Expressionism was not a movement as such, nor did any one group of artists describe themselves as ‘Expressionist’. The term commonly defines European art tendencies that had become less preoccupied with recording visual impressions and were concentrating more on conveying an emotional and spiritual charge.
The term was first used with regard to French artists that had exhibited in the Berlin Secession in 1911. However, in 1914 the term became associated with the new generation of German artists who responded most eagerly to the vision born in France by Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne. There were two major groups of artists, Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). In addition to this, the publishing house and art gallery owned by Herwarth Walden, both named Der Sturm (The Storm), played a major part in exhibiting paintings and publishing theoretical writings by artists who are considered to be expressionist.
Die Brücke was founded in 1905 and headed by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, other artists included Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel and Max Pechstein. The group was based firstly in Dresden and then, from 1911, in Berlin. The latter was fast becoming the intellectual capital of Europe, both Edvard Munch and August Strindberg, whose pictorial and literary works influenced Die Brücke, lived there. The Bridge referred to in the group’s title was the one built by these artists from provincial Dresden to cosmopolitan Paris. The flat colours, unbroken contours and lack of perspective in the works of Die Brücke show an evident debt to Fauvism, but Kirchner and his contemporaries imposed a psychological aspect into their paintings, often as a complaint against modernity. Kirchner was fascinated with the city, in particular the prostitutes, dancers and circus performers. There were no rules or set ideas, they merely wished for varying artists to join their group. Kirchner wrote "everyone belongs with us who, directly and without dissimulation, expresses that which drives him to create".
In 1911 another group emerged in Munich, Der Blaue Reiter (the name is derived from one of Vassily Kandinsky’s early paintings). Its leading members were Kandinsky, Franz Marc and August Macke. The group had differing styles but their artistic convictions were the same: the need for spirituality in art. It was felt that a spiritual crisis was spreading. Marc stated that he was convinced that "we are standing today at the turning point of two long epochs, similar to the state of the world fifteen years ago". It was believed that a new spiritual era would take the place of nineteenth century materialism and it was art that would introduce this turning point. Der Blaue Reiter’s work was produced with a "new age" in mind, looking towards the future with idealism and spirituality.
Between 1910 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Der Sturm Gallery and publishing house became influential in encouraging avant-garde trends and exhibiting a wide range of new and exciting work from both Germany and other European countries. Robert Delaunay, Marc Chagall, Rudolf Bauer and Belá Kádár all exhibited at Der Sturm Gallery during this period. Central Europe and especially Germany was considered to be the heartland of Expressionism, but the theoretical writings and exhibitions of Der Sturm promoted other European artists who were also painting with a strong expressionist style. These included the Fauve artists, Henri Matisse, André Derain and Vlaminck Maurice de, whose work had a direct influence on the German Expressionists.
In 1913 expressionist work was attacked on the basis that it was corrupting German youths, but it was the First World War that ended the careers of many of the leading Expressionists and changed the attitudes of the surviving artists. In western Europe artists turned away from the search for modernism and turned towards a more aesthetic tradition, while in Germany, groups emerged such as the Dadaists. However many movements such as Abstract Expressionism, centred around New York in the 1940s, drew attention back to this generation of artists.