Comparative Analysis of Surrealism and Expressionism in Art


Art history has witnessed various movements that have challenged traditional notions of reality and aesthetics. Among these, Surrealism and Expressionism stand out as significant periods where artists ventured into the realms of the subconscious and emotions to create thought-provoking and emotionally charged artworks. In this essay, we will explore the roots, definitions, and characteristics of Surrealism and Expressionism, shedding light on their unique contributions to the art world.

Surrealism: Unveiling the Dreamlike Real

Surrealism is a captivating period in art history characterized by dreamlike paintings that feature mysterious or distorted objects, often merging the familiar with the bizarre.

This movement challenges our perception of reality, offering a glimpse into the realm of the subconscious and the imagination (Kleiner, F., 2000). Surrealist artworks are meticulously detailed, with realistic depictions of objects, yet their arrangement and alteration defy the constraints of the ordinary world.

Roots of Surrealism

The Surrealist movement emerged in France during the 1920s, drawing inspiration from its predecessor, Dada. However, Surrealism took a less violent and more artistically oriented approach.

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Initially, it was the work of poets and writers, with figures like Andre Breton, often referred to as the "Pope of Surrealism," leading the way (Diehl, G., 1986). Breton penned the Surrealist Manifesto, outlining his vision of merging the conscious and subconscious realms to create a new "absolute reality" (Diehl, G., 1986). He coined the term "surrealism" to describe the fusion of fantasy elements with the modern world, emphasizing "spontaneous writing" as a central tenet (Diehl, G., 1986).

The movement faced initial rejection in Europe, prompting Breton to organize the International Exhibition of Surrealism in New York, which soon became the epicenter of Surrealism.

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This shift marked the resurgence of Surrealist ideas, influencing young artists in the United States and Mexico. Surrealism brought bold and innovative concepts to the art world, challenging conventional norms (Diehl, G., 1986).

Definition of Surrealism

Surrealism is defined as "Psychic automatism in its pure state by which we propose to express - verbally, in writing, or in any other manner - the real process of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason and outside any aesthetic or moral concerns" (Balakian, A., 1986). In essence, Surrealism embraces nonconformity and defies traditional artistic boundaries.

Andre Breton emphasized "pure psychic automatism" as the cornerstone of Surrealism, where true Surrealists express their thoughts without the filter of reason, creating art that emerges from the depths of the unconscious mind (Balakian, A., 1986). Surrealists employed innovative techniques, such as hypnotism and the use of drugs, to access the dream world, seeking unconscious images not readily available in the conscious realm (Balakian, A., 1986).

These images were regarded as pure art, and Surrealists saw themselves as akin to scientists, exploring new avenues and methods of investigation (Balakian, A., 1986). Surrealism encompassed a wide array of artistic forms, incorporating psychology, fantastic visual techniques, memories, feelings, and dreams into their creations. The movement questioned the traditional boundaries of art, pushing the limits of imagination and perception (Balakian, A., 1986).

Types of Surrealism

Freud's influence loomed large over Surrealism, but it gave rise to two distinct interpretations within the movement, leading to the emergence of Automatists and Veristic Surrealists.


Automatists placed greater emphasis on emotional expression, prioritizing feelings over analytical investigation. They believed that automatism was the natural conduit for subconscious images to reach consciousness (Kleiner, F., 2000). However, they refrained from assigning meaning to these images and viewed abstract art as the ideal medium for conveying the subconscious, aligning them with the spirit of Dadaism (Kleiner, F., 2000).

Veristic Surrealists

Conversely, Veristic Surrealists believed that the images from the subconscious held profound meaning and could provide insights into understanding the world. They considered these images as metaphors that, if studied, could illuminate the complexities of existence. Veristic Surrealists saw the language of the subconscious as being conveyed through imagery (Kleiner, F., 2000).

While both Automatists and Veristic Surrealists employed similar techniques and shared common ground in Surrealist art, their differing perspectives on the significance of subconscious images set them apart. Surrealism, as a whole, drew inspiration from Cubism and Expressionism and adopted some techniques from the Dada movement (Kleiner, F., 2000).

Despite these distinctions, Surrealist artists collectively challenged the boundaries of traditional art, introducing innovative approaches and evoking emotions through their thought-provoking creations.

Characteristics of Surrealism

Surrealist art exhibits several distinct characteristics that set it apart from other movements. These characteristics, often used to create the typical surrealist aesthetic, include:

  • Levitation
  • Alteration of an object's scale
  • Transparency
  • Repetition

One of the most prevalent techniques in Surrealism is the association of objects that would not typically coexist in a given situation or at all. This juxtaposition creates intriguing and thought-provoking imagery, challenging viewers to explore the unexpected connections within the artwork (Balakian, A., 1986).

Examples of Surrealism Paintings and Artists

Surrealism has produced some of the most iconic and enigmatic artworks in the history of art. Two notable Surrealist artists and their works exemplify the movement's characteristics:

Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali's painting "The Persistence of Memory" is perhaps one of the most iconic Surrealist works. In this masterpiece, Dali depicts melting clocks and a clock infested with ants, a scene that defies the laws of reality (Pierre, J., 1974). The clocks, while meticulously painted with realistic details, appear to be in a state of liquefaction, a surreal distortion of time itself.

Rene Magritte

Rene Magritte, another renowned Surrealist artist, created thought-provoking paintings that often featured mysterious objects within familiar settings. In "Not to be Reproduced," Magritte presents a mirror with two reflections: one of the person and the other of a book (Pierre, J., 1974). Strangely, the person's reflection shows the back of their head rather than their face, creating an eerie and unsettling atmosphere.

Magritte's "Son of Man" is another compelling example of Surrealist art, featuring a man with an apple obscuring his face (Pierre, J., 1974). Magritte's meticulous attention to detail and his ability to transform mundane scenes into enigmatic puzzles is characteristic of his Surrealist approach.

These examples highlight Surrealism's capacity to challenge conventional reality, infusing art with dreamlike elements and inviting viewers to explore the mysterious and unexpected.

Expressionism: The Emotional Unveiled

Expressionism, another significant movement in art history, diverges from Surrealism in its focus on conveying raw emotions and inner experiences. This style often involves exaggeration to elicit emotional responses and connect with viewers on a visceral level (Figura, S., 2011).

Roots of Expressionism

Expressionism gained prominence in the early 20th century, primarily in Germany. While artists of the time did not explicitly label themselves as Expressionists, two groups, "Der Blaue Reiter" (The Blue Rider) and "Die Brucke" (The Bridge), embraced Expressionist principles and ideals (Figura, S., 2011).

Der Blaue Reiter, founded by Wassily Kandinsky, sought to lead art towards a new era of spirituality, while Die Brucke, led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, aimed to rejuvenate the inner spirit of artists through Expressionism. Both groups rejected conventional artistic norms and traditions, paving the way for the development of this innovative movement (Figura, S., 2011).

Definition of Expressionism

Expressionism is characterized by its intention to convey inner emotions and experiences rather than merely replicating external reality. The term "Expressionism" is believed to have been coined in 1910 by Czech art historian Antonin Matejcek as a deliberate contrast to Impressionism, emphasizing the focus on inner life and emotion (Spilsbury, R., 2009).

Expressionist artists prioritize emotional impact over a faithful representation of the subject matter. They seek to evoke profound feelings and connect with viewers on a deep, emotional level (Spilsbury, R., 2009). Unlike Impressionism, which celebrates the majesty of nature and the human form, Expressionism delves into the psyche, revealing the raw and unfiltered essence of human emotions.

Characteristics of Expressionism

Expressionism is characterized by several distinct features that differentiate it from other art movements:

  • Exaggeration of reality to evoke emotional responses
  • Exploration of inner emotions and experiences
  • Raw and unfiltered portrayal of human emotions
  • Emphasis on conveying profound feelings

Expressionist artists employ a variety of techniques to convey their emotional intent, often utilizing bold colors, dramatic brushwork, and distorted forms to intensify the emotional impact of their work (Figura, S., 2011).

Examples of Expressionism Paintings and Artists

Expressionism has produced a wealth of powerful and emotionally charged artworks. Two notable Expressionist artists and their works exemplify the movement's characteristics:

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch's iconic painting "The Scream" is a quintessential example of Expressionism. The distorted figure in the painting, against a tumultuous, vividly colored backdrop, embodies the anguish and existential dread that characterized much of Munch's work (Figura, S., 2011). The exaggerated, almost grotesque representation of the figure intensifies the emotional impact, inviting viewers to share in the profound sense of despair.

Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele, another prominent Expressionist artist, created deeply emotional and often provocative artworks that explored themes of human sexuality and vulnerability. His painting "Self-Portrait with Raised Bare Torso" exemplifies the raw and unfiltered portrayal of human emotions (Figura, S., 2011). Schiele's self-portrait, rendered with exaggerated lines and contorted forms, conveys a sense of vulnerability and self-examination that resonates with viewers on a visceral level.

These examples underscore Expressionism's commitment to delving into the depths of human emotion, employing exaggeration and distortion to evoke profound and often unsettling feelings in the audience.

Comparing Surrealism and Expressionism

While Surrealism and Expressionism share a commitment to pushing artistic boundaries and exploring the unconventional, they diverge in their primary focus and approach. Surrealism, rooted in the juxtaposition of dreamlike elements with reality, challenges the boundaries of the conscious and subconscious mind. Expressionism, on the other hand, emphasizes the raw expression of inner emotions and experiences, often resorting to exaggeration and distortion to convey intense feelings.

Surrealism invites viewers to explore the mysterious and unexpected, often blurring the lines between reality and imagination. It seeks to challenge our perception of reality by presenting familiar objects in bizarre and unsettling contexts. Surrealists use meticulous detail and meticulous rendering to create a sense of hyper-realism, only to subvert it with dreamlike elements and juxtapositions.

Expressionism, in contrast, lays bare the emotional core of the artist and invites viewers to confront their own feelings. It disregards the constraints of conventional representation, opting instead to use bold colors, dramatic brushwork, and distortion to intensify emotional impact. Expressionists are unapologetic in their exploration of human vulnerability, often delving into themes of despair, anguish, and introspection.

Both movements challenge viewers to engage with art on a profound level, eliciting emotional responses and sparking contemplation. Surrealism entices viewers with enigmatic narratives and unexpected associations, while Expressionism confronts them with raw, unfiltered emotion. Ultimately, the choice between Surrealism and Expressionism as a preferred artistic mode hinges on individual preferences and the desire for either dreamlike escapism or emotional catharsis.


In the world of art, Surrealism and Expressionism stand as two distinct movements that have left an indelible mark on the creative landscape. Surrealism, born in the 1920s in France, challenges the boundaries of reality by juxtaposing dreamlike elements with the familiar. Artists like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte have masterfully blurred the lines between reality and imagination, inviting viewers into a realm of mystery and surprise.

Expressionism, rooted in early 20th-century Germany, delves into the depths of human emotion. Figures like Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele have used exaggeration and distortion to lay bare the raw, unfiltered essence of inner experiences. Through bold colors and dramatic brushwork, Expressionism invites viewers to confront their own emotions and engage in a visceral exploration of the human psyche.

While Surrealism and Expressionism differ in their primary focus and approach, both movements share a commitment to pushing artistic boundaries and challenging conventional norms. They compel viewers to engage with art on a profound level, whether by unraveling the mysteries of Surrealism or confronting the intensity of Expressionism.

Ultimately, the choice between Surrealism and Expressionism as a preferred artistic mode hinges on individual preferences and the desire for either dreamlike escapism or emotional catharsis. These movements remind us that art is a boundless realm where imagination and emotion reign supreme, transcending the constraints of reality.

Updated: Nov 13, 2023
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Comparative Analysis of Surrealism and Expressionism in Art. (2016, Nov 11). Retrieved from

Comparative Analysis of Surrealism and Expressionism in Art essay
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