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Symbolism In French Literature, Symbolism And Music, Les Vingt And Belgian Symbolism, Russian Symbolism

The symbolist movement began in France in the 1880s as a literary phenomenon. The term symbolism, however, quickly came to encompass a range of arts, from painting and sculpture to theater and music. While the movement is often said to have spanned the years 1885–1895, the ideas and aesthetic interests of symbolism are often traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and many early twentieth-century artists and writers continued to be influenced by its ideas. Symbolism was first and foremost a movement in French literature centered in Paris, and many of its central participants were French (Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud). Yet many artists and writers from elsewhere were also central to French symbolism: Maurice Maeterlinck, Émile Verhaeren, and Albrecht Rodenbach were Belgian, Jean Moréas was Greek, Téodor de Wyzewa was Polish, and Stuart Merrill was American. In addition, there were symbolist movements in Germany, Italy, Russia, and Belgium. Many scholars also see mid-nineteenth-century British aestheticism as a form of symbolism.

Each manifestation of symbolism had its own distinct characteristics. For example, most Belgian symbolists were more socially and politically engaged with working-class issues than their French counterparts, while Russian symbolism linked spiritual, social, and national concerns. Many artists and writers who never would have called themselves symbolists are considered under the rubric of symbolism because their work shares at least some of the same interests as that produced by self-proclaimed symbolist artists.

Proponents of symbolist aesthetics rejected the notion that the purpose of the arts is to represent the world as it appears to one's senses. They proposed instead to create works that would use suggestive (and often abstract) forms, images, or sounds to embody transcendent (and sometimes spiritual) ideas and would thus offer their readers, viewers, or listeners an experience of truth, beauty, or the idea beyond the material realm. Symbolism—be it in literature, music, or the visual arts—is thus characterized by a paradox: It relies on an emphasis on material form (decorative patterns in painting, repeated sounds, or arrangements of words on the page in the literary arts) as the vehicle for transcending the material or empirical world. This foregrounding of form links symbolism to the emergence of modernist abstraction in art and literature.

For a long time, scholars saw the symbolist refusal to depict the empirical world as a reaction against naturalistic artistic and literary movements such as realism and Impressionism. Later scholarship suggested that, rather than seeing symbolism mainly as a rejection of naturalist aesthetics, it should be acknowledged that symbolism was embedded in wider cultural and political anxieties of the late nineteenth century. The dominant philosophies of positivism and Darwinism threatened to substitute empirical facts for the traditional religious explanations of the great mysteries of the world. Human activity was increasingly explained in mechanistic psychophysiological terms and human beings appeared to be less and less in control of their thoughts and behaviors. The development of capitalist economies led to an increasing commodification of daily life and an increasingly materialistic culture. Rather than situating symbolism in the rarified world of the aesthetic, scholars came to see the symbolist alternative to materialism—evocative abstraction, suggestion, mysticism, and dreamlike imagery—as an attempt to oppose the effects of materialism and capitalism.

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