Research point: Expressive landscape

Updated on 22 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and some content).

13 November 2016. Closest probably to transposing human states of mind into real world phenomena visible in landscapes were the German Expressionists.Their observations of the ever-changing mood found in landscapes relate directly to human emotion. Emil Nolde (1867-1956, Germany/Denmark) is famous for his wonderful elevated watercolour observations of the stormy sea of his home. In real life the intensity of these colours would be exceedingly rare to see, their presence in a work of art thus causes a raised awareness in the viewer (see e.g. a selection of related works (Pinterest, n.d.). He often uses a generally subdued background together with very carefully and cleverly selected areas of high intensity colour with enviable knowledge and ease, so that despite the deceptive casualness the result is always both a believable and highly emotional setting. Ernst Ludwig Kircher (1880-1938, Germany) was another founding member and outstanding representative of German Expressionism around the turn of the 19th/20th century. His style was much more graphic and harder than Nolde’s (probably owing to his being a printmaker, too). The painting “Graubünden Landscape with Sunrays” (Fig. 1) below, although very much in the Expressionist tradition, reminds me somehow of the votive tablets found in the Alpine region – especially the sunrays, which on rare occasions do appear in reality and which in religious paintings are interpreted as emerging from celestial beings resting on the clouds. Also Kirchner’s choice of viewpoint makes both for a noble real-life representation of the high mountains, helping to raise religious feelings in viewers familiar with this tradition  – see example of a votive tablet underneath (Fig. 2, photo unfortunately out of focus, but ideal for purposes of comparison):

Figure 1. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: “Graubünden Landscape with Sunrays”, media n.k., n.d.. Source: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Figure 2. Votive tablet by unknown artist: “Dank für Genesung nach einem Holzunfall”, painting on wood, 1740. Source: [Anon] [Public domain] via Wkimedia Commons
In Symbolism, on the other hand, a movement starting in the late 19th century with Gustave Moreau (1826-1898, France), landscapes were filled with mythological creatures to stand for the universal human emotions such as anger, fear, love or hate (Myers, 2007). It was thus not the landscape, which was the primary transporting medium of an emotion, but the entities populating it. Moreau seems to have been exemplary for the movement with a great interest in ancient mythology. His “Death of Sappho” (Fig. 3) below is typical of his approach:

Figure 3. Gustave Moreau: “Death of Sappho”, oil on canvas, c. 1870. Source: Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Painter and designer Léon Bakst (1866-1924, Russia) was in line with Moreau’s approach, see for example his painting “Terror Antiquus” (Fig. 4) below. Being on the cautious side (caused by six years of Latin at school) regarding the title of the painting and its uncommented translation “ancient horror”, I tried to find out more about its meaning and it is explained as “the Dionysian force which fuels true art” (Davidson, 2000), hence the quiet despite the seemingly ferocious title.

Figure 4. Léon Bakst: “Terror Antiquus”, oil on canvas, 1908. Source: Léon Bakst (1866-1924) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918, Austria) was an outstanding representative of Symbolism. I was unable, however, to find a landscape painted by him, which in my opinion would have qualified as symbolist. All his landscapes appear close to reality (my husband is from the Attersee region, where Klimt used to paint many of his landscapes and I have been to many of the locations). They do not seem to include symbols in the expected way, for example in “Beech Grove I” below (Fig. 5). Regarding composition: The incredibly beautiful light appearing in specks on the stems and foliage at the back of the young forest, and on some of the trunks in the middle ground, appears essential to me here by producing a horizontal counterbalance for the vertical stems. Of course the overall square format (which I tend to prefer myself) helps to quieten down any stress contained in a scene and reminds me of the necessity to think carefully about my own choices of support:

Figure 5. Gustav Klimt: “Beech Grove I”, oil on canvas, 1902. Source: Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954, Mexico) was a later representative of the Symbolist movement, who to me seems to take her symbols away from ancient to modern sources and somewhere near Surrealism. To my great joy I found her painting “Suicide of Dorothy Hale” (Fig. 6), since (by coincidence?) it ties in with the votive tablets I mentioned above in the section about Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and has been haunting its viewers ever since it was painted, telling the story of the never-solved mystery of the unlikely suicide committed by actress Dorothy Hale in 1938.

Figure 6. Frida Kahlo: “Suicide of Dorothy Hale”, oil on masonite, 1938. Source: Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) [Fair use] via Wikimedia Commons
A single landscape by her, painted in 1946, however seems to be in a category by itself. The landscape itself is interpreted as representing her broken body (Frida Kahlo Paintings, Biography, Quotes, n.d.).

16 November 2016. While both Expressionists and Symbolists remained with the real landscape without deviating too much from to the outward physical appearance, the Surrealist movement used – among many other approaches – imaginary landscapes with the aim to find ways of “unleash the subconscious imagination“. This goal for me immediately connects with the work of Sigmund Freud, whose discoveries rose to immense interest and popularity with intellectuals of the time (Tate, n.d.(a)). In the approach of historical painter and precursor to Surrealism Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978, Italy) landscapes do not appear to be at the centre of interest, but are rather used in a stage-like manner. They are mainly barren, desert-like, flat or rocky backgrounds, which by being inert allow a wealth of impossible things to emerge, happen, develop and transform, in the shape of “disordered collections of symbols” (The Art Story, n.d.(a)) so that there is an entry point into a dream-like world for every human mind. Which may be the main reason for the immense and ongoing popularity of surrealistic painting. De Chirico’s interest appears to have circled around the mythological elements of Ancient Rome and Greece, as e.g. in “The Disquieting Muses” (Fig. 7):

Figure 7. Giorgio de Chirico: “The Disquieting Muses”, oil on canvas, 1916-18. Source: Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) [Fair use] via Wikiart
To me, the basic composition of landscapes used by Salvador Dali (1904-1989, Spain) (The Museum of Modern Art, n.d.) seems to have been greatly and very faithfully inspried by de Chirico, although his stages were populated by very different elements. In some of his works, though, the real coastline near his home in Catalonia (Cadaqués) served as the stage (Jones, 2007) as e.g. in his arguably most famous work, painted in 1931, “The Persistence of Memory” (The Museum of Modern Art, n.d.). In the glossary entry on “Surrealism” found on the Tate website (n.d.(a)) above there is an interesting documentary about a cooperation between Salvador Dali and the Disney Corporation (scroll down a bit) in making a surrealist film, which was discarded due to financial constraints after the war and rediscovered in 2008. This made me realise that one very weird and disturbing animated (childrens’!) film we have – “Le Roi et l’Oiseau” (“The King and the Mockingbird”) from 1980 (IMDb, n.d.) is exactly that, a surrealist painting come to life. The possibilities offerend by film appear to enhance the effects sought by the surrealists and no doubt their poineering approach is an immensely rich source to all types of visual art. Painter and sculptor Max Ernst (1891-1976, Germany) was very close to de Chirico and Dali in style and choice of subject, see e.g. “Ubu Imperator” (The Art Story, n.d.(b)), but also very recognizable his own, e.g. in the wonderfully agitated “L’Ange du Foyeur” from 1938 (Bunyan, 2013). Graham Sutherland (1903-1980, UK) again was inspired by religious motives and to a large extent by the landscape of Pembrokeshire, as e.g. in “Welsh Landscape with Roads” from 1936 (Tate, n.d.(b)). Painter and designer Paul Nash (1889-1946, UK) I already wrote about in a previous post (Lacher-Bryk, 2016). To me he feels the most authentic of the surrealist painters. There seems to be no artificiality in the choice of his objects, but rather an immediate connection with his concerns. For example see the haunting “Totes Meer (Dead Sea)” (Tate, n.d.(c)) painted in 1940/41.

In retrospect the term “expressive landscape” remains difficult to pin down. To me all landscapes are expressive by nature and no matter how reduced the visible content, it seems impossible to escape it. Enhanced expressiveness, however, that sort sought for and put to good use for a particular purpose, uses carefully chosen and/or altered landscape to stand for and enter into communication with a human condition and there are probably few other subjects in art, which lend themselves with similar ease to the transporting of universally understood messages.


[Anon] (1749) Dank für Genesung nach einem Holzunfall [painting on wood] [online]. Österreichisches Museum für Volkskunde, Vienna. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Bakst, L. (1908) Terror Antiquus [oil on canvas] [online]. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Bunyan, M. (2013) Exhibition: ‘Max Ernst’ at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Switzerland [blog] [online]. Art Blart. Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2017]

Davidson, P. (2000) “The Muse and The Demon in the Poetry of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Blok” in Russian Literature and its Demons [online]. Berghahn Books, New York, Oxford. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

de Chirico, G. (1916-18) The Disquieting Muses [oil on canvas] [online]. Private Collection. Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2017]

Frida Kahlo Paintings, Biography, Quotes (n.d.) Landscape, 1946 – By Frida Kahlo [online]. Frida Kahlo Paintings, Biography, Quotes. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

IMDb (n.d.) Le Roi et l’Oiseau [online]. IMDb. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Jones, J. (2007) The Riddle of the Rocks [online]. The Guardian, London, 5 March. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Kahlo, F. (1938) Suicide of Dorothy Hale [oil on masonite] [online]. Phoenix Art Museum. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Kirchner, E.L. (n.d.) Bündner Landschaft mit Sonnenstrahlen [n.k.] [online]. Available: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Klimt, G. (1902) Beech Grove I [oil on canvas] [online]. New Masters Gallery, Dresden. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Lacher-Bryk, A. (2016) Artist Research: Paul Nash [blog] [online]. Andrea Lacher-Bryk, Hallein. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Myers, N. (2007) “Symbolism” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, August 2007. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Moreau, G. (c.1870) Death of Sappho [oil on canvas] [online]. Private collection. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Pinterest (n.d.) Art: Emil Nolde [image collection] [online]. Pinterest. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Tate (n.d.(a)) Surrealism [glossary] [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Tate (n.d.(b)) Graham Sutherland OM [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

Tate (n.d.(c)) Totes Meer (Dead Sea). Paul Nash

[online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(a)) Giorgio de Chirico [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(b)) Max Ernst. Ubu Imperator [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

The Museum of Modern Art (n.d.) Salvador Dali. Introduction [online]. The Museum of Modern Art, Now York. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2016]

The Museum of Modern Art (n.d.) Salvador Dali. The Persistence of Memory [online]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 22 March 2017]


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