Expressionism is an art movement that produced a wealth of wonderful works of art, and the lives of the artists who created them were no less colorful and exciting. The word "expressionism" can be used to describe art from different times and places, most of them were part of a movement that took place in Germany from 1905 to 1920. They shared some of the beliefs. Those beliefs were that art should try to change society, to make it less conservative. It should express the energy of nature—following in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh—-and personal feeling rather than simply representing nature. It should feel "uncomfortable", which means it should challenge the traditional ways of looking at the world. This differed from the opinion of Henri Matisse who believed that art should be "comfortable". Expressionist art should be inspired by folk art, and the art of what were then called "primitive" people, for example from Africa.
The aim of the Expressionists was to express personal feeling about what they were painting rather than representing it exactly as it was. It should have strong colors and shapes, be relatively direct, untutored and unplanned and should still contain recognizable things, but not be realistic. The lines could be distorted, and the colors could be strengthened or changed as in the art movement that began in 1905 called Fauvism.
Expressionism was more than a style in painting. It could be found in theatre and cinema, literature and architecture. It was a sharing of ideas and experiences across all these media. The life stories of the Expressionist artists show just how much they had in common. Many began by studying applied art, such as furniture design, often to please their parents. Although they later made more personal art, they continued to make use of those technical skills. Both art critics and the public received this new movement with derision and outrage. Expressionist artists were trying to shock by challenging the traditional, conservative views held by many people. Gradually, however, it became accepted and even admired.
All the Expressionists were affected by World War I (1914-18). Some fled from Germany and spent the war years in exile. Some never returned to their homeland. Most served in the war and some were killed. At first some of them hoped a war would change society for the better but they were soon disillusioned when they saw the destruction and suffering that it caused. In the years after the war, many Expressionist artist revealed the horrors they experienced in their work.
After World War I, Expressionism became very fashionable in Germany, where art was allowed to flourish. This freedom ended in 1933 when Hitler declared all Expressionists were "degenerate". This led to them being sacked from their jobs or forced to leave Germany. In 1937 the Nazis took thousands of art works from German museums and put them in an enormous exhibition called the Degenerate Art Exhibition, to show how bad and decadent this art was. It presented a view of the world that went against their political and cultural ambitions to rid Germany of all inferior races.