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28-4Symbolism
The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists believed that their emotions and sensations were important
elements for interpreting the world around them, but the depiction of what they could see—people,
buildings and boulevards, landscapes, still lifes—remained their primary focus, as it had for the Realists
before them. By the end of the 19th century, however, many artists turned their attention away from
the real world to the imaginary. These artists, seeking to express their individual spirit, rejected the
optical world of daily life in favor of a fantasy world, of forms they conjured in their free imagination.
Color, line, and shape, divorced from conformity to the optical image, became symbols of personal
emotions in response to the world. Deliberately choosing to stand outside of convention and tradition,
these artists spoke in signs and symbols.
Many of the artists following this path adopted an approach to subject and form that associated them
with a general European movement called Symbolism. Symbolists, whether painters or writers,
disdained Realism as trivial. The task of Symbolist artists, both visual and verbal, was not to see things
but to see through them to a significance and reality far deeper than what superficial appearance
revealed. In so doing, as the poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) insisted, artists became beings of
extraordinary insight. (One group of Symbolist painters called itself the Nabis, the Hebrew word for
“prophet.”) Rimbaud, whose poems had great influence on the artistic community, went so far as to say,
in his Letter from a Seer (1871), that to achieve the seer’s insight, artists must become deranged. In
effect, they must systematically unhinge and confuse the everyday faculties of sense and reason, which
serve only to blur artistic vision. The artists’ mystical vision must convert the objects of the
commonsense world into symbols of a reality beyond that world and, ultimately, a reality from within
the individual. Elements of Symbolism were already present in the works of van Gogh and especially
Gauguin—for example, Vision after the Sermon (Fig. 28-20) andWhere Do We Come From? (Fig. 28-21).
In fact, one of the most coherent and influential definitions of Symbolist art appeared in an 1891 essay,
“Symbolism in Painting: Paul Gauguin,” by Albert Aurier (1865–1892), a leading Symbolist poet and art
critic (see “Albert Aurier on Symbolism”).
Written Sources
Albert Aurier on Symbolism
An early champion of Paul Gauguin, Albert Aurier published an influential essay in March 1891 in the
journal Mercure de France in which he described the singular contribution of Gauguin to modern
painting and used Gauguin’s work to define Symbolism in painting. Aurier argued that
The goal of painting … cannot be the direct representation of objects. Its end purpose is to express ideas
as it translates them into a special language. Indeed, in the eyes of the artist … objects … have a
significance only insofar as they are objects. The artist sees them only as signs, letters of an immense
alphabet that only the genius knows how to read. To write one’s thought, one’s poem, with those signs,
all the while remembering that the sign, however indispensable, is nothing in itself and the idea alone is
everything—such appears to be the task of the artist whose eye can determine the evocative potential of
tangible objects…. As a result, certain laws must govern pictorial imitation. The artist, in every form of
art, must carefully avoid … concrete truth, illusionism, trompe-l’oeil. Indeed, he must not convey in his
picture a false impression of nature that would act on the spectator like nature itself…. In consequence,
the strict duty of the ideist painter is to make a reasoned selection from the multiple elements of
objective reality, to use in his work only the lines, forms, general and distinctive colors that enable him to
describe precisely the ideic significance of the object … To sum up and conclude, the work of art as I have
evoked it logically, is Ideist … Symbolist … Synthetic … and Decorative.
Although he never formally identified himself with the Symbolists, the French painterPierre Puvis de
Chavannes (1824–1898) became a major inspiration for those artists. In striking contrast to the
Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, whose work was routinely rejected by the official Salons, Puvis
served as a Salon juror until he resigned in 1872 to protest the narrowness of the other jurors. Puvis,
nevertheless, was no admirer of Realism or Impressionism, producing instead an ornamental and
reflective art incorporating classical imagery—a categorical rejection of the Realist and Impressionist
focus on the everyday world.
In Sacred Grove (Fig. 28-24), which may have influenced Seurat’s Grande Jatte (Fig. 28-17), Puvis
deployed statuesque figures in a tranquil landscape with a Greco-Roman shrine. Suspended in timeless
poses, the figures have simple and sharp contours, and their modeling is as shallow as basrelief sculpture. The calm and still atmosphere suggests some consecrated place where all movements
and gestures have a permanent ritual significance. The stillness and simplicity of the forms, the linear
patterns that their rhythmic contours create, and the suggestion of their symbolic weight constitute a
type of anti-Realism. Puvis garnered support from a wide range of artists, from, at one extreme, the
conservative members of the French Academy and the government, who applauded his classicism, to
the Symbolists, who revered Puvis for his vindication of imagination and his independence from the
capitalist world of materialism and the machine.
Figure 28-24Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Sacred Grove, 1884. Oil on canvas,. Art Institute of Chicago,
Chicago (Potter Palmer Collection).
The Symbolists revered Puvis de Chavannes for his rejection of Realism. His statuesque figures in
timeless poses inhabit a tranquil landscape, their gestures suggesting a symbolic ritual significance.
Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago, 1922.445
The extreme subjectivism of the Symbolists led them to cultivate all the resources of fantasy and
imagination, no matter how deeply buried or obscure. Moreover, they urged artists to stand against the
vulgar materialism and conventional values of industrial and middle-class society. Above all, the
Symbolists wished to purge literature and art of anything utilitarian, to cultivate an exquisite aesthetic
sensitivity. The subjects of the Symbolists, conditioned by this reverent attitude toward art and
exaggerated aesthetic sensation, became increasingly esoteric and exotic, mysterious, visionary,
dreamlike, and fantastic—the opposite of “concrete truth, illusionism, trompe-l’oeil.” Perhaps not
coincidentally, contemporary with the Symbolists, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of
psychoanalysis, began the age of psychiatry with his Interpretation of Dreams (1900), an introduction to
the concept and the world of unconscious experience.
Gustave Moreau One of the foremost Symbolist painters was Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), who
entered the École des Beaux-Arts at age 20. Toward the end of his career, in 1892, Moreau became a
professor there, but he lived most of his life as a recluse in his townhouse at 14 rue de la Rochefoucauld
in Paris, today the Musée Gustave Moreau. An admirer of Eugène Delacroix, Moreau loved exotic
settings and rich colors, but his subjects, often drawn from classical mythology and the Bible, transcend
those of Romanticism to embrace the world of imagination and spirituality celebrated by Symbolist
writers.
The Apparition (Fig. 28-25), one of two versions of the same subject that Moreau submitted to the Salon
of 1876, treats a theme that fascinated him and many of his contemporaries—thefemme fatale (“fatal
woman”), the destructive temptress of men. The seductive heroine here is the biblical Salome (Mark
6:21–28), who pleased her stepfather, King Herod, by dancing enticingly before him and demanded in
return the head of Saint John the Baptist (compareFig. 21-8). In Moreau’s representation of the story,
Herod sits in the background, enthroned not in a Middle Eastern palace but in a classical columnar hall
resembling a Roman triumphal arch. Salome is in the foreground, scantily clad in a gold- and gemencrusted costume. She points to an apparition hovering in the air at the level of Herod’s head. In a
radiant circle of light is what Salome desired—the halo-framed head of John the Baptist, dripping with
blood but with eyes wide open. The combination of hallucinatory imagery, eroticism, precise drawing,
rich color, and opulent setting is the hallmark of Moreau’s highly original style. The Apparition and
Moreau’s other major paintings—for example, Jupiter and Semele (Fig. 28-25A)—foreshadow the work
of the Surrealists in the next century (seeSurrealism).
Figure 28-25Gustave Moreau, The Apparition, 1874–1876. Watercolor on paper,. Musée du Louvre,
Paris.
Moreau’s painting of Salome, a biblical femme fatale, combines hallucinatory imagery, eroticism, precise
drawing, rich color, and an opulent setting—hallmarks of Moreau’s Symbolist style.
akg-images
Figure 28-25A
Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, ca. 1875.
RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY
Odilon Redon Like Moreau, fellow French Symbolist Odilon Redon (1840–1916) was a visionary. He had
been aware of an intense inner world since childhood, and later wrote of “imaginary things” haunting
him. Redon adapted the Impressionist palette and stippling brushstroke for a very different purpose—
the representation of dreamlike narratives. In The Cyclops (Fig. 28-26), Redon represented the
mythological one-eyed giant Polyphemus emerging from behind a rocky outcropping in a landscape with
a rich profusion of fresh saturated hues that harmonized with the mood that Redon felt fitted the
subject. In Homer’sOdyssey, Polyphemus is a monstrous giant whom the Greek hero Odysseus must
vanquish on his journey home from Troy. Redon chose, however, the less familiar tale of Polyphemus’s
love for the nymph Galatea. Redon’s Cyclops is a shy, simpering creature with its single huge loving eye
set into a misshapen head. He rises baloonlike above the beautiful sleeping Galatea. The contrast with
Raphael’s representation of the same subject (Fig. 22-11) could hardly be more striking. As Redon
himself observed: “All my originality consists … in making unreal creatures live humanly by putting, as
much as possible, the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.”
Figure 28-26Odilon Redon, The Cyclops, 1898. Oil on canvas, . Kröller-Müller Foundation, Otterlo.
In The Cyclops, the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon represented the mythical one-eyed giant
Polyphemus shyly observing the beautiful sleeping Galatea. The rich profusion of hues is the legacy of
Impressionism.
© The Kröller-Müller Foundation, Otterlo
Henri Rousseau The imagination of Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) engaged a different but equally
powerful world of personal fantasy. Gauguin had journeyed to the South Seas in search of primitive
innocence. Rousseau was a “primitive” without leaving Paris—a self-taught amateur who turned to
painting full-time only after his retirement from service in the French government. Nicknamed “Le
Douanier” (The Customs Inspector), he first exhibited in the Salon of 1885 when he was 41. Derided by
the critics, Rousseau turned to the Salon des Indépendants in 1886 and thereafter exhibited his works
there almost every year until his death. Even in that more liberal showcase, Rousseau still received
almost universally unfavorable reviews because of his lack of formal training, imperfect perspective,
doll-like figures, and settings resembling constructed theater sets more than natural landscapes.
Rousseau compensated for his apparent visual, conceptual, and technical naiveté with a natural talent
for design and an imagination teeming with exotic, mysterious images.
Tropical landscapes are the setting for two of Rousseau’s most famous works, Sleeping Gypsy(Fig. 28-27)
of 1897 and The Dream (Fig. 28-27A), painted 13 years later. In the earlier painting, the recumbent
figure occupies a desert world, silent and secret, and dreams beneath a pale, perfectly round moon. In
the foreground, a lion resembling a stuffed, but somehow menacing, animal doll sniffs at the gypsy. A
critical encounter impends—an encounter of the type that recalls the uneasiness of a person’s
vulnerable subconscious self during sleep—a subject of central importance to Rousseau’s contemporary,
Sigmund Freud. Rousseau’s art of drama and fantasy has its own sophistication and, after the artist’s
death, influenced the development of Surrealism (see Surrealism).
Figure 28-27Henri Rousseau, Sleeping Gypsy, 1897. Oil on canvas, . Museum of Modern Art, New York
(gift of Mrs. Simon Guggenheim).
In Sleeping Gypsy, Rousseau depicted a doll-like but menacing lion sniffing at a recumbent dreaming
figure in a mysterious landscape. The painting suggests the vulnerable subconscious during sleep.
Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
Figure 28-27A
Rousseau, The Dream, 1910.
The Museum of Modern Art/SCALA/Art Resource, NY
James Ensor Although the Symbolist movement in art and literature began in France, it quickly
expanded throughout Europe. The leading Belgian Symbolist was James Ensor (1860–1949), the son of
an expatriate Englishman and a Flemish mother, who spent most of his life in the seaside resort village
of Ostend, far from the artistic centers of Europe. In 1883 he cofounded Les Vingts (The Twenty), a
group of Belgian artists who staged unjuried exhibitions in Brussels modeled on the independent salons
of Paris. A fervent nationalist, he left the group when it began to exhibit the work of foreign artists. In
fact, Ensor’s most monumental work, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (Fig. 28-28), is very likely a
critical response to Georges Seurat’s Grande Jatte (Fig. 28-17), exhibited by Les Vingt in 1887.
Figure 28-28James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, 1888. Oil on canvas, . J. Paul Getty
Museum, Los Angeles.
Ensor’s mural-sized canvas is an indictment of corrupt modern values. Christ enters Brussels on a donkey
in 1889, ignored by the dense crowd of soldiers and citizens wearing grotesque, grimacing masks.
Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Brussels, 1888 (oil on canvas), Ensor, James (1860–1949)/J. Paul Getty
Museum, Los Angeles, USA/© DACS/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library
Whereas Seurat’s canvas celebrates the leisure activities of contented bourgeois Parisians, a typical
Impressionist theme, Ensor’s even larger (14-foot-long) painting portrays an event that occurred only in
the painter’s imagination. In fact, it was a future event that Ensor imagined. Christ’s Entry into Brussels
in 1889, painted in 1888, is a socialist commentary on the decadence and alienation of urban life at the
end of the 19th century. The mural-sized canvas is the artist’s pessimistic vision of how Christ would be
greeted if he entered the modern Belgian capital. Christ is a small and insignificant figure on a donkey in
the background of the painting, ignored by the dense crowd of soldiers and citizens wearing grotesque
masks inspired by the papier-mâché carnival masks that Ensor’s family sold in their curio shop in Ostend.
Some of the people carry banners and signs. One reads “Long Live Jesus, King of Brussels,” another
“Long Live the Socialist State.” Complementing the ugly, grimacing masked faces of the anonymous
crowd, which eloquently express Ensor’s condemnation of the corrupt values of modern society, are the
discordant combination of reds, blues, and greens and the coarse texture of the thickly applied oil
pigment. As an indictment of the immorality of modern life, Ensor’s Christ’s Entry has few equals.
Edvard Munch Also linked in spirit to the Symbolists were the English artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872–
1898; Fig. 28-28A) and the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944). Munch felt deeply the pain
of human life and believed that people were powerless before the great natural forces of death and
love. The emotions associated with those forces—jealousy, loneliness, fear, desire, despair—became the
theme of most of his art (see “Painting Psychic Life”).
Figure 28-28A
Beardsley, The Peacock Skirt, 1894.
Victoria & Albert Museum, London/Art Resource, NY
Problems and Solutions
Painting Psychic Life
Few painters in history have been as successful as Edvard Munch in portraying primal emotions in works
of art. In 1877, as a teenager, Munch endured the painful, slow death of his sister from tuberculosis, a
wrenching experience that inspired his Sick Child of 1886. Munch’s mother had died of the same disease
a decade earlier, and those tragic events profoundly shaped the painter’s outlook on life and his artistic
vision.
Munch’s goal as an artist was, in his own words, to describe the conditions of “modern psychic life.” To
achieve that goal, Realist and Impressionist techniques were inappropriate, focusing as they did on the
tangible world. Instead, in the spirit of Symbolism, Munch used color, line, and figural distortion for
expressive ends. Influenced by Gauguin, whose paintings he saw in an 1884 exhibition in Oslo, Munch
produced both paintings and prints whose high emotional charge was a major source of inspiration for
the German Expressionists in the early 20th century (see Fauvism).
Munch’s The Scream (Fig. 28-29), painted in 1893 when he was 30 years old, exemplifies his style and
remains to this day one of the most potent symbols of the unbearable pressures of modern life on
individual people. The image—a man standing on a bridge—belongs to the real world. In fact, the
inspiration for the painting came after Munch had experienced a fit of anxiety after walking, intoxicated,
across an Oslo bridge on a summer evening. However, his depiction of the scene departs significantly
from visual reality. The Screamevokes a powerful emotional response from the viewer because of the
painter’s dramatic presentation. The man in the foreground, simplified to almost skeletal form, emits a
primal scream. The landscape’s sweeping curvilinear lines reiterate the shapes of the man’s mouth and
head, almost like an echo, as the cry seems to reverberate through the setting. The fiery red and yellow
stripes that give the sky an eerie glow also contribute to this work’s resonance.
Figure 28-29Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893. Tempera and pastels on cardboard, . National Gallery,
Oslo.
Although grounded in the real world, The Scream departs significantly from visual reality. Munch used
color, line, and figural distortion to evoke a strong emotional response from the viewer.
© 2011 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: ©
Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY
Munch wrote a revealing epigraph to accompany the painting:
I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun was setting. I felt a breath of melancholy—
Suddenly the sky turned blood-red. I stopped, and leaned against the railing, deathly tired—looking out
across the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and town. My
friends walked on—I stood there, trembling with fear. And I sensed a great, infinite scream pass through
nature.
Appropriately, the original title of this work was Despair.
Fin-de-Siècle Historians have adopted the term fin-de-siècle, which literally means “end of the century,”
to describe European culture of the late 1800s. This designation is not merely chronological but also
refers to a certain sensibility. At that time, the increasingly large and prosperous middle classes were …
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