Expressionism as an art movement took two major forms in Europe, including Fauvism and German Expressionism. Honour and Fleming describe the difference between the Germans and the French in the first decade of the twentieth century:
“Even more subjective than the Fauves, they [the Germans] sought Durchgeistigung or the charging of everything with spiritual significance, with soul, their fervent nationalism and self-consciously anti-French bias…”
The French movement of Expressionism surfaced in Paris with the first “event” of twentieth century art. In 1905, Les Fauves, French for “wild beasts,” exhibited their paintings at the Salon d’Automne. These works are described with words like distorted, anti-naturalistic, intense, vivid, and emotional. The Fauves were French artists. Some of them, including Matisse, were art students of professor, Gustave Moreau, at the Ecole des Beaux-Artes.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) painted The Joy of Life and exhibited in 1906 at the Salon d’Automne. Other Fauves included Andre Derain, Louis Valtat, Alfred Maurer, Georges Roualt, and Georges Braque (soon to be linked with Picasso and Cubism). In The Joy of Life, Matisse renders nude figures in various poses in a beautiful, natural setting with bright colors and images. Some figures lie on the grass sunning themselves, and others engage in joyful activities in nature, including playing a musical instrument and dancing with fellow revelers in a circle. In some of Matisse’s other works before and after the 1906 exhibition, observers can see his frequent study of traditional subjects such as still-lifes and portraits.
Just like Surrealism would soon examine the dark side of the human mind, the German Expressionists reflected the influence of psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud. Art history traces German Expressionism also to 1906 with the Die Brucke (The Bridge) exhibition in Dresden. Ernest Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) was the leader of the group and the author of the manifesto. He wrote, “He who renders his inner convictions as he knows he must, and does so with spontaneity and sincerity, is one of us.”
In Berlin Street Scene (1913), Kirchner creates a busy scene with distorted men in black coats and top hats and women in long coats and feather-adorned hats. They walk the streets of an impersonal city. This painting has brilliant colors, dark emotion, and vague human faces.
Expressionist pieces are full of vivid imagery and emotion with a touch of the dark side of human nature. While Matisse described his art as a rejection of Impressionism, the works of the Expressionists, Symbolists, Cubists, and Surrealists of the early twentieth century all show traces of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism.