The Symbolist Movement: To Make the Invisible Visible

For example, Manet's painting of the Bar at the Folies-Bergere (not a symbolist painting) begins with a clear visual reference to a place that was familiar to many Parisians.  The painting is not simply a description or record of that setting because Manet uses the image to make a statement about modern life, about the world of spectacle and consumerism, and about the alienation of the human being in this modern world of spectacle.  In contrast, Malczewski's painting, Vicious Cycle, does not appear to originate in an image of the real world so much as an internal, emotional response to feelings of being powerless.
Manet: Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1881-2 Jacek Malczewski: Vicious Cycle, 1895-7

Symbolism began as a literary movement, and for some of the symbolist painters, the "interior" source of the artist's vision was often found in mythology and literature.  Nonetheless, the artist rarely "illustrated" the literary source.  Instead, he used the myth or poem in much the same way that a dream might be the inspiration for a painting.  We talked about a distinction between transparent and mediated styles last week.  In symbolism, the paintings which appear to be little more than illustrations of a myth are transparent: the artist's emphasis is on the content and not the technique.  These are also paintings and art works which relate more to image modernism.  Moreau, who was an older artist with connections to the Romantic movement, almost always chose mythological subject matter for his paintings.  He consistently models the more transparent style of symbolism and makes wide-ranging use of image sources.  The Gates of Hell, despite the presence of a literary subject, is not an illustration of that subject or of academic style in sculpture.  Rodin is therefore a model of mediated symbolism.

Rodin: Gates of Hell (close up of part of the top half), 1880-1917  Gustave Moreau: Galatea, 1880-1

Although symbolist art is not united by a common visual style, the movement does share certain social and political critiques and centralizes certain images as part of this critique.  Symbolism was a response to a belief in 3 profound losses or “humiliations” as Freud eventually put it:

The symbolists proposed art as the means for healing these humiliations, and to a great degree, their "solutions" were based on a belief that ancient myths offered alternative beliefs to these "humiliations."  The symbolists, much as the surrealists will in the twentieth century, turned to mythology in part because they believed that ancient myths were still alive in primitive cultures.  Turning to mythology was therefore a way to reconnect with the lost innocence of culture before the advent of bourgeois civilization.

This was the overriding social goal of the symbolists -- to replace the corrupt and decadent bourgeois life style at the end of the century with a more spiritual, mystical and universal idealism.  Because this goal was linked with spirituality (in the minds of the symbolists), the symbolist iconography contained various images of the artist as a visionary -- someone who could look inside himself in order to see the world of ideas.  We find numerous self-portraits, often giving special emphasis to the eyes although this was certainly not the only way of communicating the idea of a visionary.  Gauguin's approach, for example, was somewhat different.  In "Les Miserables," he offers himself (in his own words) “as a portrait of all the victims of society.”  His vision of the artist as an outcast who must suffer and exist free of the shackles of society contrasts with Van Gogh's vision of the artist as a zen-like monk with an aura of spirituality emanating from his head and expressed in the radiating lines of the brush work.

Images of the Artist as Visionary, Genius, and Madman

Gauguin: "Les Miserables" (1888) Van Gogh: Self-Portrait dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888
Gauguin: Portrait of Gauguin by Himself, 1889 Arnold Boecklin: Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Violin, 1872

Symbolism and the "woman question"

One social issue which resulted in a symbolist image was the issue of women, or the “woman question.”  Threat or object of desire?
Certain qualities associated with the feminine were seen as desirable qualities by some male artists: intuition, spirituality, extreme sensitivity and subjectivity, self-sacrifice for the greater good.  Images of the women took opposite sides, either depicting the female as a dangerous person who would destroy the male artist and society, or showing her as an innocent, pre-sexual source of hope and compassion.  The pure female body, emptied of desire, was a safe image which could prevent the threat of sexuality, but it was not as safe or desirable as the androgyne which united the purity and asexuality of the virgin with the intelligence and reason of the man.  Some images of the "femme fatale" served as apotropaic images while others were cathartic.  In both cases, they related to the belief that art  has magical and curative properties.
Gustave Moreau: Orpheus, 1865  Moreau: Jason and Medea, 1865
Lucien Levy-Dhurmer: Eve, 1896 (pastel and gouache) Edvard Munch: Puberty, 1894-5

The Night the World Screamed

Munch described his painting Puberty as a break-through, the first time he felt he had conquered his impressionist tendencies.  The painting captures the ambivalence of the icon of pre-pubsecent sexuality, uniting it in this case with death in the form of the lurking, hovering shadow.  Although it is meant to be his dying sister, the fixed stare of her eyes creates the sense that the artist sees himself in this image.

The critic and acquaintance of Munch, Stanislaw Przybyszewski, described Munch's work as "psychic naturalism" by which he meant the reproduction of psychological phenomena through color and through the rhythmic intensity which unites the figures and imagined landscapes containing them.  Perhaps Munch said it better, writing in his journal about the blood red sky: "I stood alone, trembling with anxiety.  I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature."  Do we really care if a volcanic eruption caused the color of the sky, as some people have suggested?  What seems to matter more is the way the waves of color not only pulsate in the air and water but compress the face, hands and body of a figure who stands there as a surrogage for Munch himself.

Munch: The Scream, 1893

Theosophy, the apocalypse, alchemy and abstraction

A large part of symbolism's contribution to modernism comes from its understanding of art as a language which communicates through color, lines and forms.  Much of this belief comes from the interest of symbolists in theosophy, alchemy, other alternative systems of spirituality, and the 4th dimension (we haven't talked about this yet).  Kandinsky and Kupka come after the symbolist movement but they demonstrate the continued interest in many of the ideas first practiced by the symbolists.

Theosophy was an alternative way of thinking about spirituality and art.  According to theosophical principles, the universe originally contained atoms and a vacuum. The vacuum was a latent force or deity, which could become organized into a willful force. Out of nothingness, eventually the will would emerge. Duality became a positive concept for theosophy because it represented the union of the latent, which could not be known, and a living force or spirit, which could be known. The connection to art was made in at least two ways: one was through the belief that color had a vibrating spiritual property which would awaken the dormant spirituality within a person. Another was the belief that art should begin in nature and that the apocalypse would lead to the future new world.

Kandinsky: Composition VII, 1913 Franz Kupka: Cosmic Spring, 1911-20

The implications of theosophy and alchemy:

Summary of the artistic goals of symbolism:

The goal of symbolism was to present an idea through forms and colors, through signs which are universally comprehensible but second to the idea; and following from this, to "objectify the subjective" -- or, in the words of the artist Odilon Redon, to make the invisible world visible.  It might be said that the impressionists, who were nearly contemporary with the symbolists, did the opposite of this -- that they made the objective world subjective, using the depiction of the changing effects of light as a metaphor of subjectivity.

Symbolism is an art of the dream, with the idea of the dream referring to alternative visions of reality.  Just as the dream does not represent something else but is an alternative vision, the symbolist painting is not thought of as a representation but as an embodiment of an alternative reality.  Not all the symbolists achieved this although they all seem to strive to do this; Gauguin would appear to be the model of those who do achieve this goal.