Literary Expressionism Essay - Critical Essays

Literary Expressionism


Literary Expressionism

The following entry presents criticism on authors and works of literary Expressionism.

Generally dated by scholars as ranging from 1910 to 1925, the Expressionist movement rejected previous concepts of artistic form, subordinated representation to emotional and visionary experience, and exhibited a profound disillusionment with the modern world that often led to political activism. Most of the writers and artists associated with the movement lived in the northern part of Europe—Germany, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, and northern Belgium. Though there were marked differences in their individual styles and philosophies, the Expressionists shared a common vision that emphasized passion, independence, and a desire to reach beyond the superficial to the essential aspect of all things. As artist Paul Klee wrote, the object of the Expressionists was “to make visible that which is not ordinarily revealed to the senses.”

Rooted in German Romantic philosophy, particularly the ideals of Friedrich Schlegel and the poetry of Novalis, Expressionists also embraced the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and composer Richard Wagner, all of whom commented on the dichotomy between the real world and the inner world of the artist, asserting that the artist's duty is to dramatize his or her inner world. Literary forerunners of the Expressionists included Stéphane Mallarmè, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman—writers who passionately lived and wrote against the grain of conventional society. Caricaturists like Frank Wedekind and Carl Sternheim also influenced the Expressionists, contributing elements of satire, the grotesque, and linguistic playfulness to the movement. With Berlin as the center of their activity, the Expressionists gathered as a group around Herwarth Walder's periodical Der Sturm, which started publication in 1910. Their common goal was to protest against the reigning literary, academic, and social establishment, insisting on artistic and personal liberty, integrity, and spiritual self-expression. Poetry and drama proved to be particularly suited to showcasing their emotionally charged, often leftist or revolutionary sentiments, and such writers as August Stramm, Ernst Toller, Georg Trakl, Franz Werfel, and Oscar Kokoschka enjoyed widespread popularity. Expressionist writers are also noted for their versatility: for example, Kokoschka excelled as a playwright and as a painter, and Ernst Barlach was as successful sculptor, essayist, and playwright.

The works of the Expressionist writers were well-known and largely admired by their contemporaries, but they were banned by Adolf Hitler from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s due to what Hitler regarded as their decadent and artificial subject material. The works of the Expressionists were rediscovered in Germany and elsewhere after the war, but it was not until the 1970s that scholarly interest in the movement began to flourish. Since then, there have been many critical evaluations of literary Expressionism, especially of the cultural and political atmosphere in which it developed. Commentators have also explored the international aspects of the movement, as well its influence on writers in the United States and England. The question of whether Expressionism can be referred to as a movement or whether it is more accurate to describe it as a style continues to be debated, though scholars generally agree that the intensity of Expressionist writings is their chief distinguishing characteristic. Richard Brinkmann has written, “Hardly any other period in the history of German literature has wrestled with language with such passion and abandon.”

Representative Works

Hugo Ball
Gesamelte Gedichte (poetry) 1963

Ernst Barlach
Der arme Vetter (play) 1919
Die Sündflut (play) 1924
Der blaue Boll (play) 1926

Johannes R. Becher
Erde (novel) 1912

Bertolt Brecht
Tremmeln in der Nacht (play) 1922
Mann ist Mann (play) 1926

Theodor Däubler
Der neue Standpunkt (essays) 1916

Reinhold Goering
Seeschlacht (play) 1918

Friedrich Gundelfinger
George (criticism) 1920

Hermann Hesse
Der Steppenwolf [Steppenwolf] (novel) 1927

Georg Kaiser
Von morgens bis mitternachts (play) 1917

Wassily Kandinsky
Der Blaue Reiter [editor, with Franz Marc] (almanac) 1912
Uber der Geistige in der Kunst [The Art of Spiritual Harmony] (criticism) 1912

Oscar Kokoschka
Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen [Murderer, Hope of Women] (play) 1907
Hiob (play) 1917

Georg Lukács
Deutsche Literatur im Zeitalter des Imperialismus: Eine Übersicht ihrer Hauptströmungen (essays) 1945

Thomas Mann
Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen [Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man] (essay) 1918

Robert Musil
Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. 3 vols. (novel) 1930-33, 1943

Kurt Pinthus
Menschheitsdämmerung (poetry) 1920

Rainer Maria Rilke
Die Anfzeichnungen der Malte Laurids Brigge [The Note-Books of Malte Laurids Brigge] (novel) 1910

Arnold Schoenberg
Erwartung (monodrama) 1909
Die glueckliche Hand (libretto) 1910-13

Reinhard Sorge
Der Bettler (play) 1917

Carl Sternheim
Die Hose: Ein Bürgerliches Lustspiel [The Underpants: A Middle-Class Comedy] (play) 1911

August Stramm
Die Liebesgedichte (poetry) 1915

Ernst Toller
Masse Mensch (play) 1920
Die Maschinenstürmer (play) 1922

Georg Trakl
Gedichte (poetry) 1913

Herwarth Walder
Der Sturm [editor] (journal) 1910-32

Frank Wedekind
Die Büchse der Pandora: Tragödie in drei Aufzügen [Pandora's Box] (play) 1904

Franz Werfel
Spiegelmensch (play) 1920

Wilhelm Worringer
Abstraktion und Einfühlung [Abstraction and Empathy] (philosophy) 1908

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Ulrich Weisstein (essay date winter 1967)

SOURCE: Weisstein, Ulrich. “Expressionism: Style or Weltanschaung?” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 9, no. 1 (winter 1967): 42-62.

[In the following essay, Weisstein considers the question of whether scholars should evaluate Expressionism primarily as a literary style, or whether they need to take into account its social and political dimensions as well.]

“No matter how things turn out, one will have to admit that Expressionism was the last common, general, and conscious attempt of a whole generation to instill new life into art, music, and literature.”1 I think that this holds true even though, geographically speaking,...

(The entire section is 8263 words.)

Ralph Freedman (essay date winter 1969)

SOURCE: Freedman, Ralph. “Refractory Visions: The Contours of Literary Expressionism.” Contemporary Literature 10, no. 1 (winter 1969): 54-74.

[In the following essay, Freedman discusses the Expressionist technique of blurring the contours of ordinary objects in order to explore the relationship between human consciousness and the real world.]


If it is at all true that artists express the needs and values of their culture, it follows that they also reflect its impasse. In our time, they have sought to isolate this crucial recognition by distorting the world around them—their own features, and ours, as well as those “classical” forms...

(The entire section is 7565 words.)

Christopher Waller (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Waller, Christopher. “The Criticisms.” In Expressionist Poetry and Its Critics, pp. 10-23. London: Institute of Germanic Studies, University of London, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Waller comments on criticism leveled against Expressionist writers by five contemporary critics: R. M. Rilke, Thomas Mann, Georg Lukács, Stefan George (through Friedrich Gundolf), and Robert Musil.]

Literary criticism ought to be a history of man's ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them.1

This book takes as its starting-point, and will use as a framework, a series of criticisms...

(The entire section is 7226 words.)

Peter Vergo (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Vergo, Peter. “The Origins of Expressionism and the Notion of Gesamtkunstwerk.” In Expressionism Reassessed, edited by Shulamith Behr, David Fanning, and Douglas Jarman, pp. 11-9. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Vergo explores how Richard Wagner's notion of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) influenced the Expressionists' view of the dichotomy between the external and internal meaning of a work of art.]

Over the past several decades, a number of writers—among them Carl Schorske, Donald Gordon, and Reinhold Heller1—have underlined the importance of the Idealist tradition in...

(The entire section is 3528 words.)

Peter Nicholls (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Nicholls, Peter. “Cruel Structures: The Development of Expressionism.” In Modernisms: A Literary Guide, pp. 136-64. London, England: Macmillan, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Nicholls focuses on the elements of linguistic and sexual violence in the poetry and drama of the Expressionist period.]

In previous chapters we have seen Paris emerge as a magnetic cultural centre, as the very hub of European modernist activity. Here a sense of energy and dynamism brought art and metropolitan life into powerful association—the Paris of Delaunay was preeminently the city of light, colour, and movement, the city where expanding consumerism had acquired an exciting...

(The entire section is 12443 words.)

Criticism: Themes In Literary Expressionism

Egbert Krispyn (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Krispyn, Egbert. “The Pattern of Pathos.” In Style and Society in German Literary Expressionism, pp. 44-52. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1964.

[In the following excerpt, Krispyn examines the trait of pathos, or the desire to awaken an emotional response in the reader, as one of the main characteristics of Expressionist literature.]

The definition of the three main types of expressionist writing is inadequate for evaluating how closely work of other periods may be stylistically related to expressionism. A criterion must be sought which is independent of such themes and topics as hatred of Wilhelmian Germany or faith in a communist paradise. The...

(The entire section is 3563 words.)

Raymond Furness (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Furness, Raymond. “The Religious Element in Expressionist Theatre.” In Expressionism Reassessed, edited by Shulamith Behr, David Fanning, and Douglas Jarman, pp. 163-73. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Furness presents an overview of Expressionist drama and its treatment of religion, noting that its main theme may be summed up as “the revolt of the spirit against reality.”]

In Reinhard Sorge's The Beggar, a play written in 1910 and performed some five years later, a discussion between various literati in the obligatory coffee-house turns upon a recent dramatic work which is regarded as...

(The entire section is 4399 words.)

Richard Murphy (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Murphy, Richard. “Re-Writing the Discursive World: Revolution and the Expressionist Avant-Garde.” In Theorizing the Avant-Garde: Modernism, Expressionism, and the Problem of Postmodernity, pp. 49-73. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Murphy explores the revolutionary tendency of many Expressionist poets, citing their use of such techniques as irony, skepticism, and manipulation of the signifier in language.]

“Death to the Moonlight!”

(Futurist slogan)

The heterogeneous and frequently vague nature of the many manifestoes and...

(The entire section is 10665 words.)

Criticism: Expressionism In Germany

Egbert Krispyn (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Krispyn, Egbert. “Expressionists and Expressionism.” In Style and Society in German Literary Expressionism, pp. 25-43. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1964.

[In the following excerpt, Krispyn presents an overview of “expressionist” writers in Germany, emphasizing that their goals and style diverged too widely to fit under the umbrella of Expressionism.]

The ambivalent feelings with which the expressionists from their position on the periphery of society regarded their fellow citizens determined the expressionist world view. Their feeling of hostility towards the community from which they were excluded, and whose values they had recognized as...

(The entire section is 7491 words.)

Ulrich Weisstein (essay date May 1981)

SOURCE: Weisstein, Ulrich. “German Literary Expressionism: An Anatomy.” German Quarterly 54, no. 3 (May 1981): 262-83.

[In the following essay, Weisstein describes some of the significant differences and dichotomies inherent in the various strands of German Expressionism.]


Any attempt to analyze the most striking and characteristic features of a complex entity like Expressionism, which some regard as a typisch deutscher Gegenstand,1 must be prefaced by some methodological observations. As I have come to realize after ploughing through the vast amount of scholarship on the subject, the crux of the matter is the use, or...

(The entire section is 11497 words.)

Further Reading


Allen, Roy F. “Expressionism in Berlin.” In Literary Life in German Expressionism and the Berlin Circles, pp. 118-47. Göppingen, Germany: Verlag Alfred Kümmerle, 1972.

Discusses Berlin as the reigning capitol of Expressionism, focusing on the various literary, artistic, and philosophical currents that contributed to the flourishing of the movement.

Brinkmann, Richard. “Abstract Lyrics of Expressionism: End or Transformation of the Symbol?” In Literary Symbolism: A Symposium, edited by Helmut Rehder, pp. 109-36. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965.

Outlines and discusses some of the main...

(The entire section is 417 words.)