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The term Expressionism covers a large group of artistic movements, including cubism, futurism and Expressionism itself. The Expressionist movement began as a turning away from the Impressionist movement and covers the post-Impressionist period starting at the end of the 19th century. Expressionists chose to portray their emotions rather than give their "impressions" of the scenes and people they chose to paint. It was of paramount importance to the Impressionists that emotions not be conveyed; rather, that the subjects be shown as they appeared to the artist. But the Expressionist artists turned their artistic endeavors inward to themselves, declaring that the artist's vision was of supreme importance. Therefore, if an artist had a strong emotional reaction to something he or she viewed, whether positive or negative, the object was to paint the subject the way it was seen and the way someone saw something would become the way he or she experienced it. Expressionism was born, then, out of a desire to express emotions and as a revolt against the machine age and the changes that the technology brought into society. Increasing materialism contributed to the major Expressionist artists' feelings of disorientation and disenchantment with the world in which they lived. Many of their lives were tragic, outward signs of an inward lack of peace and harmony between them and their surroundings. The oldest members of the movement were Van Gogh and Edvard Munch. Gauguin traveled extensively to the South Seas; Franz Marc dropped out of civilization and retreated to a world of animals that he considered to be more pure than humans; major movements of the Blaue Reiter group and the Brucke also left the cities in search of peace and harmony in more natural settings.

Another difference in the work of the Expressionists and the Impressionists was in the use of color. The Expressionists used color in large, bright areas, as compared to the Impressionists, who used delicate, broken hues. Expressionists also distorted their figures, so that they appeared inhuman. The more horrific the representation, the more of an impact the painting would have on the viewer. By painting highly emotional states, the results were distorted faces and bodies, as well as inanimate objects also becoming distorted. There were several trends of Expressionism. Subjective Expressionism is shown in the early works of Kandinsky, Klee, Matisse, Picasso, and some of Marc and Marin. Objective Expressionism is evident in the works of Rouault, Nolde, Hofer, Beckmann, and Kocoschka. It is also present in the sculptures of Barlach, Zadkine, Epstein, Lehmbruck. Abstractionism, as shown in the works of Picasso, Braque and Kandinsky is another trend. These various trends are part of the whole post-impressionistic period that includes Expressionism as a separate trend. French and German artists and art writers viewed the meaning of Expressionism differently. The Germans saw it as a revolution from the superficial art of Impressionism and ultimately, the Renaissance. French artists put less emphasis on the soul and metaphysical aspects of Expressionism than did the Germans, believing that structure and form were more important. Good taste, elegance and workmanship became of primary importance to the French. Kandinsky and Klee were the most consistent German Expressionists. In each of the trends mentioned above, the question was "What is being painted?" The artists in France and Germany answered the questions differently and expressed their creative talents in a way that suited them individually.

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