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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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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).

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.

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,(...)

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