If one characteristic of twentieth-century art, particularly in its development toward Abstraction, has been the urge toward order, geometrical simplification and objectivity, there have been equally strong counter-currents. Subjective passion, fervor, energy and anguish have been conveyed through various forms of Expressionism. To some extent the two impulses - toward controlled order and toward free energy - correspond with the earlier movements of Neo-classicism and Romanticism and, beyond them, with the traditional division between the southern European Renaissance, seeking balanced harmony, and the Northern Renaissance, emphasizing emotional drama.
The northern tradition of artists, from Bosch and Bruegel to Rembrandt and Rubens, has been felt to anticipate modern Expressionism.
Though modern Expressionist trends can be detected right across European and American art, in French artists like Vlaminck and Derain early in the century, then in Soutine, and later in 'Gestural Abstraction' in Europe and the United States, it is in Nordic countries, and especially Germany, that it is strongest.
The term 'expressionist' itself appears to have been coined in the German journal Sturm ('Storm') in 1911. The Blaue Reiter ('Blue Rider') and Die Brucke ('The Bridge') movements were typical manifestations, rejecting the objective, external reality of Impressionism, and picking up on more emotive aspects of Post-Impressionists like Van Gogh, Gauguin and Lautrec. Affected by the anxieties of accelerated social change, and by the anguish of world wars and political upheaval, Expressionist artists employed violent exaggerations and distortions of form and color, and near-brutal handling of materials.
During the Nazi period, the authorities attempted to suppress all progressive forms of art, especially Expressionism, which they termed savage, insane and infantile. Expressionist artists were indeed drawing on the tribal arts of Africa and elsewhere, on the 'outsider' art of psychotics and naifs, and on the drawings of children, seeing in them a liberation from convention and the truth of inner reality.