Chapter 10: Reactions to Modernity: Post Impressionism and Expressionism in Europe

Post Impressionism emerged in France in the 1880’s.  Although it grew out of Impressionism (most of the artists referred to themselves as Impressionists), they broke away from Impressionism towards a new, more abstract approach to painting.  Each of the four major Post Impressionists forged a uniquely individual style:  Georges Seurat sought to systemize the Impressionist analysis of color and light by developing a pointillist method of painting in dots of pure color that blend in the eye. Paul Cézanne focused on structure and form, rather than color and light, resulting in dynamic canvases of shifting planes that register multiple viewpoints.  Reacting to the rapid modernization of European society, Paul Gauguin sought to escape modernity by moving to the provincial town of Pont Aven in Brittany, and then to the French colonies in Tahiti.  He developed a “primitive” style of painting consisting of simple flat shapes bounded by thick contours that decisively broke with Renaissance conventions of perspective and modelling, drawing instead on the simple flat forms of medieval art and Japanese prints.  Vincent Van Gogh used color and brushstroke to express intense emotion.

While Impressionism had emphasized a direct transcription of visual sensations (Monet insisted on painting only what he could see), Post Impressionism represented a decisive break with the Renaissance conception of the painting as a “window”  — a concept that began with Giotto, who was the first artist to base his art on direct observation of nature. The invention of photography was a major stimulus for this new trend towards abstraction – for here was a “machine” that could accurately reproduce the visible world.  Beginning with Post Impressionism, artists began to redefine the purpose and goal of art as something other than a mere “picture” of visible reality.

In the early decades of the 20th century, Expressionist movements emerged in both France and Germany, inspired by the experiments of Post Impressionism.  Fauvism announced its arrival in Paris in 1905 at the Salon d’Automne (an avant garde alternative to the official salon), where a gallery of wildly colored pictures were so jarring that one critic described them as “fauves” – or “wild beasts.”  Henri Matisse and other members of the Fauve movement sought to liberate color from its descriptive function, focusing on the use of line, form, and color to express emotions, rather than to describe reality.  Their works represented the next step towards an abstract mode of expression, and away from the Renaissance tradition of painting as a “window.”

In Germany, Expressionists groups emerged simultaneously in Dresden and Munich, influenced by the experiments of French Post Impressionism.  The Die Brückegroup was formed in Dresden in 1905 (the same year the Fauves made their appearance at the Salon d’Automne in Paris).  They explored a crudely “primitive” style that drew on African tribal arts as a way of expressing their opposition to modernization and the restrictive morals of bourgeois society.  In Munich, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky became the leader of Der Blaue Reiter (the “Blue Rider”).  Kandinsky was one of the first 20th century artists to explore a purely “non-objective” style of painting:  picture that have no recognizable subject matter, relying instead on the use of line, color, and form as a means of direct expression.

Wordpress Lectures
There are several lectures in this unit:

Learning Goals:
Upon completion of this module, you should be able to

  1. Explain the impact of photography on Post Impressionism, and how it caused artists to redefine the goal of art
  2. Identify and describe the unique painting methods of each of the four major Post Impressionists artists, and compare them to the painting methods of Impressionism
  3. Describe the distinctive characteristics of Fauvism, and how it differs from Impressionism
  4. Define the concept of “Expressionism” as seen in the work of artists such as Henri Matisse and Ernst Kirchner
  5. Explain the concept of “primitivism,” and how it reflects early 20th century attitudes towards modernization?
  6. Define the concept of non-objective painting, and how it is different from abstraction
  7. Explain the connection that Wassily Kandinsky made between non-objective paintings and music
  8. Explain how the theme of Wassily Kandinsky’s non-objective paintings can be related to modernization