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Symbolism In The Visual Arts

In the 1880s and 1890s, many European artists experimented with work that had similarities to symbolist literature. When applied to the visual arts, symbolism designates less a recognizable style than a general approach to art that rejects direct representation of the material world in favor of allusion and suggestion. While artists such as Paul Gauguin and the Nabis or Ferdnand Knopff consciously pursued an aesthetic agenda analogous to the project of literary symbolism, others, such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau or Auguste Rodin were annexed to the symbolist movement by a younger generation of artists in much the same way that Ibsen and Strindberg had been.

The aim of searching for more authentic ideas than those offered by material reality was in some sense similar to the traditional goal of idealization long pursued by academic art. The technical means by which symbolists pursued the idea was often quite innovative, however. In 1886, the symbolist critic Gustave Kahn offered a description of symbolism that lent itself to translation into visual media. Rather than portraying "the quotidian, the near at hand," as realist and Impressionist artists had done, symbolists "wish to be able to place the development of the symbol in any period whatsoever, and even in outright dreams (the dream being indistinguishable from life)." With this reference to Schopenhauer's theorization of the world as representation, Kahn proposed that symbolist artists or writers look inward for their subject matter: "The essential aim of our art is to objectify the subjective (the externalization of the Idea) instead of subjectifying the objective (nature seen through a temperament)." (L'Evénément, 28 September 1886). Kahn negated the naturalist writer Émile Zola's championing of the expression of individual temperaments and called for the externalization of the transcendent Idea.

Symbolism and modernism.

The symbolist artists imagined that their privileged subjective states were best expressed through allusive, nonnaturalistic arrangements of line and color. The Talisman (1888), a painting by Paul Sérusier (1865–1927), is often said to be the first attempt by French symbolist artists to practice this aesthetic. In a story recounted by Maurice Denis, Sérusier is said to have painted the work following Gauguin's instruction: "How do you see this tree, Gauguin asked in front of a corner of the Bois d'Amour: is it green? Then paint it green, the most beautiful green on your palette; and that shadow, rather blue? Don't be afraid to paint it as blue as possible" (p. 50). In this way, bold and simplified color patterns were extracted from the natural landscape. In 1891 Albert Aurier wrote "Symbolism in Painting: Paul Gauguin," in which he defined the characteristics of symbolist painting and suggested by Gauguin's work embodied them. Like Moréas he emphasized the primacy of "the Idea" and necessity of clothing it in a synthetic form that would work by allusion. He stressed that the work should be subjective, because an object would not be considered as an object, but as a sign of an idea perceived by the subject.

Denis's painting April (1892) demonstrates his own experimentation with this aesthetic. In 1890, Denis wrote in his manifesto "Definition of Neo-Traditionism": "Before it is a battle horse, a nude woman, or an anecdote, a painting is a flat surface, covered with colors arranged in a certain order" (p. 1). Thus Denis, like the symbolist poets, foregrounded the abstract qualities of his medium and like them explicitly defined symbolism as a kind of modernism. The title of his manifesto points to the paradoxical nature of his symbolist project. Denis wished to turn to tradition in order to found a new (neo) kind of art. He argued that artists should look to aesthetic examples such as the Italian primitives and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898). That artist, who was France's greatest painter of murals on national themes, interested the symbolists because his large, boldly patterned compositions in muted colors, such as Poor Fisherman (1881), seemed to suggest rather than define their subjects. His compositions were often described as dreamlike. The critic Téodor de Wyzewa, for example, explained the unanimous praise for the artist as being a result of "a thirst for dream, emotion and poetry."

The artist as prophet.

The notion that the artist was a seer or prophet who, in the words of the symbolist critic Camille Mauclair, "painfully saved our sickened souls from the excremental muck of materialism" (quoted in Matthews, p. 15), was explicitly embraced by many artists in France who wished to be associated with symbolism. Paul Gauguin as well as the artists who formed the avant-garde group the Nabis (Nabis is the Hebrew word for prophets) —Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, Édouard Vuillard, and Émile Bernard—are good examples of this. Art, they believed, had the potential to offer the kind of salvation that had previously been the terrain of traditional religions. Some, such as Denis, were part of a wider, extremely conservative neo-Catholic movement.

Others were looking for less traditional forms of spiritual meaning beyond everyday existence. Artists such as Paul Gauguin, Paul Ranson, and Odilon Redon in France, the Blue Rose group led by Pavel Kuznetsov as well as Mikhail Vrubel' in Russia, and the Czech artist Frantisek Kupka embraced the occult mysticism that was in vogue during the late nineteenth century. Some artists employed principles of "sacred geometry" according to which basic shapes or harmonic ratios shared by plants, animals, or other natural objects were thought to demonstrate a universal continuum of form understandable to all. Such ideas were derived from the theosophy of Madame Blavatsky and Édouard Schuré and from the study of earlier illustrated treatises on the occult, which aimed to find unifying principles in disparate religions. These theories of the occult also shared an interest in dualistic principles of male-female, heaven-earth, and a three-part godhead of matter-mind-spirit, which were often represented using geometric diagrams. This emphasis on abstract geometry thus links the spiritualist emphasis of some symbolists to the more widespread modernism of the movement.

One of the main international exhibition forums for mystical symbolist art was the Order of the Rose Cross of the Temple and the Grail, whose Salons were held in Paris from 1892 to 1897. The order had been founded by the self-anointed "Sâr" Joséphin Péladan (1859–1918; Sâr was the title designating Assyrian royalty), a prolific art critic, the author of Androgyne and Vice suprême, and a high priest of the occult. He described the artist as the "supreme priest" who should represent "dreams instead of reality." The flamboyant Péladan viewed himself and all his public activities as a work of art. He even coined the term kaloprosopia to describe this art of personality in which the externalization of an aesthetic idea in dress, gesture, and demeanor would ultimately lead to the internalization of this aesthetic as a personality trait, and visa versa. Péladan himself dressed in archaic silk robes and affected the pose of a quasi-Byzantine mystic.

Péladan and other symbolist artist-prophets expected to be rejected by the mass audience, thought to be incapable of interpreting the truths embodied in their art. Thus symbolism often brought with it a form of elitism that was sometimes used to support a conservative social agenda. The symbolist rejection of a wider bourgeois audience has also been interpreted as a protest against the degraded mass culture that resulted from industrial capitalism and the related effects of capitalism's materialist values on human subjectivity. However much the symbolists themselves may have understood their elitism as a form of protest, their emphasis on the creative genius unwittingly reinforced the notions of individualism on which the growing art market traded.

Symbolist primitivism: the retreat from Western civilization.

Like Kahn, the symbolist art critic Albert Aurier described the artist as a visionary who, by looking inward, achieved access to the absolute. According to Aurier, this ability to communicate more directly with basic truths was shared by others whose "uncivilized" natures brought them closer to an originary state of being in which the senses were not yet dulled by daily exposure to decadent European culture: children, non-Europeans, peasants, madmen, and hysterical women. Symbolist artists who embraced the primitive wished to return their own consciousnesses to equivalent states of innocence and instinctiveness. In France, the symbolist interest in the primitive was related to the opening of markets between East and West, and to the expansion of colonialism that gave artists exposure to what were viewed as more primitive peoples and their art. Many artists borrowed from non-Western sources. The Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and many other late-nineteenth–century artists looked to the bold patterns and lack of traditional Western perspective of Japanese prints for a seemingly primitive source of artistic ideas.

Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) retreated to Brittany in the 1880s in what he imagined was an escape to a more primitive region of France, where he hoped to set up an artists' colony. There he painted several images of the natives, including the famous Vision after the Sermon (1888). This painting used bold patterns and generalized shapes to picture the mystical vision of "primitive" peasants. Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) moved from Paris to Arles at about the same time and invited Gauguin to join him in a similar attempt to escape the metropolis. Ultimately, seeking a retreat to a primitive paradise, Gauguin fled Paris for Tahiti in the 1890s. He continued to paint boldly patterned works of primitive subjects—especially native women—until his death.

On one hand, many of the symbolists sincerely valued what they believed to be positive characteristics of so-called primitive peoples. On the other, they also believed that though women, children, and savages were closer to the absolute, they lacked the intellectual ability to recognize and identify universal ideas. Neither did such primitives possess the artistic ability to communicate the absolute through art. Only the artist-seer had both access to the absolute and the means to recognize and communicate it. Thus, while symbolism encouraged artists and poets to explore marginalized realms—to "become" momentarily feminine, mad, or primitive in the act of creativity—it also denied the possibility that traditionally "primitive" people could themselves be artists. It therefore shored up the elite status of already privileged European male artists. In addition, in the process of celebrating the people they saw as primitive, these artists reinforced the stereotypes that allowed the wider culture to marginalize them, or, in the case of colonialism, they justified imperial expansion as a needed civilizing force.

Artifice against nature.

In Joris-Karl Huysmans's 1884 novel, À rebours (Against the grain, or Against nature), the decadent aesthete Des Esseintes withdraws into an elaborate world of his own construction in an effort fully to control his "reality." Within the confines of his abode, the differences between nature and artifice, reality and imagination are effaced and the whims of his highly refined sensibility are indulged to such an extent that nothing natural remains. This transformation of the natural world into a product of the Des Esseintes artifice is well illustrated when the protagonist decorates his home with a live turtle encrusted with gold and jewels. (The turtle, not surprisingly, dies.) Des Esseintes's walls are hung with the works of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau. Each artist pictures worlds that work "against nature." Their works overtly claim status as products of the imagination rather than replications of the real.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) belonged to an earlier generation of artists and had little respect for the symbolist movement. He refused to exhibit with them at Sâr Péladan's Salon Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888) by Paul Gauguin. Oil on canvas. Gauguin frequently imbued his boldly patterned paintings with spiritual meaning. He believed that art had the same power of salvation as religion. © ARCHIVO ICONOGRAFICO, S.A./CORBIS of the Rose + Croix and described the "enthusiasm for the invisible … exclusive need of dreams, mystery mysticism, Symbolism and the undefined" as so much snobbery and posing (quoted in Cooke, 124). By the time Huysmans wrote about Moreau's paintings Salomé (1874) and The Apparition (1876) in his novel, Moreau had been exhibiting scenes from the Old Testament and Ovid's Metamorphoses in the Salon for nearly three decades. Despite this, Moreau did share some aims with the works of artists aligned with symbolism, though his aesthetic approach is quite different from artists such as Gauguin and the Nabis. His works embody the principle that one must move beyond the description of the everyday and against any sense of the replication of nature. Moreau's paintings combine imagery and symbols from a wide range of sources (including Old Masters, Egyptian art, the Byzantine empire, and Asian culture). All these are incorporated into highly detailed paintings whose disparate symbols are held together by a distinctive painterly style. Elaborate and often minute patterns, sometimes painted, sometimes scratched into the paint, form a unifying armature or screen over the canvas. The effect is a disconcerting jewel-like surface and dreamlike treatment of the familiar that now appears to be wholly a product of the artist's artifice.

Like Moreau, the printmaker and painter Odilon Redon (1840–1916) was chosen by Huysmans as an artist favored by his fictional decadent hero Des Esseintes. Redon's small-scale works on paper differ greatly from Moreau's intricately wrought history paintings. Redon's imagery, however, like Moreau's, draws on a range of sources, from ancient myth to Christian subjects to natural imagery to contemporary literature, and often combines sources in impossible and surprising ways that evoke formal or conceptual correspondences between seemingly disparate objects. This combination, reminiscent of dreams in which one thing metamorphoses into another, was sometimes further enhanced by the captions or evocative titles that accompanied the works. Like symbolist poetry, Redon's prints push the reader into a process of interpretation where echoes between elements suggest meanings but resist any ultimate decipherment or closure. In Redon's work, as in symbolist poetry, the viewer's engagement with the process of interpretation seems to be the most important element.

In many works, Redon specifically thematizes the transformation of nature into imagination by transmuting natural forms into highly evocative dreamlike visions. In There Was Perhaps a First Vision Attempted in the Flower, a plate from the lithograph series Les origines (1883; Origins), the orb at flower's center becomes an eye and the lashes give it the look of a carnivorous plant. In other works, flowers, spiders, or planetary orbs have human faces. Redon studied anatomy and natural history. His hybrid creatures cross categories of the natural world to become evocatively unnatural. Their hybridity also speaks to the possibility of a primeval continuum tying together different categories of being.

A similar hybridization of natural categories is seen in the works of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944). In the series of paintings The Frieze of Life, the forms in background landscapes seem to be based on contemporary studies of the physiology of the human body. Furthermore, Munch described the landscape itself through physiological metaphors, sometimes of pulsing or breathing. In Munch, as in Redon, the metaphorical correspondences link disparate realms of being to point to basic structures or primeval truths beyond the immediately visible.

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