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Definition of Expressionism Essay

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Updated: Dec 20th, 2021

At all times, art has not been an exact science. Being a means of expression of human subjective feelings, emotions and ideas, it contains a range of notions, which have disputable definitions. Having been fond of expressionism, I nevertheless have had an approximate notion of this style, more relying on my personal perception. However, when I have familiarized myself with an academic definition of expressionism, I have felt a strong intent to oppose it.

The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms provides the following definition for the style considered: “Expressionism is a general term for a mode of literary or visual art which, in extreme reaction against realism or naturalism, presents a word violently distorted under the pressure of intense personal moods, ideas, and emotions: image and language thus express feeling and imagination rather than represent external reality” (Baldick 121).

What I would like to oppose is the “violent distortion of the world” and “expressing feelings and imagination rather than representing external reality”. Thus, I consider it reasonable to revise the Oxford Dictionary’s definition as follows: expressionism is a general term for a mode of literary or visual art which tends to highlight strongly the emotional condition, mood and ideas of the images or characters, or those of the artist when depicting the reality.

First of all, it is necessary to consider, that reality is a philosophical notion, which is about things’ actual existence. However, the essence of art implies that when an artist is depicting something, it can not be evaluated as the absolute of reality: even when working in the style of realism or, particularly, naturalism, the author focuses on certain aspects of the thing, providing his personal vision, though quite realistic. A work of art is always a depiction of the authors’ perception of reality, and this statement is the fundament for my further research.

Expressionism highlights the inner world of the images or characters or that of the artist. Having appeared in the late XIX century, this style penetrated all the fields of art, including painting, literature, cinema, music, and architecture; every kind of art provides certain devices for implementing the idea of expressionism. Such a work of art performs a rather complicated interaction of the real world, and the human soul and psychics. In expressionism, the images seem to have been passed through the filter of the artist’s soul, which liberates it from anything unnecessary and embodies it in more general forms and symbols.

At the same time, when studying expressionism, I have noticed, that reality does not look so distorted in many expressionist works of art. When we look at Edvard Munch’s The Scream, we consider the depicted reality rather distorted (see The Scream); at the same time, it is interesting to consider an outstanding graphic painter Egon Schiele, who often created rather realistic graphic works and, nevertheless, expressed his own view (see The Artist’s Wife).

Besides, it would be interesting to put the discussion into the dimension of literature and rhetoric. The American poet Monica Youn was inspired by Munch’s The Scream, mentioned above, and depicted her impression of the painting and the story of its stealing in her poem Stealing the Scream (Youn). The composition of the poem includes four points of view: those of the thief, the guards, the author, and the painting.

We can see the emotions of them all in the poem, expressed by means of the setting and the literary devices. The setting of the poem contributes much to express the author’s idea: instead of providing the authentic details, the author focuses on the small touches, consonant to the spirit of the event: “fifty-one seconds of videotape” describe the suddenness and dynamics of the event; “moonlight coming in through the broken window” and “the velvet ropes” depict the spirit of the outrage and the misery of the deserted place. As well, the literary devices have played a significant role in the poem’s composition.

The strong device is the personification of the painting: the figure’s “hysteria” has acquired an absolutely new tint while the painting disturbed by the thief was carried away; the poem ends with another impressing device, such as the analogy between the “sun-red face” and the “boiling sky” of the picture. It makes a reader closer to the event and helps to imagine, how the hurrying theft’s memory grasps the separate single moments. It is impossible not to notice that describing an expressionist painting, the author approached close to expressionism and used its devices; however, we can see no distortion of the reality, just subjective depiction.

This research has shown that indeed, art is not the exact science, and its terminology gives a place for further speculation. All the arguments provided above maintain the definition, given in the thesis: firstly, it implies, that the depiction of the real world maybe not be so distorted in expressionism; secondly, it reflects the essence of art, which is always in depicting reality through the prism of an artist’s vision.


“Expressionism”. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Munch, Edvard. The Scream. 1893. Art. Web.

Schiele, Egon. The Artist’s Wife. 1913. Art. Web.

Youn, Monica. Stealing The Scream. Poets. Web.

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