Isms: Expressionism, Impressionism, Naturalism, Realism, Surrealism

A sketch of movements in art, contrasting Expressionism with Impressionism; Naturalism with Realism. Argues that the - Isms are permanent possibilities of artistic expression rather than just historically bounded "Movements"

The study of `Movements' in art, is fraught with disappointments. No sooner has one put some dates around an Ism than precursors and `late' representatives of the movement obtrude themselves to spoil the periodization. One pins down an archetypal, paradigm artist representative of the Ism only to become aware of how the other supposed `representative' artists are actually very different.

Of course, certain Isms are easier than others, especially when a limitation by country and artistic medium is added. So, yes, there is a movement in painting in France which we can reasonably call `Impressionism'. But even in this (paradigm) case the `official' self-ascribed distinguishing feature, faithful reproduction of the play of light on the surface of visible objects, is accompanied, in the real historical movement, with a challenge to the hierarchy of subjects considered paintable, with landscape and still life being promoted and the `history' painting consigned to oblivion. And that seriously complicates the picture.

Again, we know that most if not all Isms certainly the important ones focus beliefs, energies and visions which are recurrent across history and cultures. For example, romanticism is not (just) a movement in English poetry, best exemplified by Wordsworth. Indeed, that makes out Romanticism to be a very small thing. Rather it is a recurrent, if often inhibited, way of relating to the world, oneself, artistic or cultural traditions and artistic media. Thus anyone is well on the way to Romanticism who believes in the existence of a non-trivially specified human nature, conceived as essentially good or benign, but often cramped and perverted by society by education and social relations. One has arrived at Romanticism in art when one looks upon making art as a way of finding one's own nature and putting others in touch with theirs, even in adverse educational and social conditions.

If movements, Isms, are then thought of as high points, crystallizations of recurrent ways of being and believing, they can be appropriated pedagogically not as inert facts of history but as living entries into educational practice. Here it is helpful to map some Isms in terms of whether their emphasis is on the inner (subjective) or the outer (objective), and whether they are attached to how things appear or to how they are (in philosophical terms the distinction here is between Appearance [die Erscheinung] and Essence [ das Wesen]).

For example, Impressionist painting was certainly perceived as working from outer appearances. In opposition to that, (German) Expressionist painting of the period 1910 - 1933 is certainly a reaction to both the concern with the outer and with appearance. Expressionists thematise the inner and the essence, as is evident in their attitudes to the use of colour: `Their crucial move was to associate colour not with visible reality (as had been the case with orthodox impressionism) but with the artist's affective responses . . . the painted forms may be viewed as externalized emotions: colour no longer designates optical facts, but psychic values' (Roger Cardinal, Expressionism, pp. 114-15). Earlier Eduard Munch wrote: `I do not believe in the art which is not the compulsive result of Man's urge to open his heart.' In a teaching program, this contrast could be developed systematically, with students brought to an understanding of the different demands made by `painting from the outer' and `painting from the inner'. Looking at Impressionist and Expressionist works would be central to developing such understanding. Dance is a medium which is peculiarly adapted to Expressionist ideas, whereas the novel is not.

On a broader canvas, the objective attention to appearances places Impressionism within the context of nineteenth century Naturalism, including scientific naturalism, to which twentieth century Modernism (including Expressionism) is (or was) a reaction. It is common to single out as defining Modernism the concern with the inner, the subjective, at the expense of the outer, the objective. The `stream of consciousness' novel, as in Virginia Woolf, would fit this schematism.

Before addressing the possibility of pedagogic practices in this area, it is as well to draw a further distinction between Naturalism and Realism, terms which the Impressionists used interchangeably. However, there is a long philosophical tradition, Platonic and then German, which wants to distinguish between Appearances (which may be misleading) and Essences (which, as it were, cannot be misleading). This philosophical tradition has been annexed by literary critics, notably Gyorgy Lukacs, and converted into a distinction between Naturalism and Realism in art, especially in the novel. So it is said that Balzac and Thomas Mann are Realist novelists, and Zola a Naturalist . It might also be said that the Impressionists are Naturalists, whereas Cezanne (and pre-Impressionists like Millet and Courbet) are Realists (of rather different kinds).

The Naturalist is impressed by, and pays attention to, the surface of things whether it be the play of light on water or the effects of poverty on the daily detail of life. The Realist is, in effect, a scientist who probes beneath appearances in search of essences - the causes of things, the heart of the matter. Between 1930 and the 1950s a great deal of ink was expended in leftwing debates on who was and who was not a Realist, and whether Modernist practices were compatible with Realism. Realism was taken to be a good thing, since it made Art and Science both part of a joint enterprise for the advancement of human understanding. These debates can be followed in Lukacs' books and in the collection, Aesthetics and Politics. Often overlooked was the simple point that someone might be or try to be a Realist but get things wrong. And is it better to have tried to be a Realist than never tried at all - see below on Surrealism.

Pedagogically, the contrast between Naturalism and Realism could be explored in reading the novels singled out for attention in the debates mentioned above. In another domain, one might explore the contrast through comparing photography and painting, for example, in the genre of portraiture. Can a photograph capture the essence of a personality a character in the way that a painted portrait can aspire to show a sitter's soul? Well, yes, a photographer can try to catch a subject at a moment of self-revelation: a moment at which appearance and essence coincide. The painter may use many such moments or no moments at all to represent a character made manifest in the painted image. In both cases, the contrast between appearance and essence is being used, and value is being attached to the essence or, less grandly, something other than the fleeting or passing moment. It would make a good practical exercise in photography to ask students to produce a photograph of someone which does more than show the fleeting moment - though one could still ask: What's wrong with the fleeting moment?

The energy which powers a search for essences can show up in Abstraction and, more generally, Formalism, both of which can be discussed in terms of the contrast between appearance and essence. After all, when one abstracts, one is generally trying to abstract what is (really) important, though there is also a kind of abstraction which is `mere' formalism. The nature of Mere Formalism is nicely captured by Brecht when he writes, `if someone makes a statement which is untrue or irrelevant merely because it rhymes, then he is a formalist' (quoted in Aesthetics and Politics, p. 72). This dictum is, however, tongue-in-cheek to the extent that it lets off the hook virtually all those who would have been denounced as Formalists by Brecht's communist party comrades. (Even in nonsense poetry, where mere rhyme appears to take over, it is often the case that the supposed mere rhyme sets up pathways of (humorous) association, and so contributes to the sense as much as to the nonsense of the poem.)

Many artists in the twentieth century have been impressed by Freud's theory of the mind, itself a theory which distinguishes essence (the Unconscious [ das Unbewusst]) from the appearances (consciousness and self-consciousness) in which we are misled and mislead ourselves about our true nature. The Surrealist movement sought consciously to realize a Freudian project within the arts, looking for techniques which would permit essence to break through the illusions of appearance. In this Surrealists sought to act like Realists, but Realists of the inner rather than the outer world. The technique of automatic writing, which Andre Breton described as a `true photography of thought', clearly illustrates the nature of the Surrealist project. However, one has good reason to suppose that the technique did not and does not work to bring to light the reality of the Unconscious. Rather, what it produces is material which illustrates what the automatic writerthinks is or ought to be in his or her unconscious, not what is actually there. Thus one may also understand Freud's devastating remark to Salvador Dali commenting on the latter's paintings, `It is not your unconscious mind which interests me, but rather your conscious mind.' This is not to say a lesson devoted to automatic writing or to painting `the surreal' would be wasted. The cautionary tale is simply that those committed to Realism do not necessarily succeed in being Realists. (On Surrealism, see more sympathetically, F. Alquie, The Philosophy of Surrealismand Michel Foucault, This Is Not a Pipe which is about Magritte.)

In some ways the writers known as `Magical Realists' (Gabriel Marquez, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie) have been more successful as realists than the surrealists. In effect, they have combined a commitment to exploring concrete, historical circumstance with a fantastic moment in which the unpredictable escape of individual consciousness from reality is charted and made to deepen our understanding of how characters (real individuals) respond to circumstance.

The idea that one might find techniques to release an (inhibited) imagination is not peculiar to Surrealism. Artists influenced by Jung rather than Freud have also been inclined to the notion of techniques for gaining access to the hidden - techniques which include meditation, exercises and free association. The painter Cecil Collins as a teacher of art made regular use of such techniques such as playing music and eliciting free dance movements. Elsewhere on this website Classicism & Romanticism and Formalism are considered. All of these isms, and many others besides, can be approached in a pedagogic rather than historical spirit as exemplifying permanent possibilities of human engagement with the world. It is part of the task of the teacher of the arts to enable students to encounter and explore a full range of such possibilities.

Website version 2005. Revised from the essay "Mapping Some Isms" which appeared in Trevor Pateman, Key Concepts: A Guide to Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education (London, Falmer Press 1991)