What is Figurative Expressionism?

Detail of The Resilient by Penelope Przekop
Detail of The Resilient by Penelope Przekop

Art history parcels popular trends in art into “movements.” Various art movements occurred during specific times in history; however, that doesn’t mean the type of art defined by that movement goes away or stops evolving. It just may not be as popular during the years outside its defined time frame.

I refer to myself as a figurative expressionist. So what is that and is there a movement for it?

First, let’s define expressionism. The expressionism movement lasted from 1905 to 1920. The key ideas of expressionist work at that time were:

1. The art comes forth from within the artist, rather than from a depiction of the external visual world, and the standard for assessing the quality of a work of art became the character of the artist’s feelings rather than an analysis of the composition.

2. Expressionist artists often employed swirling, swaying, and exaggerated brushstrokes in the depiction of their subjects. These techniques were meant to convey the turgid emotional state of the artist reacting to the anxieties of the modern world.

3. Through their confrontation with the urban world of the early twentieth century, expressionist artists developed a powerful mode of social criticism in their serpentine renderings and bold colors.

Seated Woman with Bent Knee by Egon Schiele
Seated Woman with Bent Knee by Egon Schiele

Some of my absolute favorite artists were expressionist: Van Gogh, Klee, Schiele, and Kandinsky.

Apparently, the key ideas of expressionism seemed easier to portray through abstract work, at least for New York artists, and thus abstract expressionism subsequently emerged in the 1940s and 50s as another art movement. Some of these guys were: Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning (a lot of o’s there).

So maybe I’m just an expressionist? I could say that. However, for many people expressionism seems to denote abstraction, so I prefer to clarify what I do by indicating that my work is figurative.

In the end, I paint people, mostly women, and my work is about emotion and the human spirit. Is there an official, defined figurative expressionism movement in art history? Not yet, and I don’t care. I don’t need a movement; I just need to be myself. In fact, I prefer to either do my own thing or lead the way.

Visit The Art Story for more information on expressionist art and other key movements in art history.


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