American expressionism: art and social change

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3 January 2016

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Art is a dynamic concept that has continued to evolve. Since its inception, art has evolved through various movements representing diverse themes and philosophies. Artists aligned to specific art movements have contributed in advancing their philosophies in the specific periods represented. From the 18th to the 21st century, art movements have impacted greatly on the society.

The Romanticism Movement

          The Romanticism movement originated towards the end of the 18th century in Europe. The movement advocated for the bold use of color to bring out the authentic emotional feel of an aesthetic experience. According to Dempsey (2002), the validation of intense emotional experience in visual arts stressed on emotions likes anxiety and horror. The liberal expression of an artist was an imperative aspect in the Romantic era; an artist’s feelings and expressions formed the basis of inspiration towards the production of art work (Scaglia, 2011). Creativity formed the basis of innovation upon which the Romanticism movement thrived. Nationalism and nature were central themes advanced by Romantic artists (Scaglia, 2011). The Romanticism movement placed an immense interest in nature. The reason behind the love for nature in artistic work during the movement was the philosophical tenet that a connection with nature was emotionally and ethically healthy. Moreover, artists based their works on a nationalism platform by fostering national development.

The graphic design of the period drew strong influence from the political circles. The aristocratic political and social norms of the period triggered the rise of Romanticism. Romantic artists revolted against aristocracy sought to instill liberal tendencies through their expressions. On an economic ground, the industrial revolution had an influence on the movement. The movement was opposed to the corrupt nature that the society was adopting. The culture of liberalism and free expression contributed in the development of the movement.

Thomas Jones’, The Bard (1774)

Egide Charles (1834) The Belgian Revolution

The visual arts explore the connection between Romanticism and nationalism. The paintings illustrate the artists’ use of nature as well as showing society’s need for nationalism respectively.


          The movement started in 1912 under the innovative works of Stanton Mc-Donald-Wright and Morgan Russell (Scaglia, 2011). The artists are acknowledged as among the pioneer abstract painters in the US. Wright and Russell used the “syncromy” style in their abstract paintings. The style was based on the artistic innovation, that sound and color have a connection. The idea behind Synchromism posited that colors in art can have the similar harmonious character as notes in music. The innovation behind the movement was that a painting can have the same complexity as music, if colors are arranged in scales. Contrary to other forms, Synchromism did not use lines, but only color and shape in artistic expressions.

Having begun before the First World War, the movement posited that realism was no longer significant in visual art; there was need for a meaningful expression of art in the modern world (Scaglia, 2011). The culture of realism in the modern art world was fading; hence, the rise of the movement was attributed to the philosophy that innovation, and an artist’s feelings, as opposed to realism, was more dominant.

Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Airplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange (1920)

Morgan Russell, Cosmic Synchromy (1913-14)

The paintings by Wright and Russell display the use of color to come up with abstract paintings. The shapes illustrate the influence of imaginative artistic expression to come up ideas that are not in the realist physical nature. The style of the movement affects the graphic design of today by emphasizing on the use of color, particularly in the amount of hue used in painting. The intensity of color in contemporary art is an important factor to consider.

Classical Realism

          The movement became prominent towards the end of the 20th century. Designers in the movement regarded skill and beauty as imperative factors in their paintings (Scaglia, 2011). The movement’s style is edged on the visible world; this brings out its realism nature. Through an artist’s observation, he is in a position to bring out beauty and completeness (Scaglia, 2011).

In Classical Realism, an artist concentrates on drawing and painting, and avoids mechanical aids. Classical Realism artists employ the artistic eye to explore harmony and skill in their paintings.

A major cultural tenet behind the growth of Classical Realism is the belief that most artistic movements of the 20th century disregard the contribution of traditional art; hence, leading to the degradation of skill (Scaglia, 2011). Therefore, artists in this movement seek to restore the traditional concept of drawing and painting objects seen in the modern world.

Jean-Léon Gérôme.

The artistic works illustrate the traditional art of drawing and painting objects from what people see. The emphasis on order, skill and harmony on the visual arts is a reflection of the realistic culture in artistic expressions. The movement influences modern graphic designs in using color to achieve harmony, and the utilization of skill.


          The movement started in Germany at the turn of the 20th century; Franz Marc and Alvar Cawén were among the pioneer designers of the movement (Dijkstra, 2003). Stylistically, the movement sought to illustrate the world in a subjective perspective. In essence, artists in this movement sought to create meaning from their paintings, which was distant from the physical reality (Dijkstra, 2003). Artists achieve this through distorting the physical reality and evoking subjective emotional experience and mood. The growth of the movement in the early 20th century is attributed to the dehumanizing influence of industrialization. Moreover, expressionists were not in favor of realism; hence, sought to introduce an artistic style that would capitalize solely on the expressions of an artist.

Alvar Cawén, (Blind Musician), 1922

Franz Marc, Fighting Forms (1914)

The paintings show an emphasis on the expression of emotion and mood. The paintings evoke a subjective meaning from what is intended in the physical world. The contemporary graphic industry draws inspiration from the movement through the use of color, foreground and background features to drive meaning.

The Pop art movement

          The Pop art movement begun in the 1950s in Britain and the United States; it was a break from the conventional orientations of art. Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns were among the prominent artists of the movement (Spilsbury, 2009). Argued as a reflection of modern art, the pop art movement introduced the use of imagery. The imagery used in the pop art movement derived its inspiration from the popular culture. Consequently, as a reflection of popular culture, pop art expressions are understood from the perspective of the approaches that produce them. The mass culture in the 1950s influenced the growth of the artistic movement; pop artists employed the images of the dominant culture in their graphic designs (Spilsbury, 2009).Technology also played an important role in the growth of the movement particularly in the expansion of abstract expressionism (Spilsbury, 2009).

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup I (1968) Jasper Johns, Flag 1954–1955

The artistic works by the above artists shows the reflection of the impact of popular culture in artistic expressions. Andy Warhol shows the influence of pop art in the advertising industry, while Jasper Johns expresses liberty as a popular culture through the representation of the flag. The movement influences contemporary graphic design by expanding the use of advertisement as an important platform of communication.


          The art movement, which started in 1919, popularized the use of art for social purposes. Experts assert that the movement sought to eliminate autonomy in art (Jones, 2006). Consequently, the growth of the movement is attributed to its participation in the Russian revolution. Constructivists came up with street designs that had social connotations during the revolution. During the early years of the movement, artists used their paintings as a means of communication to the people during the Russian civil war (Jones, 2006). The philosophy behind the movement was the advancement of social reconstruction. Constructivists used bright colors, arithmetic shapes and conspicuious lettering in their paintings in order to evoke emotions from the viewers and trigger deep understanding of the intended message.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, An advertising construction (1921)

Tatlin’s Tower (1919)

The paintings above show the social connotations explored by constructivists. The use of bold colors and geometric shapes shows the intensity of communication developed by the artists. The constructivism movement affects modern graphic design by emphasizing on the use of art for social construction. Sensitizing people for political action through is an example of constructivist’s influence on contemporary art.


          Certainly, art is a dynamic phenomenon that represents the social, cultural and political expressions of different societies. The use of artistic features to demonstrate the influence of graphic design on a society shows that art is a powerful instrument; its ability to trigger emotional and objective connotations demonstrates its communication authority.


Dempsey, A. (2002). Art in the modern era: a guide to styles, schools & movements 1860 to the present. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Dijkstra, B. (2003). American expressionism: art and social change, 1920-1950. New York: H.N. Abrams, in association with the Columbus Museum of Art.

Jones, A. (2006). A companion to contemporary art since 1945. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub..Scaglia, B. (2011). The aesthetic variable: defining the contemporary art movement of the 2000s (classical realism, relational art, street art, stuckism, superflat, and more). United States: Webster’s Digital Services? :.

Spilsbury, R. (2009). Pop art. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library.

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