The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Expressionism: An artistic and literary movement, which was born in Germany in the late nineteenth century and reached its zenith in the 1920s, whose proponents believed that objective depictions of circumstances and thoughts cannot accurately render an individual’s subjective experience. Expressionists reject realism and share (although perhaps with more intensity) the impressionist intention to present a personal vision through art. To render this personal vision artistically, expressionists depict their subjects as they feel, sense, or experience them, rather than as those subjects appear from an external viewpoint. To expose the idiosyncratic and often extreme states of human consciousness and emotion, expressionist works tend to oversimplify and distort. In addition, the singularly “unreal” or even nightmarish atmosphere of these works accentuates the gulf between personal perception and objective reality.

Literary expressionism originated in Germany in the plays of Carl Sternheim and Frank Wedekind. However, it quickly influenced poets (such as Franz Werful) and fiction writers (such as Franz Kafka). In time, literary critics began to apply the term to virtually any twentieth-century text in which reality is purposely distorted. For these reasons, it has become as difficult to define literary expressionism exactly as it is to associate it with a single school or period. Some critics do limit the term’s application, however, using it to describe the early-twentieth-century German literary movement (especially as manifested in drama) that sought to explore the recesses of the human mind and to divulge its secrets, an interest inaugurated by the work of psychoanalytic theorists such as Sigmund Freud.

Expressionism has a more precise meaning in art criticism, where it most often refers to an early-twentieth-century German school of painters who believed that human consciousness or essence could not be represented adequately by simulating external reality. Noted practitioners include Max Beckmann, Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, and Käthe Kollwitz.

EXAMPLES: August Strindberg’s A Dream Play (1902), Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1921), and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1923) exemplify expressionist drama; T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922), and James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake (1939) show the strong influence of expressionism. Henri Matisse’s paintings contain expressionist elements; Edvard Munch’s postimpressionist painting The Scream (1893) anticipates and heavily influenced the expressionist movement. Inheritors of the expressionist tradition include the Beat writers as well as Tennessee Williams, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon.