|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
|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:
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.
|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|
|Gustave Moreau: Orpheus, 1865||Moreau: Jason and Medea, 1865|
|Lucien Levy-Dhurmer: Eve, 1896 (pastel and gouache)||Edvard Munch: Puberty, 1894-5|
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
|Munch: The Scream, 1893|
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|
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.