SYMBOLISM (2/2) : Symbolist Trends throughout Europe

A world of dreams, nightmares, monsters and evil women
In this second broadcast on Symbolism, Michael Gibson, the author of an imposing work entitled SYMBOLISM (published by Taschen), conducts us through a vast and complex movement which marked artistic trends in Europe after the middle of the XIXth century.


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Date de mise en ligne : 7 décembre 2009


At the end of the first part of this program we learned that Symbolist art was most active in the Catholic countries of Europe that stood within the perimeter of what historians call the « polygon of steam ». This polygon of the industrial world can be circumscribed on a map by a line linking the cities of Glasgow, Stockholm, Gdansk, Lodz, Trieste, Florence and Barcelona :
It thus includes all of France, Belgium, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Some parts of Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain. This does mean that the symbolist mood did not affect some resolutely Protestant countries, including England, the Scandinavian countries, some parts of Protestant Germany or even a country like Russia which was much less industrialised and was orthodox in religion. These countries thus became the stage of what Michael Gibson called the Great Upheaval(with reference to the famous painting by Henry de Groux).

Henry de Groux <i>Le Grand chambardement</i>, 1893
Henry de Groux Le Grand chambardement, 1893

The roots of this movement

Symbolism appeared in the wake of the industrial Revolution and of the rural exodus. The latter proved decisive in that it definitely unravelled the fabric of rural society whose enduring rituality had, until then, preserved the Christian representation of the world. Young people moving from the country to the cities could easily enough turn away from Christianity which was no longer part of their daily lives. And all this occurred in the industrial world as a result of the sudden evolution of means of production.

This situation affected society as a whole to the extent that scientific progress and of industrialisation resulted in a loss of meaning and value - a loss which was chiefly deplored by those who had been more receptive to the symbolic aspects of religion.
The question remains of why did Symbolism mostly appear in Catholic countries ? One can attribute that to the greater part played by imaged and symbolic forms in Catholic faith and ritual.

<i>L'Ange de la Lumière</i> (1894)
L’Ange de la Lumière (1894)
Jean Delville (1867-1953). Huile sur toile.

In France, at the turn of the century, the country was deeply divided between those who remained faithful to the Catholic tradition, and those who were attempting to break the power of the Church to set up a secular state. In matters of art, the latter favored realism and a faithful representation of nature.

Strange to say, realism was also fashionable in England, but for the opposite reason. John Ruskin, art critic, poet and painter, called for the greatest possible precision in the representation of nature, for the sole reason that this was the best way for man to honor his Maker… One shouldn’t forget that some major poets, like Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl and Paul Celan were nurtured in the Symbolist climate, and that Claude Debussy was much more of a Symbolist composer than an impressionist one, as is sometimes suggested.

Symbolism included such artists as Gustave Moreau, who dealt with the usual mythological subjects but distanced himself from the smooth realism of the academic painters. Among his characteristic work one might mention such figures as Orpheus or Œdipus and the Sphinx, but also to Salomé who appears in several paintings richly hung with jewelery and haunted by the decapitated head of John the Baptist. Salomé is indeed one of the notable representations of the discomfort of the age.

Gustave Moreau, <i>Œdipe et le Sphinx</i>, 1864
Gustave Moreau, Œdipe et le Sphinx, 1864
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The evil or destructive woman as a recurrent theme of Symbolist art The iconography of the period is marked by a metamorphosis of woman who becomes something more than human, now utterly ideal, now perilous and threatening. The ideal woman appeared found everywhere, diaphanous, angelic, swooping through the skies like an angel.

Gustave Moreau <i>Salomé</i>
Gustave Moreau Salomé
144 x 103.5 cm, Los Angeles, Californie. The Armand Hammer collection UCLA at the Armand Hammer museum of Art and cultural center

The evil woman is to be found in the works of Gustave Moreau, of course, but also in that of the German painter Franz von Stuck, who devoted several works to this theme, including a work entitle Sin – in which Sin is embodied by a young woman with a handsome body, dark hair and a fascinating gaze. She wears a large black snake wound around her neck and they both stare disquietingly at the viewer.

Franz von Stück, <i>Le Péché</i>
Franz von Stück, Le Péché
Neue Pinakothek, Munich

In the same vein, a print by another German artist, Otto Grenier, entitled, The Devil showing Woman to the People may be found rather entertaining to the extent that the crowd is formed by a bunch of rather stultified males while the Woman displayed by the Devil resembles an underfed shrew. The print rehearses an age-old commonplace, which is far from biblical, incidentally, since this woman is not a creature of a God but an invention of the Devil.

In England, the subject assumes a lighter vein under the satiric pen of Aubrey Beardsley who comes up with some oddly perverse figures of Salomé along with other figures from Oscar Wilde’s drama. The Polish novelist and draftsman, Bruno Schultz depicts a domineering woman who repulses the submissive male by treating on his face with the very foot he is kissing.

And finally, the Austrian Alfred Kubin, already mentioned in the last talk, invents female figures that are veritable nightmares, as in a drawing entitled The Egg which dates from the 1910s. It depicts a creature is standing in front of an open grave. her belly is a huge white egg capped with a skeletal torso and a death-white face.. A large number of Kubin’s works are devoted to the conjunction of sexuality and death.

Why did this sort of subject appear in the symbolist period It appears to be a symptom of the exacerbation of Puritanism in that period. It would be a mistake to attribute this to the sole influence of the Christian religion. This sort of cultural pathology arises quite regularly in ages of great mutations as it did in the past during the decline of the Roman Empire, in the wake of revolutions (some revolutionaries can be surprisingly puritanical) and also, in the present case, in the wake of the industrial revolution.
One can attribute this explosion of Puritanism to the loss of conventional bearings of the sort that had formerly allowed people to deal with relations between men and women. This suggests that the theme of the evil and destructive woman, which turns up in Symbolist art, is in fact an expression of the collapse of these codes. As we have seen in the first part of this broadcast : « man is a symbolic institution. » And to the extent that he loses his cultural codes, he too feels lost. The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch produced a number of paintings devoted to the destructive or problematic woman. His own love life was tempestuous and on two occasions, a woman actually pointed a pistol at him and he wound himself in attempting to disarm one of them. In Munch’s work, women are depicted as vampires sucking the blood of men (Vampire), as a source of remorse (Ashes), of agonizing passions (Jealousy), of suffering (Separation) and of various obsessions (The Brain of Man), but above all, she is the Madonnna who is adored but who remains unattainable. This is the subject of a famous lithograph. This subject matter in Munch’s work occasionally coincides with that found in the works of the Symbolists, but its origins are not to be sought so much in the neuroses of Symbolism as in the artist’s own neurosis, presumably rooted in his Norwegian Calvinism cross-fertilized by the decadent spirit which the artist discovered during his stay in Paris at the age of 22 .

Edvard Munch, <i>Madone</i>, 1894-95
Edvard Munch, Madone, 1894-95
Huile sur toile, 90.5 x 70.5 cm

In Poland, artists were expected to take upon themselves the problems of a country that had no internationally acknowledged existence. Poland had been divided up between Germany, Russia and Austria at the end of the eighteenth century. Germany and Russia had since then done their best to discourage the use of the Polish language and to convert the Catholic Poles to their Protestant or Orthodox faiths. It was generally assumed in Poland at the time that under these circumstances, artists and writers were called upon to play the part of a « government of souls. »

Jacek MALCZEWSKI was a typical figure of Polish art of his day. His work includes an important number of self-portraits in which he depicts himself, now as an embodiment of Polish virtues, now as a Christ figure. He also produced highly original historical, allegorical and mythological paintings and a number of splendid landscapes. We find no trace, in his work, of the depressive state of mind mentioned above. His women are feminine, imposing, full-bodied, never evil. This is quite striking and appears to suggest that the Polish rural fabric having remained intact, the codes governing relations between the sexes had not yet been quite as undermined in the rural areas as they had been in the cities. It is worth noting that several prominent intellectuals and artists married peasant women for ideological reasons. This was the case of Stanislaw WYSPIANSKI, the most outstanding artistic and literary figure of his period.

A panoramic overview of the symbolist scene with some of the significant figures of this movement.

One cannot fail to mention the French artist Odilon Redon, who initially produced a large number of admirable, visionary black and white drawings. Only later in life did he turn to color, and the change was stunning. Redon’s colors are brilliantly orchestrated and full of coruscating contrasts. His dreamlike fantasies are a gentler counterpart to the terrifying scenes devised by Kubin : a huge eye staring out of the heights of a great hall, a giant spider with a hairy humanized face, a Cyclops with an inane smile - These are some of the subjects he depicts in black and white. In the field of color, one of his finest paintings depicts the white horses of the sun, prancing across a blue and dazzling sky, while the great python writhes in agony below. Belgium also played an important part in symbolist art.

Fernand Khnopff , already mentioned, was not only a delicate artist but also a fashionable dandy. In one of his most atmospheric paintings the rising waters of the nearby sea silently advance across a deserted city square, covering the paving stones with their soundless tide . A typical work by William Degouve de Nuncques shows a nocturnal scene in which the orange facade of a house with lighted windows contrasts strangely with the black, star-studded sky. The mood is mysterious and it may conceivably have influenced Magritte. Nor should one fail to mention Léon Spilliaert who painted scenes charged with an anxiety worthy of Alfred Hitchcock nor, finally Félicien Rops, who played a talented game which mingled humor and satirical perversity.

Fernand Khnopff, <i>Marguerite Khnopff assise et costumée</i>, vers 1901
Fernand Khnopff, Marguerite Khnopff assise et costumée, vers 1901
Musée d’Orsay, Paris

As for the German-speaking countries, in addition to the artists already mentioned Franz von Stuck, Gustav Klimt and Alfred Kubin, one should not forget Arnold Böcklin, and his unforgettable Isle of the Dead in which a white figure stands upright in a boat, vividly lit by a setting sun and cut out against the dark cypresses trees of the island beyond.

Boecklin, Arnold <i>The Isle of the Dead</i> 1880
Boecklin, Arnold The Isle of the Dead 1880
Oil on canvas 111 x 155 cm Kunstmuseum Basel, Basle

The diversity of the symbolist movement is illustrated, in Lithuania, by the singular figure of Mikolajus CIURLIONIS who was both a composer and a painter of strange geometric perspectives that partake of the abstract and the mystical ; in the Czech Republic by Alphons Mucha, who moved to France where he became a prominent poster artist and by Frantisek Kupka, who became one of the pioneers of abstraction, and finally, in Spain, by Antoni Gaudi, who left his mark on the city of Barcelona – where his cathedral remains under construction to this day ;
In Russia, finally, the movement is illustrated by Mikhail Vroubel chiefly known for his series of paintings devoted to the tortured and pathetic figure of Lermontov’s Demon and Vassily Kandinsky and Casimir Malévitch, who broke new ground in abstraction. Both of them produced works that are characteristically symbolistic before discovering the possibility of making form and color independent of any sort of subject matter.

How Symbolism finally disappeared

Symbolism never really did disappear. It’s still with us today, quite visibly, in the works of poets and playwright of the end of the XXth century, and even in certain works of Samuel Beckett. It also survives, in a spectacular form, in the cinema and most visibly so in the films of a Fellini or a Pasolini.
It even survives, perhaps more unexpectedly, in Marcel Duchamp’s Great Glass often deemed a reference of contemporary art, which may be thought to stand poles apart from Symbolism. Despite it’s form, as dry as an engineer’s blue-print, despite its irony and cynicism, is not all that far, in structure and outlook, from the great symbolist compositions of a Gustave Moreau, one of the founding figures of French Symbolism.
Irony was never entirely foreign to Symbolism, even if academic and sentimental works outnumbered the rest. Jules Laforgue, with his « come on, Infinity, show us your papers ! » was not the only ironist among the poets and Alfred Jarry may be seen as a transition towards the nihilism so characteristic of Duchamp. . Neither would certain Surrealist works of Max Ernst have existed without their symbolist background, any more than would Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical painting. And the symbolist ideal of the dream also survives, under a strange new guise, in the theories of André Breton.

Can one draw any conclusion from this durability of the spirit of symbolism ?
One may conclude that the crisis which found its first expression in the symbolist movement has not yet been resolved.

The Great Upheaval is still with us. We are living in a world that is still changing at a furious pace, while the images, the mental representations that we have inherited, and which once helped us to cope with the world, refer to situations which, at first sight, have very little in common with those that now surround us. We keep asking ourselves the same questions, and we have the same needs as our forefathers. Art evokes this sort of thing and the old Symbolist movement remains relevant. It allows us to take stock of our present situation while holding it at a distance. It’s only at a distance, after all, that things become intelligible.
And finally, so many of these works still give us pleasure. We shouldn’t forget that either !

For further information :

- 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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