Whether in writing or in visual arts, those who practiced expressionism did so to explore spiritual reality. They were more interested in what reality the mind created than that which was in front of their eyes. The influence of one on the other was also an important feature of their work.
Definition of Expressionism
Expressionism was a reaction to realism. It’s an exploration of the mind through literature, visual arts, music, and more. The artists and writers who practiced it were mainly based in Europe, specifically Germany, and are explored in more detail below.
The term “expressionism” is most commonly applied, in literature, to a group of German playwrights in the early 20th century. Like Oskar Kokoschka (also a well-loved painter) and Ernest Toller, these authors sought to distort reality in a meaningful way. Sometimes, their plays and those of their contemporaries are deemed bizarre, confusing, or strange.
Important Writers of the Expressionist Movement
- Ernest Toller: a German expressionist playwright who is known for his revolutionary work. They garnered him international renown.
- Georg Kaiser: an important German expressionist playwright who was highly prolific during his life. One of his best-known plays is From Morning to Midnight.
- Rainier Maria Rilke: sometimes regarded as an expressionist based off of his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It was published in 1910 and is considered to be semi-autobiographical.
- Jakob van Hobbis: is best-known for his poem, ‘Weltende’ or ‘End of the World,’ published in 1911.
- Franz Kafka: sometimes deemed an expressionist, Kafka’s work, such as The Metamorphosis, skillfully distorts reality in a way that makes readers think more deeply about the nature of life and if it has a purpose.
- Malcom Lowry: Lowry’s Under the Volcano, published in 1947, is a great example of an expressionist novel. It tells the story of a British consul in Mexico on the Day of the Dead.
Examples of Expressionist Literature
Transfigured Night by Richard Dehmel
‘Transfigured Night’ or ‘Verklärte Nacht’ is one of Dehmel’s best-known poems. In it, the poet describes a man and a woman walking beside one another. The latter admits to the former that she’s carrying a child who isn’t his. The man accepts this and her passionate decree of freedom and shares his wish that her child is “no burden to her soul.”
Here are the first few lines of the poem, translated to English:
Two people walk through a bare, cold grove;
The moon races along with them, they look into it.
The moon races over tall oaks,
No cloud obscures the light from the sky,
Into which the black points of the boughs reach.
A woman’s voice speaks:
Dehmel’s verse is broadly admired for his revolutionary attitude towards naturalism and his willingness to deal with social problems. His passion for life often comes through in his imagery and content. This particular poem expressed an attitude toward life, love, and relationship that many readers may have been surprised by.
Early Spring by Ernst Stadler
‘Early Spring’ is an interesting and commonly read poem by the German expressionist poet Ernst Stadler. The poem is only three stanzas long, but it is extremely effective. The poet describes his speaker, through a first-person perspective, walking along the road at night and being moved by the world around him. He felt “Destiny…waiting in the windblown stars,” and in his heart “lay a storm of furled flags.” Here is the first stanza:
This March night I left my house late.
The streets were stirring with the smell of spring and green seed rain,
Winds striking. Through the startled incline of houses I went far out
To the bare embankment and felt a new beat swelling towards my heart.
The poem includes natural imagery that many readers are going to be drawn to, as well as a spiritual awakening that is characteristic of the expressionist movement. It’s the latter that’s the most important part of this piece.
Battlefield by August Stramm
Stramm was a German poet who served during the First World War. He was killed in action on September 1st, 1915 while fighting in hand-to-hand combat. The poet wrote some of the best German WWI poems before his death. ‘Battlefield’ is a short and powerful poem that describes the life, death, and aftermath of war. The first lines read:
Yielding clod lulls iron off to sleep
bloods clot the patches where they oozed
At the end of the poem, the poet uses a striking image. He writes, “Murder on murder blinks / in childish eyes.” ‘Battlefield’ is only one of his many moving pieces about war. Others include ‘War Grave’ and ‘Guard-Duty.’
Why do you come, White Moths… by Georg Heym
‘Why do you come, White Moths…’ is one of Heym’s more popular and commonly read poems. It uses an apostrophe or an address to someone or something that either cannot hear or understand the words throughout the piece. The speaker talks to the white moths, asking them why they come “so oft to me.” He calls them the souls of the dead and brings in darker and darker imagery as the poem progresses. Here are a few more lines:
I oft hear in my sleep the vampires’s yaps;
They sound as if the somber moon were laughing.
And I see deep in empty caverns
The candles of the homeless shadows.
What is all life? The brief flare-up of torchlights
Ringed by distorted frights out of black darkness
And some of them come close already
And with thin hands reach for the flames.
The final lines relate the whites of a dead person’s eyes to the white color of the moths the speaker has been so haunted by.
Expressionism is important because it was a reaction against two of the most important movements in history, realism, and naturalism. It was an explosion of emotion that stood out against the stark and sometimes mundane examples of naturalism and realism in the literary and artistic worlds.
In art, expressionists convey emotion rather than reality. They’re more interested in depicting what’s going on inside someone’s head than a landscape or a social situation. But, that doesn’t mean they didn’t engage politically or socially with their contemporary moment.
Expressionist art and literature, as well as music and dance, is noted for its distorted elements, engagement with psychological subjects, spiritual revelations, and a willingness to push back against realism and naturalism.
Some of the best-known expressionists in the world of visual arts include Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. In the literary world, German writers like Ernest Toller and Georg Kaiser are quite well-known. Some people also consider Franz Kafka an expressionist.
Related Literary Terms
- Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America
- Acmeism: a literary movement that emerged in the early 1910s in Russia. The movement is also referred to as the Guild of Poets.
- Aestheticism: a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that focused on the importance of beauty.
- Edwardian Period: lasted from 1901 to 1910, includes the reign of King Edward VII.
- Imagism: a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language.
- Lost Generation: a group of writers who came of age during World War I and dealt with the social changes the war brought.
- Listen: What is Expressionism?
- Watch: Art Theory in Motion: Expressionism
- Listen: What is abstract expressionism?