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This precious publication – which may be described as a coffee-table book - presents the Symbolist art movement which came into existence in the second half of the 19th century, and the state of mind illustrated by artists of repute from most European countries. We might mention for instance, in France Gustave MOREAU, Maurice DENIS, Puvis de CHAVANNES and Odilon REDON ; in Belgium Fernand KHNOPHFF and Félicien ROPS.
But also such figures as the Swiss artists Arnold BÖCKLIN and Ferdinand HODLER, the Germans Franz von STÜCK and Max KLINGER, the British Dante Gabriel ROSSETTI and Aubrey BEARDSLEY. And finally the Austrian, Gustav KLIMT, the Czech, Alphons MUCHA, the Polish painter Stanislaw WYSPIANSKI or the Russian Michail VROUBEL.
A number of them appear to have sunk into obscurity or discredit after the First World War, and interest in their art was only revived some fifty years later, in the seventies. What is the reason of this sort of fluctuation ? Symbols have always been present in art throughout all civilisations. So why give the name of Symbolism to an art movement precisely at this period ?
Michael Gibson has some thoughts on the matter . The status of the symbol had become something of a problem at this time and symbolism points to a crisis of mentalities that has still not been resolved to this day.
As the French historian George Duby said : Mentalities are systems of images. They are also systems in motion and consequently objects suitable for study by historians. And while people may not be aware of it, they command their behaviour and their conduct. This crisis was brought on partly as a consequence of the Great Upheaval. The title of a painting by Henry de Groux, LE GRAND CHAMBARDEMENT, 1893.
This painting represents men and women, some on horseback, others on foot, leaving a devastated place. A large broken cross lies in the foreground. The fence of the enclosure in which it stood has been cast down and, the ruin of the sur¬rounding land being completed, the inhabitants are impelled to move on. The picture does not represent the kind of exodus made familiar by the two last great wars in Europe, but stands for a purely spiritual "upheaval." An entire society is shown taking leave of a familiar and beloved land and heading off into exile and the unknown.
This melancholy realization is central to the symbolist outlook. At the end of the XIXth century, at a time when triumphant scientism and positivism were heralding the coming of a better world founded on reason and technology, others suffered above all from the loss of a quality which, though hard to de¬fine, had been provided by the perspectives of the old cultural system - by the values and the meaning of its symbolic structure.
The broken crucifix is appropriately located at the center of Henry de Groux’s painting, being the ambiguous but central symbol of a representation of the world which acknowledges two different levels of reality. In the Christian world view, there is a created world, nature, and an uncreated, divine or ¬superna¬tural order which stands above nature. From a purely secular point of view, the real might also be opposed to the "sur-real," to use a term coined by Guillaume Apollinaire (which was ulti¬mately to bear some unexpected fruit). Now a positivistic world view can admit only one level of reality which is that of physi¬cal nature. The "other" world in such a view, the world to which the art of the earlier millennia constantly alluded through symbols, is merely an illusion. To which some were inclined to retort : "maybe so, but we want to live in its shadow."
As the science of anthropology which was really founded in the twentieth century has shown, each culture represents a web of values and of meaning which allows men to determine where they stand and to find their way in the world. Now it happens that all those who were most receptive to the influence of Symbolism, were precisely those who deplored a loss of meaning and of value. "It is all too clear," wrote the symbolist poet Gustave Kahn " that these people are only interested in discovering resources, and the well-spring of dreams has run dry. The logic of science, of in¬dustry and commerce could satisfy the practical needs of society and the individual’s will to power, but it could obviously not relieve the thirst which, to use Gustave Kahn’s metaphor, can only be quenched at the source of dreams.
How did Symbolism acquire its name ?
While the symbolist movement had already existed for some time, the name itself was proposed by Jean Moréas (born Ionnis Papadiamantopoulos) in an article published by the literary supplement of the French newspaper Le Figaro on September 18th 1886. He wrote about the so called decadent poets, saying that they might more aptly be termed Symbolists. Symbolic poetry, he went on, sought to clothe the Idea with a tangible form which would not be its own purpose but would serve to express the Idea while remaining subordinate….
Jean Moréas had only decadent poets in mind, but the artists quite agreed with his definition, and they also adopted the term of Symbolists.
Michael Francis Gibson further explains how to identify artists of the Symbolist nebula. A painter can be termed a Symbolist either for formal reasons or for the content of his work, or for both. Puvis de Chavannes, for instance, initiated a drift towards abstraction that would develop through the work and ideas of a number of other artists, including Maurice Denis who ributed a theoretical formula : painting is a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order. This idea had initially been presented to him by Paul Sérusier who had heard it from Paul Gauguin, who had in turn received it from the young Emile Bernard when he met him in Pont-Aven in Britanny.
What conclusion can one draw from all this ?
Symbolism, thus defined, opened the way to abstraction. Indeed, the major pioneers of abstrac¬tion, Kandinsky, Malevitch, Kupka, and Mondrian had all been symbolist painters at the outset.
Symbolism consequently tends to include all artists whose technique is indifferent to a so-called "realistic" ¬represen¬tation of the world. But it also includes others who, like the Belgian artists Jean Delville and Léon Frédéric, practice a distinctly academic manner but whose esoteric (occultist) ideal¬ism and choice of subject clearly relates them to the dominant preoccupation of the symbolists. Still the most persuasive sym¬bolist artists are those who, like Gustave Moreau, deserve such a classification in respect both to the form and the content of their work.
So it becomes apparent that our subject can be divided into a certain number of circles whose surfaces occasionally overlap. An important part of this art is tinged with a religiosity that sometimes has Catholic overtones, though it can also be syncretic or esoteric. But Symbolism also produced a mystique of art for art’s sake, in the spirit of either James McNeill Whistler or Stéphane Mallarmé. Any system of symbols is a construction of the collective imagination – and that’ precisely the problem that the symbolist period had to deal with. For the collective imagination of the period was falling apart under the combined assault of science and social change and could no longer discharge itself of its necessary task. The so-called decadent poets and symbolist artists resisted the movement. They expressed the disarray of a public exhausted by Positivism, in the words of the novelist Joris Karl Huysmans. Everybody had become aware of a new sense of isolation which resulted from the fact that people were no longer living in the same imaginary landscape.
What does « collective imagination » really mean ?
Napoléon Bonaparte knew. During his campaign in Poland, he boasted that he held the French people in the hollow of his hand. And he went on to explain : « You lead a people by the imagination. » Peoples and individuals shape themselves by the imagination. This suggests much more than may at first appear. For political legitimacy, but also religious legitimacy and even the intimate legitimacy of each individual all have their foundation on an imaginary structure. That’s what we call a culture. In conclusion, Michael Gibson believes that Symbolism represents a totally paradoxical attempt to create a community in solitude. An attempt that nonetheless remains intelligible to us in the present age…. Symbolism tended to develop in the Catholic parts of the European industrial world. In the words of Walter Benjamin, "The concept of the demonic appears when that of modernity comes into conjunction with Catholicism."
In a second part of this program Michael GIBSON will introduce us to the enigmatic world of the SYMBOLIST ARTISTS in the different parts of Europe, including Germany, the Slave and Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Mediterranean countries …
For further information :
SYMBOLISM by Michael GIBSON, Taschen Editor, published in …
A 250-page volume with numerous reproductions in color of the most significant symbolist paintings or drawings
Dante Gabriel ROSSETTI’s famous Venus Verticordia on the cover was chosen by the editor to - one might say - symbolise Symbolism.
The Back of the book shows John Everett MILLAIS’s Ophelia now at the Tate Gallery in London.
Michael GIBSON, THE MILL AND THE CROSS, Acatos, Lausanne, 2001. In French : Michael GIBSON, PORTEMENT DE CROIX, Histoire d’un tableau de Pierre Bruegel l’Aîné, Noêsis, Collection L’œuvre, Paris 1996. SYMBOLISM, Taschen, 1999.
Miguel ERRAZU, CHRONICLES of THE GREATER DREAM, First Episode, The Riddle of the Seal, The University of Levana Press, 2007, Second Episode, The Sleepers of Lethe, The University of Levana Press, 2008
MICHAEL FRANCIS GIBSON : Art Critic, art historian, anthropologist, journalist, writer. In English and French. Since 1970, Michael F. Gibson wrote regularly on art and culture in the International Herald Tribune and many other publications (New York Times, Art in America, The Drama Review, Connaissance des Arts, etc.). His monograph on Dadaïsme and Marcel Duchamp (Duchamp-Dada, NEF-Casterman, 1991), received the International Art Book Award of the Vasari Prize in 1991 ». Michael F. Gibson wrote a number of other monographs, for instance on Paul Gauguin (Polygrafa), Odilon Redon, Symbolism (Taschen), or Alexander Calder.
Michael F. Gibson, together with the polish film director, Lech Majewski, wrote the script of a feature film devoted to Bruegel’s « The Way to Calvary » with Charlotte Rampling, Michael York and Rutger Hauer, currently in post-production.
He has also finished writing Learning to Walk on Water, the story of his family, in which he quotes largely from the correspondence of his father, Hugh Gibson, a prominent figure in American diplomacy in the twenties and thirties.
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