In the annals of art history, few movements have engendered as much controversy and debate as Symbolism and Surrealism. While both of these movements emerged in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they represent fundamentally different approaches to the artistic process. In this essay, I will compare and contrast Symbolism and Surrealism, exploring the ways in which they differ in terms of their aims, methods, and outcomes.
Symbolism, which emerged in the late 19th century, is characterized by a fascination with the mystical, the esoteric, and the otherworldly. Its practitioners sought to represent the unseen and the intangible, using abstract forms and allegorical imagery to convey complex ideas and emotions. Symbolism was concerned with the spiritual and the transcendent, seeking to elevate the viewer’s consciousness to a higher plane of understanding.
Surrealism, on the other hand, emerged in the early 20th century as a reaction to the trauma and chaos of World War I. Its practitioners sought to explore the realm of the unconscious, using dreamlike imagery and irrational juxtapositions to create a sense of disorientation and confusion. Surrealism was concerned with the psychological and the emotional, seeking to undermine the viewer’s expectations and challenge their assumptions about reality.
While both Symbolism and Surrealism share a concern with the irrational and the fantastical, they differ in terms of their methods and techniques. Symbolist art is characterized by a highly stylized and decorative approach, with a focus on line, color, and form. Symbolists often used allegorical or mythological figures to represent complex ideas or emotions, and their works often featured elaborate decorative motifs and patterns.
Surrealist art, by contrast, is characterized by a more spontaneous and free-form approach, with a focus on chance and accident. Surrealists often employed automatic drawing or other techniques to access the subconscious, creating images that were not preconceived or planned in advance. Surrealism often featured bizarre and fantastical creatures or settings, with an emphasis on the absurd and the grotesque.
In terms of their aims and outcomes, Symbolism and Surrealism also differ significantly. Symbolism sought to create a sense of transcendence and spiritual enlightenment, using art as a means of elevating the viewer’s consciousness to a higher plane of understanding. Surrealism, by contrast, sought to challenge the viewer’s assumptions and disrupt their sense of reality, using art as a means of subverting conventional modes of thought and perception.
In conclusion, Symbolism and Surrealism represent two fundamentally different approaches to the artistic process. While Symbolism is concerned with the spiritual and the transcendent, Surrealism is concerned with the psychological and the emotional. While Symbolist art is highly stylized and decorative, Surrealist art is more spontaneous and free-form. Ultimately, both movements have had a profound impact on the course of art history, and continue to inspire and influence artists today.
2 thoughts on “An ‘Ism’ Overview – Symbolism vs. Surrealism”
Thank you for such a thoughtful and informative post. I’ve always loved symbolism and allegory in art. Now I know a little more about surrealism – a branch of art I’m only beginning to appreciate. Thank you!
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Thank you so much for this kind comment. I’m grateful to you, Connie.