Fauvism and Expressionism Explained

The Scream, Munch, 1893
The Scream, Munch, 1893

Paint laid on thick, colors popping off the page, and unnatural hues – fauvism and expressionism are two of the movements that brought these characteristics to life. So, what’s the difference between them, if they can be described in the same way?

First, we’ll explain fauvism and expressionism on their own. Then, we’ll talk about what influenced their appearance in the art world. Finally, we’ll explain how the two are related and how to organize these movements in your mind.

Sound good? Let’s get started.

Fauvism

Fauvism took hold of the art scene from 1905 to 1910, give or take, and is characterized by intense color and bold brushwork. In some cases, artists from this period applied paint straight from the bottle. They chose simple subjects and because of this, the paintings looked almost abstract.

Art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term after he described the work of Henri Matisse and Andre Derain as “les fauves” or the beasts during a 1905 exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. The work at the show by Matisse and Derain were full of non-naturalistic color choices and wild drabs of paint on the canvas. It would mark the beginning of fauvism.

Henri Matisse, Derain, 1905
Henri Matisse, Derain, 1905

Andre Derain, Matisse, 1905
Andre Derain, Matisse, 1905

Fauvism artists were also deeply interested in scientific color theory from the 19th century. Specifically, with the use of complementary colors, fauvists understood how to make colors seem brighter and bolder by incorporating these theories.

Other than Matisse and Derain, other important fauvist artists include Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, Georges Rouault, and Maurice de Vlaminck.

Expressionism

Expressionism is an umbrella term for any artwork that distorts reality to match the inner feelings, views, or ideas of the artist. In short, it’s art that expresses inner realities onto the outer world.

This is a rather generalized definition but there are some distinguishing characteristics of expressionism. In particular, the colors used in expressionism will be intense and often non-naturalistic, meaning someone’s skin might be painted blue instead of tan or brown. Paint is also often used in copious amounts in the expressionist style, making for a lot of texture on the canvas.

Polperro II, Kokoschka. 1939
Polperro II, Kokoschka. 1939

As for the subject matter, expressionist art tends to be emotional and sometimes even mythical, begging the assumption that expressionism is an extension of romanticism.

Since expressionism is such a broad term, it’s easy to start attributing it to art from any era. So, for the most part, expressionism is generally applied to art from the 20th century. It is said to have started with the work of Vincent van Gogh and extends into modern art as we know it today.

Major contributors to the expressionism movement are artists such as Matisse, Rouault, Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Graham Sutherland, Edvard Munch, and others.

They’re Biting, Klee, 1920
They’re Biting, Klee, 1920

Influences and Aftermath

So, what influenced each of these movements and what came after them? Let’s start with fauvism.

Fauvism is seen as an extension of impressionism, taking cues from the post-impressionist work of Van Gogh and the neo-impressionism of Georges Seurat. It was the first real avant-garde, modern art movement of the 20th century and the first era to move toward abstraction in any discernible way.

On the other hand, as we briefly mentioned, expressionism can be seen as a modern take on romanticism for its incredibly emotional themes. But it was also clearly the next step in the timeline from impressionism to abstract modern art.

Expressionism led to offshoots such as the neo-expressionism of the 1980s, German expressionism as seen in the Brucke and Blaue Reiter groups, and the abstract expressionists that emerged in America after World War II.

Dr Rosa Schapire, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1919 (German expressionism)
Dr Rosa Schapire, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1919 (German expressionism)

How do fauvism and expressionism relate to one another?

Fauvism can be seen as a subset of expressionism. Expressionism can include such a wide range of art and movements that it’s almost impossible to separate the two as being truly different.

They use the same techniques and are classified by the same characteristics and the only real difference is the specific nature of fauvism in contrast to the overarching nature of expressionism.

Bathers at Moritzburg, Kirchner, 1909-1926
Bathers at Moritzburg, Kirchner, 1909-1926

Something that can be considered fauvist could also be part of the expressionism camp. But, something that’s considered expressionist isn’t necessarily in the fauvist style. Fauvism is a bit wilder, but with a more simplistic subject matter.

In an attempt to put things succinctly, think of fauvism as impressionism that is taken to the absolute extreme with bolder colors and thicker brushstrokes and expressionism as the artist expressing their inner feelings with bolder colors and thicker brushstrokes.

The Italian Woman, Rouault, 1938
The Italian Woman, Rouault, 1938

So, fauvism versus expressionism isn’t a thing. They’re not in competition with each other because one is simply a version of the other. Chances are, if you’re a fan of expressionism, you’ll like fauvism too. And vice versa.

How do the unnatural color choices make you feel? Why do you think the fauvism movement was so short-lived? How do you think the artist was feeling when they decided to squeeze a splotch of paint on the canvas right from the bottle?

These are all good questions you can ask yourself the next time you’re at a gallery and stumble upon a Matisse from the early 20th century or an expressionist exhibition that explores the era.

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