canvas - 269.5 x 530.8 cm; 8’ 10" x 17' 5 5/8”
Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund (by exchange)
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York NY

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)  Woman I

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) - Woman I, 1952
Oil on canvas - 192.7 x 147.3 cm; 6’ 3 7/8" x 58”
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York NY

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)  Untitled

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) - Untitled, 1968
Synthetic polymer paint on paper - 45.4 x 60.8 cm; 17 7/8 x 23 7/8”
Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York NY

Barnett Newman (1905-1970)  Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Barnett Newman (1905-1970) - Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51
Oil on canvas - 242.2 x 541.7 cm; 7’ 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4”
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Heller
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York NY


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