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Symbolism

Symbolism, Gender, And Sexuality

Woman is a ubiquitous subject in symbolist art and literature. Sometimes, as in Denis's April or the early work of Piet Mondrian, she is a positive symbol of innocence and possibility—desexualized and dematerialized. In paintings by D. G. Rossetti or Whistler, woman is a highly aestheticized and unattainable love object. In his early work, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935) used the motifs of women and embryos to express the notion that woman could be the incarnation of a higher, purer, more spontaneous realm. At other times, woman is turned into a sexualized femme fatale, as in Jean Delville's Idol of Perversity or in the works of the Belgian graphic artist Félicien Rops or the German artist Franz von Stuck. Thus, much symbolist visual art reinforces and amplifies a long-standing dichotomy between woman as virgin and woman as whore.

Significantly, each of these stereotypes aligns woman closely with nature. Such images reinforce the idea that woman, imprisoned within her biology—as the innocent vessel of the life-bearing force or as bearer of uncontrollable and instinctive sexual desire—is incapable of transcending her bodily functions and desires. Woman is a subcategory of nature and is linked to the primitivism that was such an important subtext of the symbolist project. The Belgian symbolist Ferdnand Khnopff's Art (Caresses of the Sphynx, 1896) combines many of these elements. The Dutch symbolist Jan Toorop, with his flat linear vision, and Munch painted renditions of woman as femme fatale. Moreau's images of Salomé and other female figures also fit this description.

Significantly, these works were produced at a time when feminist movements were experiencing a resurgence across Europe and when women were beginning to work in a number of male professions. This imagery may be seen partly as a cultural reaction to the emergence of a well-defined social type—"the New Woman"—a bourgeois woman who sought financial independence, education, and a professional life. To counteract this threat to traditional values, the mainstream definitions of femininity in late-nineteenth-century European culture denied woman the possibility of "genius." And individual women who pursued intellectual or professional activities were described as "masculine." Artistic representations of woman's proximity to nature counteracted women's demands for intellectual pursuits by reinforcing the boundaries between intellectually endowed virile masculinity and body-bound femininity. Patricia Matthews argues that the masculinity of the intuitive artist-seer was ultimately protected by the exclusion of women from the category of genius. Like the primitives, women might experience intuition, spirituality, or a loss of the boundaries of self, but because they lacked genius, they would never be able to transform those experiences into an understanding of higher truths; nor could they communicate those truths through art. One rare exception to this general belief was the sculptor Camille Claudel, whose works were praised by several symbolist critics. Nevertheless, many of them still related the power of Claudel's works to her instinctual femininity. Other successful women artists and writers were said to have lost some of their femininity in expressing their genius.

The relationship between symbolism and sexuality was not always degrading to women. For some Russian symbolists, including the woman writer Zinaida Gippius and the male writers Ivanov and Merezhkovsky, sex was a source of liberation with the potential to unite humanity with God. Furthermore, many male symbolists conceived of their own projects in feminized terms. Intuition, spirituality, emotionalism, loss of intellectual control—all these were characteristics commonly aligned with the feminine. Many symbolists (Sâr Péladan is the most obvious example) enacted the role of feminized aesthete in their public lives, constructing personae that rejected bourgeois norms of masculinity. The British aesthete and writer Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) also assumed the role of the unconventional dandy (though in a less extreme form than Péladan). In the early twentieth century, many lesbians, including Romaine Brooks and Claude Cahun, would take the image of the male dandy as a model for their alternative visions of female sexuality.

Because it challenged normative values and offered alternative cultural forms, symbolism and the aestheticism that often accompanied it opened new avenues for imagining sexuality, which sometimes offered positive ways of conceptualizing the marginal subject position of the homosexual male. Rimbaud is famous for writing in a symbolist vein about his relationship with Verlaine. André Gide, who would openly theorize male homosexuality in dialogue form in Corydon (1911–1924), began his literary career in the symbolist milieu. Péladan described the androgyne as a symbol of creative possibility—an innocent creature prior to the corruption of sexuality who still embodied the intuitive possibilities of femininity without its negative aspects.

Laus Veneris (1873–1875) by Edward Burne-Jones. Oil on canvas. British artist Burne-Jones frequently depicted androgynous figures in his works, which certain critics believed to partially symbolize the homosexual subculture in the country. © ARCHIVO ICONOGRAFICO, S.A./CORBIS

Wilde seems to have found something enabling in the images of the femme fatale (his version of Salomé clearly differs from the overtly misogynist versions produced by many late-nineteenth-century artists). Swinburne attacked normative sexual morality in his poems by incorporating perverse sexuality into his images of beauty. British artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, Simeon Solomon, and Edward Burne-Jones, and writers such as Pater and Swinburne, often represented androgynous figures. Richard Dellamora and Thaïs Morgan connect these androgynous figures to the construction of a homosexual subcultural identity in Britain. Morgan suggests that images of the androgyne and of the hermaphrodite were meant to be read both as symbols of the perfect art object (by the mainstream audience) and as specific objects of homosexual desire.

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