Category Archives: Reflextion: Expressionism from ‘concepts of modern art – From Fauvism to Postmodernism’ Edited by Nikos Stangos

Reflection: Expressionism from ‘concepts of modern art – From Fauvism to Postmodernism’ Edited by Nikos Stangos

My tutor suggested I read this book to give me a more systematic overview of modern art.

I really like the introduction where he challenges the whole notion of whether he would categorise ‘modern art’ in movements… and how the artistic world now views this period on time and ‘categorises’ it.

Interpretation is fluid and truths change.

Think for yourself!!!


This is my take on this chapter so apologies to Norbert Lynton who wrote about this ‘chapter’ or ‘art movement’ in advance!!!!

It seems to me fundamental in understanding art.

(Always remembering there are very few black and whites and lots of greys).


LOW CONTENT SUBJECT: a milk bottle on a table… a scrubby tree in a field… most still life and landscape. Subjects of and in themselves that if you just took a photograph of would elicit no artistic response.

(Whereas if the same subject was painted by Picasso it would generate an enormous artistic, and financial, response!)

HIGH CONTENT SUBJECT: a message, a meaning, a narrative, a feeling… something extrapersonal to the artist that they wish to express. Aesthetic truth, confirm a faith, glorify a battle, describe a narrative, capture an intimate moment, social campaigning, confirming government or religious loyalties etc, etc!!!! Subjects that by their very nature and concept connect with and audience… speak to them… engage in a dialogue.

Added to this you have:

(1) PERSONAL: The artist is expressing themselves. Their vision and personality… that we exist in a time and in a culture dictates that this is always more than just the artist as it records unconscious personal and super personal forces. But here I’m taking it to mean they are painting their personality and that moment onto the canvas.

(2) EXTRAPERSONAL: The artist is expressing something other than their personality. This could be any content from an academic challenge of the notion of art… to the moment of serenity between a mother and child… to the visual impression od sunlight on water.

So, the Dutch School had a low content subject (still life) to which it added a large dollop of expressive gestures such as colour and composition… it wasn’t a straight naturalistic commonplace copy of reality. They produced art on which to contemplate. They painted beautiful paintings.

Rembrandt added line, brush strokes, colour composition, chiaroscuro and contrast (all subjective elements to his paintings). Which were, if you like, expressive (of his personality… his voice) elements that ‘sugar coated the pill of meaning’ – that phrase is from the book.

Even Classicism had elements of expressionism with its dramatic lighting, rich colours and personal impassioned brushstrokes.

Other expressive elements might be compositional and figurative distortion as in Mannerism.

So, throughout time, artists have never (???) sort to reproduce the naturalistic and commonplace as it truly (objectively would be on camera). I photograph the king… it is a camera… it doesn’t lie… it is truthful and naturalistic… but would not be used.  A portrait of the king would be changed by the artist; he would be properly lit and composed, he would make them look better, thinner, less spotty… more regal! (A lot like photoshopping today). And some artists were better at it than others, their personal style/voice shone through and communicated and connected with the viewer.

Art was never just about the content… it was always partly about the personality of the artist.

(On a side issue… that’s why copies… ‘in the style of’  never work. Because it’s not expressing the artist – it doesn’t come from within their soul… but is mimicking somebody elses personality and therefore always lacks truth. And we’re very good at reading art – almost as good as we are at reading faces!)

The Romantics like Delacroix came nearest to expressionism – their unrestrained individualism bursts from the canvas even as they express universal truths… like the glory of France!

So, it seems to me, that it’s all about balance.

Expressionism has always been a part of art ever since individual artists put their names to paintings in the Renaissance and moved from craftsmen to creators. From visual bricklayers to visual film stars!!!

It is no surprise then that at some stage… moving through Van Gough that the connection with a recogniseable subject (painted ‘realistically’) should weaken… that artists would take an element (in this case individuality) to an extreme and raise it above all other concerns.

So, a fully abstarct painting has zero extrapersonal elements and zero-content (it has neither a visual (subject) or content (extrapersonal) subject and becomes solely about the individuality of the creator.

Which leads us to Abstract expressionism.

In the same way that music directly affects emotions, released from ‘words’ and meaning the colours, shapes, brushstrokes, texture, size and scale can all work on the viewer subconsciously. They ‘move’ us… in much the same way as music does.

This can truly be all about the personality (and the moment of creation) of the artists.

This raises an important distinction between artists who consciously use abstract compositions but are ‘composing’ as opposed to those that are ‘living in the moment’. As in Kadinsky (composing) and Jackson Pollock (in the moment). An artist who is composing is abstract but not expressionistic, they are trying to speak directly to our subconscious and emotions… like Bach or Handel.

In conclusion:

I think expressionism is an element of all art (it is the voice of the artist)… expressionistic tools like colour composition are the language artists use to serve their purpose. Whether that be expressionistic or non-expressionistic.

(I guess the opposite to expressionism is concept art where the idea is 100% and the artist is zero!). A blue canvas with a slash to reveal the artificiality of ‘art’ and raise a debate or the toilet labelled ‘this is art’.

In a very big sense expressionism is the humanity in art… it is the Shakespeare in the play… forms may vary (TV has taken over from theatre and ‘naturalistic’ dialogue from blank verse). But the human dilemmas in Shakespeare are universal and timeless. So too the artist in the painting shares our humanity.

We are all alone and a great artist is able to make us not alone. In great art we ‘see’ a human soul.

In the same way that technology has changed since Shakespeare’s day… and entertainment adapted from theatre to film, so art has adapted to technological change… most recently to photography. The ‘history of art’ and the ‘artistic movements’ is more about the history of mankind than is is about the history of ‘art’. It is the history of the buyers, of the power brokers in society… of contemporary mores and interests.

Finally categorising art in discrete movements like Impressionism or Classicism seems very crude. Al art is attached to society – and it always has a human, or expressive, element. It is built on an alliance between history, society and individuality.

It’s not a series of boxes!