Impressionism and Expressionism: Definition

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      Impressionism was a movement in painting, deriving from the theory and practice of the French artists, Manet and others. Whereas his English predecessor Constable had aimed at realism through an objective study of the visible world, Manet chose a subjective ideal. He announced that he would paint what he saw and not what others liked to see. He believed that in analyzing reality we miss the essence, the spirit. So, painting became, not a copy of nature, but a trick whereby the general effect was represented. The Impressionist artist undertook to portray objects as they struck him in a particular mood or moment, or by means of a few salient details that stood out in his mind, instead of reproducing their physical properties. Herbert Read sums up the Impressionist Movement in the phrase “It held a prism up to nature”. Not a mirror.

      In a sense, all literature is more or less impressionistic; for, it is not life as reflected ‘in a mirror, but life as refracted through the prism of a mind, a temperament, a personality.

      The imagists in English poetry were influenced by the Impressionist movement in France. Its extreme form in criticism may be illustrated by Anatole France’s words: “Gentlemen, I am going to speak about myself apropos Shakespeare.... ete.”

      Expressionism originated as a reaction to the slice-of-life school, and is not related to impressionism (except by way of rhyme!). Expressionism, says Herbert Read (The Meaning of Art), is, like realism and idealism, a basic mode of perceiving and representing reality. Idealism has an intellectual (one would rather say ‘imaginative’) basis, while realism is based on the senses. But there is another division of man's psyche which we call the emotions. And it is to the emotions that expressionist art corresponds. It tries to depict, not the objective facts of nature, nor any idealized notion of reality, but the subjective feelings of the artist.

      This might seem an over-simple explanation of the Expressionist theory of Art. In actual practice, however, it has led to extreme, exaggerated, fantastic and baffling forms of expression. The Expressionist artist chooses his own modes and techniques of objectifying the inner reality of his mind. In so far as the artist is a unique individual, with unique sensibilities, his inner and private world is bound to differ from that of the average consciousness. Hence the disconcerting forms which Expressionist art sometimes takes. (The technique of James Joyce in fiction, of Eliot in poetry, and O’Neill in drama, are said to derive from Expressionist theory.) At all events, the theory emphasizes the absoluteness of the writer’s intuition. The intuition is valid in itself without reference to any objective or external criteria like truth or beauty. Expressionist art, therefore, is, by definition, individualistic. It is a master theory of Art for Art’s Sake, as Wimsatt and Brooks assert in their Literary Criticism : A Short History.

      Expressionist art is said to derive its inspiration from Croce’s philosophy. Croce’s philosophy of art, however, forms part of his general theory of knowledge. According to him, to know a thing is to express it. An 11 intuitive knowledge, which consists in contemplating sensation (or bare impression), is expression. Bare sensation or impression is not conscious of itself. The conscious exploration or elaboration of it, its imaginative contemplation, becomes expression. (Cp. in this connection Wordsworth’s theory of the three-fold process of poetic causation).

      So far Croce is convincing. For, an experience does not acquire value or meaning even for the writer until he has put it into words. It is its expression, whether in the form of song, drawing or painting, that gives his experience form and meaning.

      But Croce does not stop here. He goes further and says that all art is internal, and what is external is no longer art. According to him the aesthetic fact is completed in the expressive exploration, in the mind, of the feeling. The external work of art is only a practical fact, governed by different laws from those of the internal art. Maybe, Croce feared art would be debased by being made to serve ends which are extraneous to it— that is, the end of giving pleasure by its beauty or affording instruction by its truth. So Art would no longer remain pure when the Artist tried to make it intelligible to the public. The artist’s primary concern, however, is ‘expression’; and this, for Croce, is internal, rather than external. And if the artist does try to externalize it, it is only for a purely practical reason; the external form which it takes is only to serve him as an aid to memory.

      So, as we may see, the theory asserts (as even the Aesthetes did not) the inner validity of the artist’s intuition, and his independence from any objective criteria like truth or beauty by which his work may be judged.

      However, when Croce says that art is internal, we must not take him literally. He must not be taken to mean that even mute Miltons are virtual Miltons. According to such a narrow view, even those of us who have had some kind of intuition at moments of acute perception may be called poets, whether we expressed ourselves in poetry or not. But this would be interpreting Croce in too literal a spirit. What Croce meant is that ‘expression’ is complete even without the external fact The inner aesthetic fact is enough for him. Externalization is not a necessary condition of art. It may or may not follow. And when it does, the physical work of art—statue, picture, or poem—is only an external stimulus said to memory, which will help to revive or reproduce the original intuition in the artist. Whether it is adequate to reproduce or recreate his vision in the reader is none of his concern. So he shall not be judged by formal criteria, such as technical perfection or adequacy of expression. Nor shall he be judged by such considerations as “truthfulness” or “beauty”. So, by dismissing all external yardsticks as irrelevant, Croce establishes the writer’s independence. Expressionism, therefore, is only a master theory of Art for Artist’s Sake.

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