Impressionism and Expressionism are two different artistic movements, each happening one century after the other. Impressionism was the first of the two, emerging during the 19th century while Expressionism followed a century later during the 20th century. Impressionism and Expressionism in comparison reflects contrasting qualities. Impressionism is focused on more realistic take on ordinary subjects, while expressionism is an artistic approach that provides the artist the free hand to render in canvass the object or subject of his/her painting, usually resorting to an output that is close to becoming distorted and abstracted (ergo the abstract expressionist movement). Both are important and significant eras in the history of art. Expressionism, like the American Expressionist movement contributed to the growth of different other artistic movements, like American modernism, making more significant in the history of art (Dijkstra 2), while the figurative expressionism that developed in Boston also provided similar significant contribution (Bookbinder 5). This paper will delve more on the similarities and differences of these two artistic movements in consideration and with focus on the idea that art is often utilized as a political statement.
Art forms in two different periods: Comparing and Contrasting Impressionism and Expressionism and the idea of art as a political statement
Artistic movements and political relationships are not always in opposition with one another. In the discussion of the idea of art as a political statement, this does not always follow that artists and art works are always critical or in opposition with the existing politics. This idea can also mean that art, art works and artistic movements in general signify or reflect politics, in part or as a whole. In the analysis of the different periods of artistic movements vis-a-vis the implication of the idea of art as a political statement, politics and the artistic movements particularly for impressionism and expressionism meshed together in similar and contrasting fashions.
Take for example, the case of Impressionism during the time when local politics made the situation more amenable for Impressionists artists to sell their work and make their works more accessible to the appreciation of the public. “The republican connection helps to explain the new painting’s initial, troubled reception and even, to an extent, its later success. Republicans in growing numbers acceded to political office in the closing decades of the century, and as they took over management of the state, so the state became more generous to impressionism, extending to the movement a measured, first dose of public patronage (Nord, 9).” But as expected, there are also impressionist and expressionist artists whose ideals, works and stand are not strictly concordant with that of the existing political status quo, at least that which the majority is in favor of having. Impressionist artists in the modern times continue to influence and be influenced by the politics and political movements, making impressionist artists and their works an integral part of the collective political voice and statement of the society. Such was the case of impressionist painter Paul Signac and how the political statement of his works was a source of inspiration to leaders of different political movements. “Toorop’s anarchist sympathies were founded in his early formative years in Brussels, where the intellectual and artistic avant garde was immersed in anarchist influence. Toorop as well as the leading neo-impressionist painter Paul Signac were the only foreign members of the avant-garde Groupe des Vingi…Signac and other neo-impressionists sympathised with anarchism, or more correctly, with anarcho-communism (Kemperink, Roenhorst 97).”
Friction and discord with the government and existing political situation was also the same characteristics displayed by different expressionist artists and groups. Expressionism and expressionist artists were also not free from the friction because of the artists’ disagreement with government and political situation. “As With German expressionists, the abstract expressionists were angry artists who refused the existing bourgeois world and who created alternative worlds and visions with their distorted images, violent colors, and sometimes bizaare shapes and forms (Best, Kellner 168).”
Relevance of Impressionism and Expressionism as a political tool
Impressionism and Expressionism hold an important historical relevance not just in the artistic sphere but also in other social aspects, most notably in their participation with politics. While Impressionists and Expressionists are not generally known to be political leaders, this does not mean that they are detached from politics and political issues during their time. Impressionism and Expressionism as forms of visual art are both artistic styles and genres which are not solely exclusive to the artistic movement exclusively. Because artists in general are deeply involved with the existing politics of their time, it is no wonder that artistic movements as well as particular artistic works are a testament to the artists’ stand on politics in genera. Impressionism was not exempted from this particular description. “Impressionism, in its heyday, associated itself with a democratic politics, which, within the context of the times, was a gesture dramatic enough (Nord 9).” Expressionist, on the other hand, used the puritan essence of the artistic movement to extend it towards the movement’s very own political stand and ideal. How they understand and practice the art of expressionism was in a way their own political voice, since this attitude applies not only in the artistic attack or completion of work, but also as a perspective, a form of counter force towards status quo and socially accepted traditional dogmas on the ideal beauty and normative behavior in general. “The move within abstract expressionism toward a more abstract and nonrepresentational art constituted something of a political rebellion and rejection of the existing society and world. The ‘ugliness’ (as it initially appeared) of a work by Pollock, Kline, de Kooning or Newman is registered from this perspective as a renunciation of the existing world, as a refusal to beautify or idealize it, while attempting to produce an alternative vision and new forms of art. The abstract expressionist painters thus opposed the official world of art and the society it beautified, even if they did not make explicitly political statements themselves in their work (Best, Kellner 168).”
There are also non-Western artists who take part in the modern expressionist movement who utilize their works as a medium to send messages about the artists’ different political messages. Heartney talked about how the messages of the works of Chatchai Puipia, a Thai expressionist painter, and the other artists in one particular exhibit (Heartney 5). It included the role of women in the society, political repression as well as censorship, the presence of traces of colonialism in their own respective countries and cultures, and violence in the society.
Art pieces as political statements
Critics believe that every artist embed a particular message inside every artwork that it composes. One of the common messages of the paintings, especially those from the impressionist and expressionist movement, are political in nature, as artists utilize visual art to send political messages to the audience. Artists who adhered to specific political ideals made political statements not just through popular paintings. They also made strong political statement through the use of their skill by rendering artworks and illustrations for propaganda, supporting the political ideals which they believed in, and through this expressed whatever political statement they wish to communicate to the society. “As for propagandist activities, neo-impressionist artists had a significant share in illustrating revolutionary periodicals. They contributed to La Revolte and Les Temps Nouvence, journals edited by the central person in French anarcho-communism Jean Grave (Kemperink, Roenhorst 97).” This is a clear example of modern artists like the impressionist Signac finding new avenues for expression of his own political statement besides the power of art galleries and framed exhibitions in art halls, utilizing the impact of the print media to better reach his target audience and speak his political stand. “Signac even planned to publish a lithographed version of In Times of Harmony in Les Temps Nouvence, but as it turned out, only a limited edition was printed (Kemperink, Roenhorst 97).” The political statement in Signac’s In Times of Harmony was found in the understanding of the artist’s inspiration for this work, which was no less politically charged and political in nature. “In Times of Harmony was supposed to be a political statement alluding to the nostalgic imagination of Puvis de Chavannes, as well as to the two famous pictures of modern urban recreation by Georges Seurat (Kemperink, Roenhorst 97).” The portraits of the impressionist Edouard Manet may be harmless and purely artistic, but critics and art analysts believe that there are political undertones for such works. The artist, according to critics, wants to say something more besides letting the world see how Manet’s hands rendered the portraits of individuals like Henri Clemenceau and Georges Rochefort.
There are political messages hidden somewhere behind the brushstrokes detailing the popular Manet portraits. “It should be remembered at the same time that this milieu and its inhabitants were not neutral subjects. To paint portraits of Clemenceau and Rochefort, as Manet did, was to paint modern life, but it was also to make a political statement. That statement did not signify a fundamental rejection of capital or commitment to revolutionary transcendence (Nord 9).” Expressionists’ works are also political in some ways, even without the direct presence of a strong political statement at face value. Popular works like The Scream by Edward Munch was an example that expressionists “saw their engagement as public and indeed political (Gibbins, Reimer 63),” although that maybe at times quite hard to ascertain since “proponent rarely admitted that the various subjects of the artist…were any way political (Frascina 313).” Whether expressionists and impressionists openly admit it or not, there will be artists who will put political statements on their work. If there are those who believe they don’t, then that is the counter balance since art forms collectively cannot afford to be overly political. “What happens to aesthetic experience when the world is seen to be political through and through (Holloway, Beck 153).”
Best, Steven and Kellner, Douglas. The Postmodern Turn. Guilford Publications, Inc., August
Bookbinder, Judith. Boston modern: figurative expressionism as alternative modernism.
Durham, N.H. University of New Hampshire Press, 2005.
Brombert, Beth Archer. Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat.University of Chicago Press,
Dijkstra, Bram. American expressionism : art and social change, 1920-1950. H.N. Abrams,
Columbus Museum of Art, 2003.
Frascina, Francis. Pollock and After: Critical Debate. Taylor & Francis, Inc., February 2001.
“French Painting 1830-1930.” Hecht Museum. 9 September 2008
Gibbins, John R. and Reimer, Bo. The Politics of Postmodernity: An Introduction to
Contemporary Politics and Culture. SAGE Publications, July 1999.
Heartney, Eleanor. “Art in America.” Find Articles. February 1997. 9 September 2008
Holloway, David and Beck, John. American Visual Cultures. Continuum International
Publishing Group, August 2005.
Kemperink, Mary G., Roenhorst, W.H. Visualizing Utopia. David Brown, November 2007.
Neret, Gilles. Manet. Taschen America, LLC, April 2003.
Nord, Philip. Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century.
Taylor & Francis, Inc., June 2000.
Signac, Paul. “In Times of Harmony.” The Art Institute of Chicago. 2008. 9 September 2008
The Official Website of Norris Embry. 2008. 9 September 2008
Weir Farm: Home of an American Impressionist. National Park Service. 9 September 2008
Impressionist Photo #1: Paul Signac, In Times of Harmony
Impressionist Photo # 2
Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Henri Clemenceau
Impressionist Photo # 3
Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Georges Rochefort
Expressionist Photo #1
Edward Munch’s The Scream
Expressionist Photo # 2
Chatchai Puipia’s The Lousy Factory
Expressionist Photo # 3
Wassily Kandinsky’s On White II