Started: 1880
Ended: 1910

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau, 1895, oil on canvas. Currently housed in the collection of the Gustave Moreau Museum, Paris, France

Symbolism was both an artistic and literary movement that suggested ideas through symbol and emphasized the meaning behind lines, forms, shapes and colour. The proponents of Symbolism, through their work, exemplify the ending of the traditional representational art of Classical times. Symbolism was at the forefront of modernism in that it developed new, abstract methods to express truth and the idea that alongside the physical realm lay a spiritual reality. Symbolism gave form to that which was indescribable, such as hallucinations, dreams and visions.

The artists and stylistics commonly associated with Symbolism are united in the emphasis on emotions, ideas, feelings and subjectivity as opposed to realism. The works are personal expressions of ideologies and the belief in the artist’s own power of truth. The combination of mysticism, religion, the perverse, erotica, the occult, dreams, evil, death and the decadent formed much of the subject matter of Symbolistic art. Symbolism moved away from the one-on-one relationship between viewer and audience found in earlier iconography to a nuance of suggestion in personal, half-stated and obscure imagery. Symbolism provided the transition from the Romanticism of the early 19th century to the Modernism of the early 20th century. Symbolism was an international movement challenging the commonly held historical direction that modern art developed in France from Impressionism through Cubism.

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity by Odilon Redon, 1882, lithograph. Currently located in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

Symbolism grew from the 1886 works of Gustave Kahn and Jean Moréas. These writers rejected Naturalism in favour of subjectivity as found in the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine. Chronologically Symbolism followed Impressionism, however it was the antithesis of it with the emphasis being in shape and colour. It did, however, lament the spiritual decline of the modern world. Visual artists of mainstream Symbolism sourced their inspiration from Romanticism’s emphasis on imagination over reason as well as the visions of moody dream worlds portrayed by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Symbolism was a reaction against the moralism, materialism and rationalism of the 1880s. It was a means of escape from the fin-de-siècle as artists, writers, the ballet and even cabaret felt the need to go beyond naturalism.

In 1891 Albert Aurier wrote what has become a Symbolist manifesto of what art should be

Idéiste – expressing an idea
Symbolist – expressing that idea through form
Synthetic – expressing those forms and ideas in a way that is generally understandable
Subjective – expressing and object as an indication of an idea perceived by the subject
Decorative – decorative painting is art that is synthetic, symbolist and ideative.

Death and the Masks by James Ensor, 1897, oil on canvas. Currently housed by Musée royal des beaux-arts de Liège, Belgium

The time of Symbolism was marked by confusion regarding moral, social, intellectual and religious attitudes. The world was expanding beyond the norms of European society, socialism no longer represented the benevolent intentions it set out with. The relationships between love, marriage and religion were all being questioned. Artists felt isolated and separate from the bourgeoisie despite the idea of spiritual being very important in the development of Symbolism and reflected the anti-materialist philosophies and mysticism. The interest in the occult was related to this concept, as was the morbid and perverse, giving the period a reputation of artistic and moral decline with the social preference for the artificial over the natural. The Symbolist artists and writers put emphasis on the concept of art for art’s sake in that they were against utilitarian applications of art and believed art did not have to relate to everyday experience.

To understand Symbolist aesthetics artists practiced Synthetism, the combined elements from the real world. Borrowed from other works of art or forms of art to create new realities. One idea the Symbolists leaned towards was the assimilation music into art by emulating the characteristics of music as into art, for example, using musical methods of organizing composition, the use of leitmotifs – the repeating elements that unify a work.

There is a great deal of overlap in Art Nouveau and Symbolist subject matter that Art nouveau is often considered a subspecies of Symbolism, however, Art Nouveau is much more specifically an ornamental style based on organic form and applied across the various forms of art. The style rapidly became international and Art Nouveau’s purpose to create an aesthetic that could be applied to all art forms and exist in harmony with the machine age and the modern world.

The Three Brides by Jan Toorop, 1893, drawing, tinted chalk on black. Currently located in the collection of Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

Symbolism in the visual arts is an attitude towards the subject matter more than a movement. In the late-19th century Symbolist artists experienced the socio-political and moral upheavals of the time resulting in obscure symbols and subjects that reflected the personal, spiritual and mystical idealisations that were perceived as decadence at the time.

Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon were the two most notable Symbolists in France. Both looked towards the Romantic artists such Delacroix, Redon was also influenced Goya which accounts for the disquieting effect of his work.

The Nabis were a Symbolist group founded in 1889 by Paul Sérusier based on his 1888 painting The Talisman. They did not ascribe to the same political or religious views as other Symbolist but wanted to be in touch with a higher power. They believed the artist held a similar role to that of a high priest who has the power to reveal the unseen. Their style was inspired by Paul Gauguin in its manifestation of flatness and stylization, but the subject matter was more focused on domestic interiors. Many of the Nabis published in the Symbolist review La Revue Blanche alongside their literary counterparts.

Death and Life by Gustav Klimt, 1908-16, oil on canvas. Currently housed by Leopold Museum, Vienna, Austria

Led by the writer Sar Joséphin Péladan the Rosicrucians were a group of artists who followed the occult beliefs supposedly of the 15th-century visionary Rosenkreuz. Rejecting the materialism of the age they revived catholic and renaissance art with mystical and occult overtones. Rosicrucians believed art was an initiation into religious enlightenment and their work took the form of mystical allegories with a more traditional style. The artists Filiger, Point, and Desboutin associated with this group of Symbolists and exhibited in the Paris Salons of the Rose and Croix from 1892 until 1897. In Belgium Khnopff, in whose work a level of perversity persists, and Ensor explored the symbolism of masks.

©JG Farmer 2019

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