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This term is applied to art which seeks to cause an emotional response not to actual pictorial content but to the exaggerated style adopted by the artist seeking to reflect his inner self. Although examples can be seen throughout the history of art, the term is generally applied to modern European art, where exaggerated forms and vivid colours were employed.

Beginning in the 1880s, Expressionism did not become a distinct movement until 1905 with the French Fauvists and the German Die Brücke group.

Vincent van Gogh's work did not become well-known until after his death, but his style clearly pre-empted Expressionism and was a key component in the development of Fauvism. Equally as important was his friend Paul Gauguin who, with his Symbolist works going completely against any accepted notion of realism, also played a major role in the development of the Expressionist movement. Meanwhile, Edvard Munch working in Germany, dedicated his career to expressing his inner feelings. The German Expressionist movement as seen in films, poetry, drama as well as art, owed a considerable debt to his extraordinary output.

The Expressionist movement was extremely influential and despite two world wars (the first ending the German Blaue Reiter movement, the second seeing the Nazis denounce Expressionism as Degenerate Art six years before World War Two) the movement continued to thrive first as Neo-Impressionism and later as Abstract Expressionism.