Literary Expressionism Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”