Perhaps my distaste for abstract expressionism stems from my love of expressionism, a movement that actually succeeds at depicting and evoking emotion. It does so not by, say, haphazardly swinging around a brush to symbolise anger, but through distortions in the subject, ranging from subtle to radical, freeing the artist’s subjective view of their surroundings from their skulls and making it our own.
This practice creates a more potent truth than realism – the simple rendering of a model in robotic, blasé objectivity. Realism became a vestigial wing on the art world after the introduction of the camera, and abstract expressionism, being indistinguishable from vomit, has no place in a world where anyone can aim their face at a canvas and expectorate their own “masterpiece”.
But expressionism will never be subsumed by any advancement in technology – or stomach-pumping. It’s how gifted human beings can share not only their point of view, but the emotional weight behind the things they see. Experiencing an expressionist painting is like borrowing an artist’s eyes and heart.
On what inspired for The Scream, perhaps the most famous expressionist painting in existence, Edvard Munch wrote:
“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
In the painting, we see a petrified, androgynous ghoul screaming in concert with nature as the heavens burn. Robert Rosenblum, Munch scholar, believes this titular screamer to be modelled after a Peruvian mummy that the artist may have seen at an event he attended in Paris, four years prior to the creation of the piece. Mummy-based or not, the creature is without a doubt intended to be Munch’s surrogate. It’s an out-of-body view of himself, not in literal, 1:1 representation, but as he existed spiritually on that bridge: immobilised with anxiety, internalising the perceived cry of the earth. It’s no wonder why some believe The Scream to be a depiction of a depersonalisation episode, which can feel like detachment from oneself and one’s environment as both former and latter become distorted beyond comprehension.
The Scream earned its canonisation not just through its striking colour palette, masterful gestural brushwork and iconic angst-ridden corpse, but by epitomising a feeling, one that resonates with most of us: paralytic fear brought on by a sense that the world is more than we can handle at the moment.
Oskar Kokoschka’s The Bride of the Wind is another expressionistic masterwork. In it, Kokoschka lies wide-awake in the twilight next to his sleeping lover, Alma Mahler. Their relationship was a turbulent one. Mahler left Kokoschka after several years together, but remained the love of his life and his muse until the day he died, even after she remarried.
At the time of its painting, the two were on the precipice of their eventual split. No doubt it depicts the tempest of dread experienced by Kokoschka, perhaps nightly, as he lay with his paramour, feeling her heart silently disentangling itself from his own.
The feeling of the painting is created through Kokoschka’s cyclonic brushstrokes, revealing the metaphysical wind howling at Mahler each night, clamouring for her to float from their bed and be jettisoned toward freedom. It’s title further reflects this prediction; Mahler was to be Kokoschka’s bride, but he could sense her growing fondness for the wind as a suitor and vehicle from him.
Egon Schiele, the radical protégé of Gustav Klimt, approached portraiture in a way few other artists have. He didn’t strive to bolden, blend or blush himself or his subjects to the point of palatable, consumer-ready beauty, but instead chose to revel in, enhance and even invent flaws, creating transcendental art both grotesque and gorgeous.
Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted above Head addresses the allure of l’artiste maudit. Schiele was celebrated as a rebellious, tortured artist in his time. Here he shows us that beneath his typical flamboyant dress, wild hair and fierce eyes is a man not meeting his needs. Schiele was never emaciated, but his two-dimensional self is nothing but bones; his ribs jutting out uncomfortably as his all-too-visible spine lurches backward to offset them.
This self-portrait is an x-ray into the artist’s emotional frailty as he maintains the composure expected of him – flashing model looks and poses, seemingly unaware that he’s been disrobed. Whether meant as a cry for help, or merely a state of affairs of Schiele’s stability, the work gives a frightening glimpse at what it feels like to be him as he holds up a mirror to his soul.