At IPMM, many of our exercises for teachers are geared towards younger students. We wanted to rope our high school art teacher community in as well, by publishing a series of lesson plans designed for an older crowd. Today’s lesson plan explores expression in art, using visual analysis and art history.
As you go through the following information with your students, spend time examining the accompanying pieces of art. If you can, project them in front of the class. Lead a 5-10 minute visual analysis of the image. Ask students to respond with what they see and how it makes them feel. Focus on line, color, pattern, tactility, and other visual qualities. There are no wrong answers, as expression brings out lots of different emotions in different people. After the visual analysis, share a bit about the piece and the artist. Discuss how the information changes how students view the painting, or how it may be in line with many of their visual observations.
Expression is the reflection of deeply emotional, non-rational states in art. Expression shows up in art of all styles and periods, through line, color, and gesture. Expression is often considered to be the opposite of realism or naturalism. Instead of portraying things as they actually are, expression in art allows the artist to express subjectivity and internal states of being and thinking in their artwork.
Expression in art is not new! It is a characteristic of artwork stretching back to the Ancient World. For example, Michelangelo’s Pieta utilizes dramatic drapery, curving, organic lines, and lumpy, mottled textures to bring the scene of mourning and loss to life.
Edvard Munch’s The Scream is a famous example of expression in artwork. A ghostly figure stands on a bridge, clutching his face in a bone-chilling scream. The bright and unnatural color, linework and movement in the painting add to the intense emotion portrayed in the image.
Expression can take many forms, but it is usually characterized by a stylistic departure from reality.
The Impressionists were focused on capturing a moment in time and space–an impression. They wanted to translate the impression onto the canvas, with all of the light, movement, dimension, and atmosphere. Rather than a realistic, logical portrayal of space through shadow, lines, and angles, the Impressionists wanted to convey how it felt to be present and alive in that space. For instance, Monet’s lines are dynamic, textured, and organic. They reflect how water might move when the wind ripples it, or how the sun illuminates a field of flowers.
The Impressionists were working in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many art historians believe that the Impressionists were reacting to the Industrial Revolution. While the world around them sped up, they slowed down. They laboriously worked to capture the feeling of a single moment. Their style was expressive, but their subjects were still purely external.
Questions to ask students:
However, after WWI tore across Europe, a new kind of art exploded onto the scene. Expressionism sought to present a wide range of human emotion, in all of its depth. In Expressionist art, an image is untethered from reality. Instead, unnatural colors and lines are used to communicate the mood and emotions of the artist. Often, these pieces focused on rage, loss, fear, disgust, and other negative emotions stemming from the aftermath of WWI. Expressionism lasted for several decades, reacting to the new horrors of the Spanish Civil War, WWII and the Holocaust.
Examine Self-Portrait as a Soldier by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It takes the familiar setting of the artist’s studio and turns it into a setting for a complex psychodrama. Kirchner is dressed in a soldier’s uniform and smoking a cigarette. His hand has been amputated at the wrist and a nude model stands behind him. The harsh colors and jagged lines are disturbing and discomforting.
Kirchner served in WWI, though he never actually fought. His health was very bad and he was eventually discharged. The amputation in the painting is meant to be a metaphor for how veterans and soldiers were discarded by the German government when they were no longer fit to serve.
Questions to ask students:
Although Pablo Picasso is remembered for his invention of Cubism, his paintings often fell into the Expressionist camp. Guernica by Pablo Picasso is perhaps the most famous anti-war painting of all time. He painted it after the Spanish Civil War, shocked and horrified by what he had observed in his own home country. The grayscale painting is full of screaming faces, decapitated body parts, and panicked animals. However, there is no blood and gore, and Picasso’s composition is very abstract. The horrors of war are all there in expressive black and white. There is no specific scene from the Spanish Civil War portrayed by Picasso and the painting has become an enduring anti-war symbol across the world.
Questions to ask students:
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