by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Gallery, Edinburgh
Symbolists rejected the modern city and took refuge in remote, unspoiled places
like Gauguin's South Seas-inspired 'Conversation,' 1899.

The elusive Symbolist movement

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 16 March 2007


Of all modern art movements, Symbolism remains the most difficult to pin down. Although it thrived especially during the last two decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, its roots predated this period and the styles and subject matter it embraced were remarkably diffuse.

Literary Symbolism was first so described by Jean Moréas in Le Figaro in 1886. Its chief exponents wrote in French: the poets Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Jules Laforgue, Henri de Regnier; Philippe-Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Félix Dujardin and Maurice Maeterlinck (now remembered principally for their dramas); and Joris- Karl Huysmans and Georges Rodenbach (likewise for their novels), along with some lesser-known representatives.

Symbolism in the figurative arts was not identified as such until 1891, by Georges-Albert Aurier. He also offered alternative terms, including 'synthétisme,' but Symbolism won the day.

The sheer variety of work marshaled under the Symbolist banner is well reflected in the title of 'Symbolism: From Moreau, to Gauguin, to Klimt,' an exhibition of more than 100 works by more than 60 painters and sculptors from more than a dozen countries. For, unlike literary Symbolism, Symbolism in art enjoyed a wide geographical spread. The show continues at Palazzo dei Diamanti until May 20, then transfers to the Gallery of Modern Art in Rome (June 7 to Sept. 16).

Mallarmé's manifesto in a nutshell -- 'To depict not the thing but the effect it produces' -- could equally be applied to figurative Symbolism. Both versions of the movement aimed to evoke rather than to describe, and both placed a high value on the ability of music to achieve this, seeking to emulate its effects in their own mediums. (In the field of music itself, Debussy became the supreme Symbolist interpreter.)

Just as Baudelaire was recognized as the forerunner of literary Symbolism, it is now widely acknowledged that Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne- Jones and George Frederick Watts were precursors of artistic Symbolism. An exhibition at the Tate Gallery devoted to the three a decade ago was subtitled 'Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910.' The notion that these English painters could be considered Symbolist was a somewhat novel concept to many, and not only in Britain. But they now appear to have secured permanent roles in the story of Symbolism and are duly represented at the beginning of this exhibition.

Symbolism coincided with the rise of international exhibitions in the second half of the 19th century. Artworks and artists themselves began to travel more freely, thanks to the rapid expansion of rail and steamer networks. Pieces that before would have been seen only in their home countries rapidly became familiar elsewhere, on account, too, of photography and the proliferation of periodicals.

Numerous personal contacts were forged by Symbolists in different countries. Burne-Jones struck up a firm friendship with Gustave Moreau. When the English artist's 'King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid' was displayed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, it was not only well received by critics and the public alike, but women began to appear in dresses inspired by the beggar maid's revealing outfit. The Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff was a frequent visitor to England and exhibited there. Piet Mondrian was inspired by a trio of paintings of Eve by Watts, almost certainly encountered at the Tate Gallery in London.

Aurier's first use of the label Symbolist in 1891 was in an article on Paul Gauguin. Since then Gauguin's Breton scene 'Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel' (1888), and his Tahitian idyll 'Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?' (1897) have long been deemed key Symbolist works. Neither has made the journey to Italy (from Edinburgh and Boston respectively). But other relevant works by the artist figure here.

The elusive nature of what exactly defines Symbolism is nicely summed up in Gauguin's later comments on the contrast between Pierre Puvis de Chavanne's methods and his own. The former, represented here by two canvases from the 1870s, had undisputed credentials as one of the originators of the genre. But by 1901, Gauguin had become more-Symbolist-than- thou, writing of himself: 'Puvis would call a painting 'Purity,' and to explain it he would paint a young virgin holding a lily in her hand. Gauguin, for the title 'Purity,' would paint a landscape with limpid waters.' (Etiolated young women and girls, reclining, sitting and floating vaguely around in space are, as it happens, common in the works of other Symbolists of various nations.)

The Symbolist movement was a reaction both to academic literalism and Impressionism. Its politics were typically socialist tending toward anarchism. It rejected the modern city and industrialization, taking refuge in remote unspoiled places and landscapes -- as Gauguin did in Breton villages and the tropical paradise of the South Seas -- and in the spiritual world, dreams and (sometimes drug-induced) visions.

There were a number of cranky ideas that became associated with Symbolism, notably those of Joséphin Péladan, self-proclaimed Sâr, or high priest, of a revivalist group of Rosicrucians, who ran their own salons from 1892 until 1897. Their bizarre theories notwithstanding, they were also internationalist in outlook and helped promote non- French artists like Ferdinand Hodler of Switzerland and Jan Toorop of the Netherlands.

German-speaking artists created some of Symbolism's finest works. The Swiss Arnold Böklin's crepuscular scenes of seashores, sacred groves, pagan altars and mysterious shrouded figures inspired scores of artists of the genre. But Symbolism encountered considerable resistance in Germanic lands, especially in Prussia. The kaiser, who voiced his dislike of 'the fantastic, the unreal' in art, had the last word when it came to donations and the purchase of pieces for Berlin's state museums, and vetoed the acquisition of Böklin's works. It was ultimately in Vienna, with the works of Gustav Klimt, that Symbolism reached its triumphant, gorgeously decorative, last flowering.

The femme fatale was central to Symbolist art. This figure can be traced back to the portrayals of medieval enchantresses, like Morgan le Fay, by the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers. Watts's studies of the ur-temptress Eve constituted a primary source. And Rossetti's pictures of his wife, Lizzie Siddal, among them his 'Beata Beatrix' (on show here), opened up new frontiers in depicting sexuality and even orgasmic ecstasy (as also did his poetry).

Art during this period tended to oscillate between portraying women as divine beings of almost impossible purity and lethal seductresses demanding an equal, perhaps even greater degree of abject, perverse worship. Both extremes were extensively portrayed by the Symbolists, but the latter category frequently stimulated the most memorable images.

The destructive properties of femmes fatales, both to their victims and to themselves, were depicted with unprecedented intensity by Edvard Munch in his obsessional studies of love and death. In 'Melancholy' (1892) a male figure on a beach broods in one corner of the picture, while the spectral figure of his tormentor in a white dress on a landing prepares to depart by boat with her husband or lover, her cruel work done. Also here is 'Jealousy II' (1907), in which the victim's face has literally turned green with envy. With such works Munch created a kind of hyper-Symbolism, carrying the genre into new realms of emotional and personal agony.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024