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19th century (1800-1899)
  Neoclassicism and Romanticism
Realism, Impressionism and
German - speaking Countries and Scandinavia
In the German-speaking world, the "crisis unprecedented in the history of the earth" - the great social and cultural debate which Symbolist art so closely echoes - produced three giant protagonists: Richard Wagner (1813-1883), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886). Wagner and Nietzsche cast an imposing shadow over subsequent generations. Not content with transforming harmony, vocal style and the staging of opera, Wagner strove, through the hypnotic music of his tetralogy, to express a fundamental aspect of the crisis then shaking the mytho-cultural system of the West. The great operatic cycle based on the Nibelungenlegend relates (in a form which was later to influence cinema) the mythical events leading to the twilight of the Nordic gods.
More than any other philosopher of his time, Nietzsche (who admired and defended Wagner before launching a violent polemic against him) was keenly aware of the consequences that followed from the collapse of traditional structures of thought and values. "I am, quite as much as Wagner," he declared, "a child of my time, I mean adecadent; the only difference is that I have been aware of this and have resisted it with all my power."
A man of delicate constitution, he was emotionally and psychologically vulnerable and subject to a variety of ills: eye-trouble, intestinal disorders and frequent migraines. He lived through this ordeal as might a tragic hero - until the ultimate collapse of his intellect. He saw it as his role in life to formulate the conditions of an existence worthy of man in a world which had survived its gods.
As we have seen, the strong sense of decadence in Europe at this time coincided with the zenith of European power. Nietzsche, with his impassioned and wilful sensibility, realized that the old ideas and philosophical categories had been irrevocably damaged by the theoretical and scientific criticism of the previous two centuries and their allies, the scientific discoveries and economic and social mutations of the day. They had therefore to be swept aside to make room for the new; this was his undertaking
Wagner is the preeminent Symbolist composer; others include Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), and Claude Debussy - who was in no sense the "Impressionist" he has often been thought. Nietzsche remains the only Symbolist philosopher, above all in the poetic and image-laden language of his Zarathustra; the mordant philosopher of a theory of decay and rebirth. This makes it particularly apposite to quote his evaluation of the spiritual climate prevailing in Germany, one which, in many parts of the country, made Symbolism's uneasy religiosity extremely alien. "In Germany," he writes, "among those who live outside religion today, I find (...) a majority of men in whom the habit of work has, from generation to generation, destroyed the religious instincts." And he goes on - he, the uncompromising atheist - to speak with bitter irony of the naivete of the scientist of his day who believes in his own superiority and "instinctively regards the religious man as an inferior individual". Here, in a nutshell, is the whole issue of Symbolism - and an explanation of why it and the problematic that it expresses have been an object of repression throughout the the 20th century.

As to King Ludwig of Bavaria, Wagner's patron, he embodied in tragic form the spirit of the Symbolist age. For, like des Esseintes, he lived withdrawn into a world of dreams. Unlike des Esseintes, he had at his disposal the budget of a state and could satisfy his whims on an incomparably grander scale. Royal palaces, which had in the past been in some degree functional, became no more than a stage set on which his delusions were enacted. No necessity of state, no symbolism of power commanded the construction of Neuschwanstein. It was as though the king, sensing the divorce between what he was supposed to embody and the actual drift of the world, resolved the contradiction by ignoring reality. And so his palaces survive, freighted with fantasy and unreality, as perfect examples of "decadent" architecture.
Men and ideas moved about Germany in relative freedom. Emperor William II had his own, absurdly narrow views on art, and sought to impose them; yet from Bern and Vienna to Oslo and Stockholm, new ideas in art were propagated and discussed. The Copenhagen Academy might close down a Gauguin exhibition in 1885, the Berlin Academy an exhibition of paintings by Munch in 1892, but change had begun. It took institutional form in the founding of the Sezession in Munich (1892), Vienna (1897) and Berlin (1899). Artists were "seceding" from the control of the academies and from the sclerotic conventions of style that the academies imposed.
Arnold Bocklin

born Oct. 16, 1827, Basel, Switz.
died Jan. 16, 1901, Fiesole, Italy 

painter whose moody landscapes and sinister allegories greatly influenced late 19th-century German artists and presaged the symbolism of the 20th-century Metaphysical and Surrealistic artists.
Although he studied and worked throughout much of northern Europe—Dьsseldorf, Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris—Bocklin found his real inspiration in the landscape of Italy, where he returned from time to time and where the last years of his life were spent.
Bocklin first won a reputation with the large mural “Pan in the Bulrushes” (c. 1857), which brought him the patronage of the king of Bavaria. From 1858 to 1861, he taught at the WeimarArt School, but his nostalgia for the Italian landscapepursued him. After an interval during which he completed his mythological frescoes for the decoration of the Public Art Collection (Цffentliche Kunstsammlung), Basel, he settled in Italy and only occasionally returned to Germany, and then to experiment with flying machines. During his last two decades, Bцcklin's work became increasingly subjective, often showing fabulous creatures or being based on dark allegorical themes, as in “Island of the Dead” (1880), which provided the inspiration for the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead by the Russian composer Sergey Rachmaninoff. Such spectral scenes as his “Odysseus and Calypso” (1883) and “The Pest” (1898) reveal the morbid symbolism that anticipated the so-called Freudian imagery of much 20th-century art.


Arnold Bocklin
Venus Genitrix
Ferdinand Hodler

born March 14, 1853, near Bern 
died May 20, 1918, Geneva 

one of the most important Swiss painters of the late 19th and early 20th century.
He was orphaned at the age of 12 and studied first at Thun under an artist who painted landscapes for tourists. After 1872, however, he worked in a more congenial atmosphere atGeneva, under Barthйlйmy Menn. By 1879, when Hodler settled in Geneva, he was producing massive, simplified portraits owing something to the French realist painter Gustave Courbet. By the mid-1880s, however, a tendency to self-conscious linear stylization was visible in his subjectpictures, which dealt increasingly with the symbolism of youth and age, solitude, and contemplation, in such works as “Die Nacht” (1890; “The Night,” Kunstmuseum, Bern), which brought him acclaim throughout Europe. From this time his serious work can be divided between landscapes, portraits, and monumental figural compositions. The latter works present firmly drawn nudes who express Hodler's mystical philosophy through grave, ritualized gestures. These pictures are notable for their strong linear and compositional rhythms and their clear, flat, decorative presentation.


Ferdinand Hodler
Communion with the Infinite
There was thus a constant ferment of ideas, to which new currents were added from throughout the German-speaking world: Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Artists influenced by Symbolism appeared in both Catholic Bavaria and Protestant Prussia. Neither the religious cleavage which bred distinct cultural attitudes in Belgium and the Netherlands, nor the struggle between Church and secular republic which made such a deep mark on France at the turn of the century, had any real equivalent in Germany.

German artists ventured beyond their frontiers. We note that Hans von Marees (1837-1887) who had trained in Berlin, and Max Klinger (1857-1920), a native of Leipzig, met the Basle-born artist Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) in Italy. They felt drawn at first to the mythological tradition of antiquity, and this in due course lent them affinities with the Symbolists.
Bocklin, the doyen of the artists cited in this chapter, was an energetic figure devoid of the languid melancholy of "decadence". Italy's light and aura of antiquity were decisive in his early development; his paintings quickly came to be populated with mythological figures, with centaurs and naiads. Not until his fiftieth year did he begin to paint the powerfully atmospheric works associated with his name today.
Among the most famous of these is the painting known as The Isle of the Dead (1880, which Bocklin himself entitled "a tranquil place". It was clearly important to him; he made five different versions of the composition. The new title was suggested by the white-draped coffin on the boat, the funerary presence of the cypresses, and the overwhelming impression of immobility and silence. The white figure vividly lit by a setting sun is contrasted with the dark, vertical forms of the trees, impervious to the slanting rays of the sun. Like a dream, the painting condenses a number of contradictory sensations and emotions.
Bocklin's choice of imagery is not coincidental. A young widow had asked him for an "image to dream by", and the funereal serenity perhaps echoes something of the artist's own emotions about death. At the age of twenty-five, during one of his stays in Rome, he had married the daughter of a pontifical guard who bore him eleven children between 1855 and 1876; five of them died in infancy, and the Bocklin family was twice (in 1855 and 1873) forced to flee cholera epidemics.
Bocklin's art reveals a robust temperament. He showed no reticence towards the new technologies then sweeping the continent. He devoted time to the invention of a flying machine, negotiating with businessmen for its manufacture. His Germanic feeling for nature was expressed, in canonic Romantic fashion, in such paintings as The Sacred Wood (1882), but its most striking expression is The Silence of the Forest (1885) in which a bizarre unicorn, part cow, part camel, emerges from a forest, bearing an equally enigmatic woman on its back.


Arnold Bocklin
The Isle of the Dead
Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), the son of a modest family of the canton of Bern, lost his parents and all his siblings to tuberculosis before his fifteenth year. He painted works by turn Symbolist, patriotic and intimiste, which elicited the enthusiasm of Guillaume Apollinaire. Though not in the Symbolist vein, his poignant series of quasi-expres-sionistic canvases devoted to the death of his companion Valentine Godй-Darel deserves to be mentioned. When she gave birth to Hodler's daughter in 1913, she was already suffering from the cancer which caused her death.

Hodler was commissioned to decorate numerous public buildings both in Germany and in Switzerland. The patriotic message of these large paintings is expressed in the unambiguous and heroic terms typical of such work.
Paintings such as Day I (1899-1900) and Night (1890) are characteristic of Hodler'sSymbolist vein. The first of these is allegorical, and only certain formal traits, the repetitive sinuosity of line and the mannered symmetry of the gestures, remove it from the academic style. Night, however, with its central figure waking in terror under the weight of a black-draped form, is the more fascinating for the imprecision of the fear it records. Something similar may be said of Autumn Evening (1892-1893), in which the perspectival view and fron-tality of the path seems to draw the spectator into the painting, symbolically evoking the efforts and expectations of an entire life.


Ferdinand Hodler

Ferdinand Hodler

Ferdinand Hodler
Truth II
Klinger practised a broad range of artistic forms: sculpture, painting and etching. His graphic work was complex, sombre and richly imaginative; it took the form of series of etchings, of which the first began to appear in 1878. They include Eve and the Future (1881), Dramas (1 881— 1883), A Life (1881-1884),A Love (1879-1887) and the most famous of them all, hisParaphrase on the Discovery of a Glove (1881).

This sequence begins in realist manner with a man picking up a woman's glove on a roller-skating arena. It continues in imaginary vein with the tributes paid to the fetishized object. In the extraordinary penultimate print the glove is carried off by a sardonic pterodactyl flying out of the window in a crash of broken glass. The man's arms reach through the broken panes in a futile attempt to restrain the animal.
But unreality appears from the outset, even in the ostensibly realistic prints. One easily overlooks the tiny wheels of the roller-skates on the feet of these dignified men and women; the slant of the bodies in the second print then seems enigmatic and even surrealist. The dream-like nature of the sequence is subtly hinted at: in the penultimate print the pterodactyl cannot, it seems, have emerged from the unbroken frame of the window. Were the panes then broken by the outflung arms?

"Modern" as Klinger seems in his prints, his painting and sculptures (not least his famous monument to Beethoven), display a grandiloquence at poles from the manner of his graphic work - though entirely typical of the period.

Otto Greiner (1869-1916), an admirer of Klinger's (to whom he dedicated a sequence of prints), was also an able craftsman. HisDevil Showing Woman to the People, though highly competent in execution, is utterly devoid of the ambiguity encountered in Klinger's work; it leaves no room to the imagination and merely echoes the cruder stereotypes of the day. As much may be said of Julius Klinger's coloured zincograph of Salome (1907). Salome is shown triumphantly carrying off not the severed head of St John but severed genitals. Julius Klinger's work nonetheless has the merit of self-mockery which, one suspects, is lacking in Greiner's print.

Otto Greiner

(b Leipzig, 16 Dec 1869; d Munich, 24 Sept 1916). 

German painter and printmaker. He started a lithography apprenticeship in Leipzig in 1884 and also took drawing lessons. Between 1888 and 1891 he studied at the Akademie der Bildenden Kьnste in Munich under Sбndor Liezen-Mayer. In the autumn of 1891 he made his first journey to Italy, visiting Florence and Rome, where he met and befriended Max Klinger. From 1892 to 1898 he lived in Munich and Leipzig. In 1898 he moved to Rome, where he used Klinger’s former studio, and where he remained until 1915, when he was forced to leave because of Italy’s affiliation with the Allies. Greiner’s work is based on careful graphic preparation and in particular on accurate life drawing. The nude was central to his interests: like Klinger he saw it as the epitome of beauty in nature and believed it should serve as a basis for all stylistic formation. This is apparent from such paintings as Odysseus and the Sirens (1902; Leipzig, Mus. Bild. Kst.) as well as from his prints. Among his recurrent interests, along with portraiture, were antique and fantastic subjects, which are represented in the majority of his 112 paintings. His only cycle, On Woman(1895), the eroticism of which is typical of the last decade of the 19th century, is his best-known work.


Otto Greiner
Devil Showing Woman to the People

Otto Greiner

Ulysses and the Sirens

Otto Greiner
Fin de Siиcle
Max Klinger, though twenty years younger than Bocklin, expressed his admiration by dedicating a sequence of prints to him. Klinger completed his studies in Karlsruhe, then travelled to Berlin, Munich and Brussels. He spent three years (1883-1886) in Paris and two more in Italy before returning to settle in his native Leipzig. There he enjoyed tremendous prestige; his home became the centre of the city's social and artistic life. Himself inspired by Goya, he, in his turn, exercised a beneficial influence on Otto Greiner and Alfred Kubin. Klinger's work revealed the power of art to Kubinat the time of the latter's great existential crisis; it led him to conclude that "it was worth devoting one's entire life to such creations".
Max Klinger

born February 18, 1857, Leipzig 
died July 5, 1920, near Naumburg, Germany 

German painter, sculptor, and engraver, whose art of symbol, fantasy, and dreamlike situations belonged to the growing late 19th-century awareness of the subtleties of the mind. Klinger's visionary art has been linked with that of Arnold Bцcklin; the expression of his vivid, frequently morbid imaginings, however, was not noted for technical excellence. His work had a deep influence on Giorgio de Chirico.
Klinger, who had received some training at the Karlsruhe art school, created a sensation at the Berlin Academy exhibition in 1878 with two series of pen-and-ink drawings—Series upon the Theme of Christ and Fantasies upon the Finding of a Glove. Their daring originality caused an outburst of indignation; nonetheless, the Glove series, on which Klinger's contemporary reputation is based, was bought by the Berlin National Gallery. These 10 drawings (engraved in three editions from 1881) tell a strange parable of a hapless young man and his obsessive involvement with a woman's elbow-length glove.
In 1887 The Judgment of Paris caused another storm of protest because of its rejection of all conventional attributes and its naively direct conception. In his painting Klinger aimed at neither classic beauty nor modern truth but at an impressive grimness with overtones of mysticism. His Pietа (1890) and Christ in Olympus (1896) are also characteristic examples of his work.
Klinger's leanings toward the gruesome and grotesque found further expression in his series of etchings inspired by the work of Francisco de Goya, including Deliverances of Sacrificial Victims Told in Ovid (1879), Fantasy on Brahms (1894), Eve and the Future (1880), A Life (1884), and Of Death (part 1, 1889; part 2, 1898–1909). In his use of the etching needle he achieved a unique form of expressiveness.
Klinger's late work was primarily sculpture. Interested in materials and colour, he executed polychromed nudes possessing a distinctly eerie quality, as well as statues made of varicolouredmaterials in the manner of Greek chryselephantine sculpture (e.g., Beethoven [1902], Salome [1893], and Cassandra [1895]). His last project, a colossal monument to the German composerRichard Wagner, remained unfinished at his death.


Max Klinger
The Statue of Beethoven
Various kinds of marble, 310 cm high 
Museum der Bildenden Kiinste, Leipzig

Max Klinger and Otto Greiner
Two Engraved Frontispieces, one dedicated by Klinger to Arnold Bockhn, the other by Greiner to Max Klinger, c. 1880

Klinger was a fine engraver who revered Goya and was attracted by the fantastic. 
His engravings are characterised by the development of an imaginary world which is both realistic 
and yet slightly out of kilter with reality, thus giving an impression of the uncanny.
 Klinger influenced Otto Greiner, 
a less gifted student, and, above all, the astonishing Alfred Kubin.

Max Klinger

Paraphrase on the Discovery of a Glove


Series of etchings and aquatints, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich 

1. Place; 2. Action; 3. Desires; 4. Salvage; 5. Triumph;  6. Homage; 7. Anguish; 8. Tranquillity; 9. The Seizure; 10. Love

This remarkable series of engravings constitutes a veritable comic-strip. Well-dressed people roller-skate in the opening frame. 
There follow visions of barely-veiled eroticism in which the glove, saved from the ocean and borne aloft in triumph, 
is finally carried off by a sardonic pterodactyl. Klinger has cunningly drawn the frames of the broken window intact; 
the reptile in flight is therefore purely imaginary.


1. Place

2. Action
3. Desires

4. Salvage

5. Triumph

6. Homage

7. Anguish

8. Tranquillity

9. The Seizure

10. Love
Franz von Stuck (1863-1928), the son of farmers from Lower Bavaria, settled in Munich and soon became the city's dominant artistic figure, the 'prince of painters'. A teacher at the Academy, he counted Kandinsky, Klee and Albers among his pupils. He himself was influenced by Bocklin, peopling his paintings with male and female fauns and centaurs. For a number of years, starting in 1892, when he contributed to the creation of the Munich Secession, he painted works of Symbolist content such as Sin(1893,), The Kiss of the Sphinx (1895) or The Wild Hunt (1899).

Sin is probably his best-known work; its notoriety today may be gauged from the fact that a reproduction of it hangs in the bar of the "Mexiko" station of the Berlin metro. In a procedure not unusual for von Stuck, the moralising subject - yet another femme fatale - is the pretext for a handsome nude. The splendid body is caught in a loop of light, while the woman's dark eyes scrutinise the viewer from a pool of shadow; she is wrapped in the coil of an enormous snake whose snarling gaze has a disagreeable intensity. The painting's "moral" is simplistic at best, but the design and unaffectedly academic execution are impressive.


Franz von Stuck
Water and Fire


Carlos Schwabe
The Grave-

Carlos Schwabe
The Wave
Carlos Schwabe (1866-1929) was the most "international" of the artists quoted in this chapter: a Swiss citizen, born in Germany, he spent most of his life in France and regularly took part in the Rose+Croix Salon, for which he designed the first poster in 1892. He displays admirable craft in his water-colours, but when he touches upon religious and edifying subjects his excessive sweetness of tone is typical of the sentimental and commercial "religious art" of the period.
Throughout the period which concerns us, the power of Germany was on the rise and that of Austria was waning. Beset with irreconcilable conflicts born of the aspirations of its peoples, the Austrian Empire descended into instability. The resulting cultural climate received its definitive portrayal in Robert Musil's Man without Qualities. The lack of all coherent policy accompanied the collapse of political will in an atmosphere that favoured world's end expectations; Hermann Broch described it as a "Joyful Apocalypse". Once the war had finally come, this same Apocalypse, no longer joyful, was described by the formidable critic, Karl Kraus, in a collage play entitled The Last Days of Mankind. And they were indeed the last days of a way of life. But the period with which we are concerned is the entertainment before the storm. It is, to adopt another metaphor, the sanatorium of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain; the visiting Hans Castorp is caught up in the sanatorium for seven years and freed from the enchantment only by the outbreak of war.
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) first made himself known by the decorations he executed (with his brother and their art school companion F. Matsch), for numerous theatres and above all (on his own this time) for the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where he completed, in a coolly photographic style, the work begun by Makart. At the age of thirty he moved into his own studio and turned to easel painting. At thirty-five he was one of the founders of the Vienna Secession; he withdrew eight years later, dismayed by the increasingly strong trend towards naturalism.
The coruscating sensuality of Klimt's work might seem in perfect accord with a society which recognized itself in those frivolous apotheoses of happiness and well-being, the operettas of Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being acknowledged as the representative artist of his age, Klimtwas the target of violent criticism; his work was sometimes displayed behind a screen to avoid corrupting the sensibilities of the young. His work is deceptive. Today we see in it the Byzantine luxuriance of form, the vivid juxtaposition of colours derived from the Austrian rococo - aspects so markedly different from the clinical abruptness ofEgon Schiele. But we see it with expectations generated by epochs of which his own age was ignorant.
For the sumptuous surface of Klimt's work is by no means carefree. Its decorative tracery expresses a constant tension between ecstasy and terror, life and death. Even the portraits, with their timeless aspect, may be perceived as defying fate. Sleep, Hope (a pregnant woman surrounded by baleful faces) and Death are subjects no less characteristic than the Kiss. Yet life's seductions are still more potent in the vicinity of death, and Klimt's works, though they do not explicitly speak of impending doom, constitute a sort of testament in which the desires and anxieties of an age, its aspiration to happiness and to eternity, receive definitive expression. For the striking two-dimensionality with which Klimt surrounds his figures evokes the gold ground of Byzantine art, a ground that, in negating space, may be regarded as negating time - and thus creating a figure of eternity. Yet in Klimt's painting, it is not the austere foursquare figures of Byzantine art that confront us, but ecstatically intertwined bodies whose flesh seems the more real for their iconi-cal setting of gold.

Gustav Klimt
The Virgin
Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) makes everything more explicit. Ernst Junger, writing in the twenties, described his own pre-war work as a prophecy of decline: "The atmosphere which precedes major catastrophes is like a disease which is latent in the limbs before even producing visible symptoms, and which often makes itself known by a warning given in a dream." The metaphor is exact: the artist is, on occasion, a prophet, not through access to supernatural inspiration, but because he or she is exceptionally attentive to the unspoken moods of his age, and is thus led to anticipate the inevitable.
After a painful adolescence marked by terror and depression, Kubin attempted suicide on his mother's grave. The gun was rusty and did not go off. The despair andanxiety to which that act testifies became the energies that Kubin channeled into art, and the work of Max Klinger was (we have seen) the catalytic agent in this process.Kubin also admired Goya, Munch and Redon. Under Klinger's influence, Kubindevoted himself to drawing, producing an extraordinarily fertile and inventive body of work, especially during the first decade of this century.
A nightmarish terror pervades these works. Monsters of every kind rear up from the bowels of night or the ocean bed; demons, spiders, snakes, and worms batten upon their defenseless victims. Skeletons sneer, human monsters delight in displaying their deformities and above all, with terrifying insistence, the female principle exhibits a dispassionate and malevolent power. This is the message of The Egg or Death Leapand many others. In the first of these, Woman is represented in the shape of an enormous, radiant belly capped with a skeletal torso and a death-white face. The figure stands beside an open grave. In Death Leap a Tom Thumb dives headlong into a colossal vulva.
These are the particularly repellent variants of the femme fatale already encountered in the works of Gustaves Moreau, and who returns as a less menacing vision in Franz von Stuck's Sin. Sexuality, in Kubin's view, is an arbitrary and perilous power. Whoever succumbs to it is lost.

Alfred Kubin
Clinically insane during his youth, then cured, at least in theory, Kubin remained a solitary individual obsessed with his impersonal, unintelligible sexual destiny. He used his dazzling command of line-drawing to illustrate his literary forebears (Dostoevsky, Poe...) and his own themes. In his metaphor, "Earth-Fertile-Mother" leaves behind her a trail of skulls. The virgin of Lubricity places her hand before her eyes to block out the monstruous priapic ape who sits before her.
Yet there is no choice. Beneath the trappings of the cultural superstructure we find the fearful figure of sex as destiny. Kubin is undoubtedly giving expression to his own neurosis, but it would be of merely clinical interest did it not coincide with the "endogenous neurosis of culture" discussed in the introduction. Kubin is not the last (Bruno Schulz's work appeared in the nineteen-twenties), but surely the most fearful and agonised witness of that decomposition of the symbolic substance of his culture which is the central fact of the Symbolist age.
A similar anxiety haunts the work of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), but it is expressed with a formal inventiveness that impinges upon the emotions before we are even aware of the subject; the deeper regions of the psyche are accessible only through the potent agency of rhythm and colour.
Munch's name leads us to the Scandinavian countries, which remained on the fringe of the Symbolist world, not just geographically but because the austere religion of these cultures had no use for decadent fantasy. When Munch began studying art in Christiania (now Oslo), Norwegian artists practised a form of Protestant, populist realism. Munch was, however, from the very start, an innovator. True, be painted genre scenes, but in a spirit all his own. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five. At fourteeen, he watched his fifteen-year-old sister Sophie succumb to the same disease. When, at twenty-two, he had acquired the technical means to portray it, her death became an obsession to which he returned again and again: the wan face in profile against the pillow, the despairing mother at the bedside, the muted light, the tousled hair, the useless glass of water.
Norway had long been under the influence of German aesthetics.
Until 1870, Norwegian artists usually went to Dusseldorf to study and pursue a career. Later they went to Paris, Berlin, Munich and Karlsruhe. But by 1880, Paris had become the centre. And so it was that Munch, in 1885, undertaking his first journey at twenty-two, was led to discover French art and the Symbolist spirit. It was in these circumstances that Munch's personal neurosis, the anxiety which women caused him (although he pursued them incessantly until the great psychological crisis of his forties), entered the ambit of cultural anxiety expressed in Symbolist art.
Munch was chiefly concerned with his own existential drama: "My art," he declared, "is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are? Why was there a curse on my cradle? Why did I come into the world without any choice?", adding: "My art gives meaning to my life." Thus he considered his entire work as a single entity: The Frieze of Life. The frieze was manifestly an expression of anxiety ( for example, in The Scream) but also of tender pathos: of the "dance of life". (This seems to have been a common subject at the time; we find Gustav Mahler alluding to it in reference to the dance-like movements of his symphonies.) Munch, like Kubin, perceived sex as an ineluctable destiny, and few of his works represent Woman (capitalised as usual) in a favourable light. In Puberty a skinny young girl meditates, sitting naked on her bed beneath the threatening form of her own shadow, while in The Voice a young woman, alone in the woods, attends to some inner whisper; these are the most sensitive representations of woman in Munch's work.

Edvard Munch
The Voice

Edvard Munch
In another iconic image, the Madonna, of which he painted various versions between 1893 and 1902, overtly offers her ecstatic sexuality and yet remains inaccessible. Why inaccessible? A lithographic version suggests the answer: around the frame which encloses the seductress the straggling spermatozoa wriggle in vain while, in the lower left-hand corner, a pathetic homunculus, a wizened and ageless wide-eyed foetus, lifts its supplicant gaze toward the goddess.
Munch's lithograph verges on irony, to which he was not averse. Even so, modifying the well-known phrase, we may wish to suggest that "irony is the courtesy of despair". Munch's art represents women in the light of trauma. Seduction itself is a source of anxiety; satisfaction brings remorse (Ashes), and jealousy and separation are experienced as terrifying and depressing events.
The personal aspect of Munch's work need not concern us in relation to a coherent and authoritative ceuvre whose themes are, as we have seen, common to many other artists of the time. But it should be noted that, at around forty-five, Munch suffered a profound depression and spent eight months in a sanatorium in Denmark. Thereafter he gave up the anxiety-laden subject matter so central to his work and began painting everyday subjects with the same vigorous brushwork and expressionistic colours as before. His motives may have been prophylactic. He later claimed to a friend that he had simultaneously given up women and alcohol, though here again irony is not ruled out.

Edvard Munch
The Finnish painter Axel Gallen Kallela (1865-1931) gave up the Nordic realist manner in 1893, after a visit from Doctor Adolph Paul, who frequented the same Berlin cabaret as Munch (the "Zum schwar-zen Ferkel" or "Black Piglet"), and began to illustrate scenes from the Kalevala, the great Nordic epic. This resulted in a number of rather stilted paintings such as The Defence of Sampо (1896) or The Death of Lemminkainen (1897)

Axel Gallen Kallela
The Death of Lemminkainen

Two years after Dr. Paul's visit, Gallйn accepted young Hugo Simberg (1873-1917) as a pupil; Simberg lived in his studio from 1895 to 1897. Simberg's admirations included Bocklin and subsequently, after a trip to Britain, Burne-Jones. He produced an engaging body of paintings peopled with trolls and strange beasts; in his most characteristic works, Death, in the form of a skeleton, is discovered gardening, gnawing a tree trunk in an allegory of autumn, or coming to carry off a peasant's child. His The Wounded Angel (1903) gives ironic and pathetic expression to the incompatibility between ideal and reality.

Hugo Simberg

(b Hamina, 24 June 1873; d Дhtдri, 12 July 1917). 

Finnish painter and printmaker. He first studied at the Finnish Fine Arts Association in Helsinki. His natural inclination towards mysticism led him to seek the instruction of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, with whom he studied in Ruovesi intermittently between 1895 and 1897. Gallen-Kallela’s influence, in particular his Symbolist synthesis of the National Romantic style, is evident in Simberg’s early works, such as Frost and Autumn (both 1895; Helsinki, Athenaeum A. Mus.), which are highly personal expressions of the mysticism of nature. These small allegorical watercolours convey in a deliberately primitive style the despondency of autumn, fusing many of Simberg’s unique, fairy-like motifs.

Simberg made numerous poetic and sardonic images of Death, which he shows going about various activities, gardening, gnawing the trunk of a tree in an allegory of autumn, or coming to carry off a peasant's child. His Wounded Angel, carried on a stretcher by two helpful but simple little peasant boys, gives ironic and pathetic expression to the incompatibility between too angelic an ideal and the dull, blinkered reality with which that ideal will, inevitably, collide.


Hugo Simberg
The Wounded Angel

Hugo Simberg
The Garden of Death

Hugo Simberg

Haukotteleva kaarme
Tableaux de Hugo Simberg

La vieille femme et le chat est une oeuvre d’Akseli Gallen-Kallela de 1885


On the Stream of Life
Death Listens


Ring Dance