Getting your heart broken is one of the most intense and painful experiences you’ll ever have. The pain can be so horrible that you even feel it in your body. It’s not just your heart that feels broken: it’s your whole body, your whole self. You feel like your relationship with that person was everything, and now that they’re gone, you feel empty and broken, like you’ll never be whole again. The rest of the world doesn’t matter anymore. All you care about is the fact that you used to be with someone you loved, and now they don’t want to be with you anymore, and you have to go on with your life somehow.
Needless to say, this can be one of the darkest moments in your life, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be any beauty amid all the darkness. Actually, pain can be incredibly beautiful, and it can inspire great things, like art, for instance.
Masks (1911), Emil Nolde
The artists who defined Expressionism were profoundly inspired by their feelings and emotions, especially the negative ones. In fact, the essence of Expressionism is emotions. The artists wanted to portray them as raw and open as possible, using vibrant colors and free brushwork to exaggerate and distort the images. In this way, we could say it came about as a reaction to Impressionism—the previous movement—which sought to represent a real, objective scene from the world around us. The Expressionists wanted to represent the world inside them, the world of their emotions, as subjectively as they could.
Self-Portrait with Lowered Head (1912), Egon Schiele
Because of the emphasis on emotions and pain, Expressionist paintings are often described as violent, and rightly so. Just by standing in front of one of these works and looking into the eyes of the subjects, we feel a wave of anger, heartbreak, frustration, sadness, and loneliness washing over us. We feel these emotions seeping out of the canvas and into ourselves, where our own anger, heartbreak, frustration, sadness, and loneliness lie waiting. With some paintings, it can even be too much sometimes, but it’s a good “too much,” because it can always lead us to catharsis.
Carcass of Beef (1925), by Chaim Soutine
Expressionism flourished at the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly in Germany, at a time when some people were starting to realize that the advent of industrialization and the machine came with consequences. More specifically, they were worried that this new age meant that we would leave behind all the things that make us human. Artists were especially aware of this because their work deals with subjectivity, abstract ideas, and emotions. With Expressionism, they aimed to portray our humanity in all its ugliness and imperfection.
Frauenkopf (1911), Alexej von Jawlensky
Take this painting by Schiele, for instance. The bones that stick out, the sickly, pale skin, and a crouching pose that suggests the deep pain the protagonist must be experiencing. It’s almost like she’s trying to hide or make herself small, so nothing (or no one) can hurt her.
Nude with Blue Stockings, Bending Forward (1912), Egon Schiele
Or take this landscape, which suggests emptiness and desolation we feel after being betrayed by someone we love. The opaque colors and vague shapes further remind us of how a broken heart makes us feel like the world will never be beautiful again.
Glance of a Landscape (1926), Paul Klee
The world of Expressionist painting is one of violent emotions that make every piece convey something we have all felt before. The faces that stare out and meet our own gaze, and the expressions of pain in the subjects are beautiful yet disturbing images that provoke the most intense reactions in us and reflect our inner world.