The Symbolist Movement: To Make the Invisible Visible

Symbolism is always confusing because we use the word to refer to the study of symbols or iconography in art works, but it also refers to a specific movement. Usually grouped with the other post-impressionist movements, symbolism emerged at just about the same time as impressionism, so it is not entirely accurate to call it "post" impressionist. Nonetheless, much of the symbolist movement (at least in the visual arts) does take shape as a response to impressionism. In particular, symbolism includes the following:

The last one is not directly a rejection of impressionism as a style, but recall that the impressionists (Renoir, in particular) made the bourgeois life style central to their art. But the most crucial difference between impressionism and symbolism lies in where the artist finds the origin of the work of art. The starting point of both realism and impressionism was nature or the real world (contemporary life); the starting point of symbolism is the inner vision of the artist. But consider the fact that this inner vision might come from literature and mythology. Symbolism was also a literary movement and many of the artists associated with symbolism used literature as their starting point, without making break-throughs in style. This is  problematic for the study of art history -- although it is a modern movement, many historians ignore symbolism when they discuss modernism precisely because the formal qualitites of the style do not seem to be modern.

To illustrate the different starting points, we might use the following comparison. Manet's painting of the Bar at the Folies-Bergere (an impressionist 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, Jacek 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's style is certainly the more radical of the two. Malczewski's painting of an internal experience immediately seems to be the more unusual subject matter, yet we can identify baroque and late Renaissance stylistic precedents for Malczewski and we also know that Manet's painting is not just an attempt to describe or represent a restaurant. Manet strives to unite painting technique with the subject; Malczewski does not. But the contribution of artists like Malczewski to modernism is important since it points to an expanding base of sources for the artistic vision.

Manet: Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1881-2 Jacek Malczewski: Vicious Cycle, 1895-7

To repeat: 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 (or she -- although there are very few symbolist artists who were female) used the myth or poem in much the same way that a dream might be the inspiration for a painting.  Chapter one includes a chart which begins to describe a distinction between transparent and mediated realism.  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 paintings and art works relate to a form of modernism which is modern because of the image. Gustave Moreau, an older artist with connections to the Romantic movement, almost always chose mythological subject matter for his paintings.  He consistently models this more transparent style of symbolism and makes wide-ranging use of image sources.  In constrast, The Gates of Hell, Rodin's bronze doors, is based on a literary source but does not illustrate that subject. Rodin not only breaks with the academic tradition in sculpture; his use of Dante is highly personalized and almost evades the narrative of the book. His symbolism is therefore mediated: using technique to express the subject.

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, because most of the symbolists were active in the last quarter of the 19th century, 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 do 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 and the age of rationalism.

The overriding social goal of the symbolists was the replacement of 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 Arnold Böcklin: Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Violin, 1872

Symbolism and the "woman question"

One of the things we associate with the symbolist movement is the creation of new iconic images. Women were an important part of the symbolist iconography although the female image, not surprisingly, was not easy to decipher. Was she a threat or the object of desire? This question was largely the result of another "question" -- the issue of women or the "new woman."  Conservative and radical women’s movements were in place by the 1880s, and women were making inroads into labor markets and the attainment of greater rights in marriage and divorce. There was a "new woman" in France, in England, in the U.S., and probably elsewhere at this time, and the problem with the new woman was that she didn't want to stay home.

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.  Yet the feminine was also associated with undesirable qualities: she was too emotional, she was seductive and like Delilah, she could rob the male of his potency and destroy society. Images of women might depicting the female as a dangerous person who would destroy the male artist and society or show 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.

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

Woman as nature was both good and bad: nature could represent creativity and the generative qualities but nature could also be cannibalistic and untamed and responsible for a multitude of horrors that do not exist in the cultured world.  The femme fatale, then, represented the horrific side of nature: uncontrolled desires and passions with lethal potentials and the power to castrate the unsuspecting male victim with her eyes alone. In paintings she might be represented as half-woman, half-animal, as a sphinx, or as Eve, as in the pastel and gouache by Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, 1896, where her innocent but seductive face and hair stare intently at the snake who presumably just tempted her to take the forbidden apple; she in turn becomes the snake which will tempt the male through forbidden sex. 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.

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 fourth dimension. 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.
The two examples below, from Vassily Kandinsky and Franz Kupka, are works made after the symbolist movement ended, but they demonstrate the continued interest in many of the ideas first practiced by the symbolists. The symbolists themselves never reached the level of abstraction which Kandinsky and Kupka reached, but in both cases, the symbolist belief in the synesthetic properties of color and in the role of color as a means of reaching a more spiritual plane contributed to their development of an abstract language.
Kandinsky: Composition VII, 1913 Franz Kupka: Cosmic Spring, 1911-20

I will say more about theosophy and alchemy, along with the role of the fourth dimension, when we discuss the abstraction of artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian in the 20th century. For now and with respect to the symbolists, their turn to these belief systems was based on the idea that alchemy, in particular, could serve as a metaphor for the role of the art work and the artist. If alchemical science purified the world, then the influence of alchemy in an art work would also lead to the purification of the world. And the artist would be a person capable of bringing these transformative processes to the world.

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 an artist who did achieve this goal and did so through his style. In fact, because Gauguin's symbolism seemed so different from that of an artist like Moreau, many historians have differentiated between two forms of symbolism: the more literary type, associated with Moreau and a few other artists, and the more "modern" or abstract style, associated with Gauguin, his friend Emile Bernard, Ernst Hodler, and a few other artists.

To summarize:
The rise of symbolism coincided with a period when some intellectuals were beginning to question positivism.  Writers, in particular, reacted against positivist and materialist theories because they centralized science as the key way of knowing the world and essentially did not allow for the existence of art as a unique form of knowledge and human activity.  The motivational drive behind the symbolist aesthetic was the goal of establishing art as an independent or autonomous field of activity.  Following from that goal and its opposition to positivism, symbolism focused on subjective knowledge as a source of truth.  More specifically, the symbolists argued that truth could be found in either a spiritual or mystical realm, and that it was the result of personal experience, rather than observation of the physical world.  Ultimately, this is a concern with art as a type of knowledge or way of knowing the world, and this, in turn, is a concern with the language of art.

Since symbolism began as a literary movement, the initial concern with methods took the form of an interest in the role of language and the ways in which language could convey ideas about a subject or impede the communication of those ideas. Eventually the interest in the role of language would be translated into an interest in the communicative properties of color and form, but the analogy to language lingered for a long time as a characteristic of symbolist theory and modernism.  For symbolism, language provided a metaphor for the relationship between the real or objective world and the ideal or absolute world (hence, the interest in alternative spiritual systems). Rejecting materialism, the symbolists believed that nature and the immediate world had no inherent value other than its role in revealing the spiritual or the absolute.  If an object’s only value lies in its function or ability to reveal the absolute, then everything in the real world, the material or concrete world, is little more than a hieroglyphic or sign of some transcendent idea.  In this respect, objects–or more specifically, their colors and shapes – were thought of as being similar to the letters of an alphabet.  The artist’s role, metaphorically speaking, was to combine these letters into words.  But part of the artist’s task was being able to choose which lines, forms and colors were necessary to establish the significance of the idea he wished to communicate.  Too many lines, colors and forms would hinder communication; the artist had to be able to select only the most necessary and distinctive, only those which were essential for the suggestion of the idea.  For the symbolists, the goal was not a complete or even accurate description of visual reality or an idea but the evocation or suggestion of the idea.  This emphasis on suggestion meant that mysticism and hypnotism become important models for symbolists, while science did not.  Finally, symbolist theory was based on a belief in the subjective or personal experience of the world as the basis for art (what Gauguin described as "dreaming in front of nature"), and on a rejection of the modern world as a subject for art.   Although this rejection does set symbolism apart from other forms of modernism, in other respects it is a pivotal moment in the definition of modernism. In particular, its contributions will come from the centralization of the inner vision, the belief in art as a language which transcribes some higher experience, and a belief that art is a multisensory (or synesthetic) experience. Because this art was to express an idea in terms of color, lines, and forms, it would be, in the best sense, a decorative art; it would depart from naturalism in its color and forms, and it would be closer to the state of a dream in its ability to communicate an idea through this condensed and restricted vocabulary. The idea of a dream to the symbolists is important in part because it was vague and became a type of shorthand for the belief that all versions of reality were alternative dreams and fictions.  The dream, in this understanding, was another way of speaking of the artistic vision, a vision in which the reality of the world stood alongside the reality of the dream.

Note: The artstor image group for this chapter has some of the images you see on this page (in better reproductions). It also includes some additional images which relate to the themes on this page. I have not included examples of Gauguin's work (other than the self-portrait) since he is the subject of the next chapter and the image unit you have created from your slide list.
You can connect to the ARtstor chapter 2 image group from here.