Less an artistic movement than a state of mind, Symbolism appeared
toward the middle of the 19th century. Its influence was greatest in
those areas of Europe which combined two factors: Ivanced
industrialisation and a predominantly Catholic population. e can
circumscribe the Symbolist phenomenon by drawing a line linking
Glasgow, Stockholm, Gdansk, Lodz, Trieste, Florence and Barcelona:
the so-called "Europe of steam". Jean Moreas gave Symbolism name and
an identity on 18 September 1886. Some thirty years later, expired
amid the throes of the First World War.
By then, Modernism had triumphed and Symbolism was in disgrace;
some Symbolist artists were reclassified as proto-expressionists or
proto-surrealists, others, such as Khnopff, Hodler, Segantini, and
von Stuck, were summarily dispatched to the attic of history.
Symbolism was swept away by the new watchwords of modernity. Some
of these were movements which predated the First World War: Cubism,
Fauvism, Expressionism and Futurism. Others emerged in its wake,
like Dada and Surrealism. The war had cut a swathe in the ranks f
science, the arts and letters, and the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic
came to complete this grim harvest. Survivors of the trenches, such
as the Germans Otto Dix and George Grosz, were scarred for life.
The war had divided Europe not just politically but culturally.
On the one side stood the triumphant allies, on the other, the
losers - Germany and the remains of the Austrian Empire. The vast
expanse of Russia drifted away under the influence of other
historical currents again. True, the French Dadaists and Surrealists
maintained some international connections, but the great network of
scholars and artists that id covered pre-war Europe lay in ruins, to
be partially restored only in the fifties.
The hitherto serene ideal of beauty had itself undergone a
radical transformation. As Andrй Breton declared in his 1924
Surrealist Manifesto: "Beauty will be convulsive - or will cease to
be." The momentous convulsions of the age were to be reflected in
its art. All the more reason why the modernist spirit should find
the vestiges of the earlier period not merely inacceptable but
incomprehensible. The Soviet Revolution brought to the fore many new
or revived ideas; its insistence that people's needs be taken into
account and a world be created to provide for them was so radical
that people might truly think that the planet they red on was not
the one their parents had known.
I Lock my Door upon Myself.1891
Neue Pinakothek, Munich
Under these circumstances, it was predictable that the theorists of
art should be perplexed by the products of the previous decades. The
prevailing mood of alienation and cynicism was hardly conducive to
an appreciation of Symbolism's narrative and often sentimental art.
There were, of course, artists and poets who could not easily forget
the idiom in which they had been brought up. Guillaume Apollinaire
loved the Symbolist poets and painters; Andre Breton, the founder of
Surrealism, remained a devotee of Gustave Moreau; and the deeply
ironical Marcel Duchamp spoke affectionately of the works of Arnold
Bocklin. But modernism was implacable; it found little to say in
favour of Symbolism, which it tended to dismiss as an aberration.
There was a precedent for this view, which had already been held
by the 19th century realist painters; the view extended even to an
artist of anarchist leanings such as Camille Pissarro. This was not
simply an artistic perspective. It was largely determined by the
struggle between the militantly secular ideals of the Third Republic
and an increasingly defensive French Catholic Church.
For realism was, in 19th century France, the idiom of republican
and anticlerical artists, the banner of a social consciousness
attuned to the "real issues of the day". Those who painted imaginary
subjects were condemned as reactionaries or tolerated as innocent
dreamers blind to the issues of the day. This state of things was in
marked contrast to English attitudes. There, realism was the idiom
of the pious and right-minded who sought, like John Ruskin, to
render homage to the Creator by imitating Creation as closely as
The reason for this difference is clear. England is a Protestant
country, and the two most significant epithets in relation to
Symbolism are those which appear in the second sentence of this
book. Symbolism was a product of Catholic and of industrial Europe.
Since these are unusual categories for a work of art history, let us
consider them in depth.
Fernand Hodler. The Chosen One
Let us begin by observing that elements of a feudal mentality
survived in Europe until the end of the 19th century. Shaken but not
overthrown by Enlightenment scepticism, the feudal world view had
survived in rural areas. Georges Duby even suggests that the
behaviour of the French peasantry had become increasingly formalised
over the course of the 19th century as they made the medieval
courtly style their model. Thus idealised, the dying tradition
gained a new intensity, going out in a blaze of glory. But here we
must adjust our metaphor. The fire went out because its fuel was
The newly industrialised society had a tremendous appetite for
manpower. It attracted vast numbers of men and women to the cities,
into whose newly established railheads goods and raw materials
incessantly flowed. The statistics are eloquent: during the period
which concerns us, only one in seven persons born in the countryside
remained there. One in seven emigrated to the New World or the
colonies; five moved to the cities. In the half-century between 1850
and 1900, sixty million people left Europe. Still more were drawn to
the cities and suburbs. The village reality had structured their
private and social identity; in the city, there was no equivalent
experience to give meaning and value to lives.
Catholic societies seem to have felt these changes more
profoundly, perhaps because Symbolism formed a greater and more
integral part of their outlook. Perhaps, too, the Reformation, whose
demands were those of the pragmatic, new financial and merchant
classes, had better prepared Protestant minds for this event. At all
events, the momentous social transformations of the industrial
revolution brought a conflict between traditional, symbolic
representations of the world and a new reality based on utterly
The changes brought about by industrialisation were generally not
well received in Catholic countries. The issue was not merely the
desperate poverty that resulted; this was the same everywhere. More
than 50,000 children passed through the homes Doctor Barnardo
established for the waifs of London. No, in Catholic countries, the
emblematic representation of the world was shaken to the core, and
with it everything which had, till then, served to distinguish good
and evil. "The concept of the demonic," observed Walter Benjamin,
"appears when modernity enters into conjunction with Catholicism."
One metaphor for this collision of new and old is the slow,
irresistible movement of continental drift. Consider how the Indian
peninsula has, over the millenia, imperceptibly shouldered into the
huge Asian landmass. The consequent pressure resulted in the vast,
chaotic folds of the Himalayas, taken here to represent a century of
perplexity and transition. On the one hand, we have the immovable
mass of Asia, that is, the order of representations that tends to
change slowly if at all (in this case, the Catholic heritage of
Europe). On the other hand, we have a continent adrift, that is, the
changes in lifestyle set in train by the unprecedented development
of industry in the 19th century. Theories alone, after all, have
never overthrown a society. Philosophers have always criticised
traditional views, yet this has never prevented the survival of a
deeply traditional society in rural areas. Indeed, nothing might
have changed if men and women in great numbers had not been torn
away from their native environment and precipitated into radically
different circumstances. It was this dizzying collision between
symbolic representations and everyday lifestyle which ultimately
threw up Himalayan ridges where once there had been rolling plains.
This collision is the subject of a painting, The Great Upheaval
(Le Grand Chambardement) by the Belgian Symbolist artist Henry de
Henry de Groux
The Great Upheaval.1893
It depicts men and women, some on horseback, others on foot,
leaving a place of devastation. In the foreground lies a large
broken cross. The enclosure in which it stood has been laid waste
like the area around it, and the inhabitants are impelled to move
on. A closer look belies one's first impression; this picture does
not represent the kind of exodus made familiar by the last two
European cataclysms, but a purely spiritual "upheaval". An entire
society takes leave of a familiar and beloved land and sets off into
exile, into the unknown.
This melancholy constatation is central to the Symbolist outlook.
At the end of the 19th century, while science and positivism
triumphantly announced a brave new world founded on reason and
technology, some people were primarily aware of the loss of an
indefinable quality which they had found in the former cultural
system, in the values and meanings signified by what we might call
its "emblematic order".
It is thus no accident that a broken crucifix lies at the heart
of Henry de Groux's painting. In all its ambiguity, the cross is the
central symbol of a representation of the world that acknowledges
more than one plane of reality. In the Christian world view, there
is the created world of nature, and an increate, divine order which
stands above it. (Or, to take a more secular perspective, the real
might be contrasted with what Guillaume Apollinaire, in a coinage
that met with unexpected success, termed the "surreal".) The
positivist, on the other hand, acknowledges only one level of
reality: nature. In his perspective, the "other" world is merely an
illusion. To which some were inclined to retort: "You tell us that
the other world is illusory. Perhaps it is. But it is there that we
choose to live." It is with these people that our book is primarily
This sort of response might be prompted by a religious frame of
mind. Or it might be motivated by a taste, perverse or otherwise,
for solipsistic self-indulgence. The "other world" might be the
world of the Divine; it might equally be a world of artistic
delectation, that parallel world in which the fictitious des
Esseintes, hero of J.-K. Huysmans' Against Nature, and his
contemporary, the very real King Ludwig II of Bavaria, sought to
In either case, we recognise a degree of neurosis or madness. But
that is not the whole point. The question that we must ask is this:
were the depressions of des Esseintes and the eccentricities of
Ludwig of Bavaria the result of some specifically cultural malaise?
To understand this question, we must sketch in some background.
Twentieth century anthropology presents a culture as a web of values
and meanings which allows men and women to decide where they stand
and how to find their way in the world. It is therefore no
coincidence that those who most deplored the loss of meaning and
value were most receptive to Symbolism.
"It is all too clear," wrote the Symbolist poet Gustave Kahn,
"that these people move only in search of resources, and the source
of dreams is running dry." While the logic of science, industry and
commerce might be capable of satisfying the practical needs of
society and the individual will to power, Gustave Kahn's metaphor
suggests a thirst that can be quenched only at the source of dreams.
The metaphor of dream perhaps offers too many hostages to the
critical spirit of the time, which was all too inclined to identify
dreams with the unreal. Nevertheless, even those for whom the
positivist world view was a source of dissatisfaction and anguish
tended to be overwhelmed by the compelling force of its oppressive,
Henri Le Sidaner
It looks, then, as if we do indeed possess some sort of cultural
key to the melancholy not merely of an imaginary personality like
des Esseintes, but of the works of so many minor but significant
Symbolist poets: Georges Rodenbach, Henri de Rйgnier, Camille
Mauclair, Charles Guйrin, Marie Krysinska, Jean Lorrain, Grйgoire Le
Roy and Pierre Louys. The industrial world might be described as a
compound of fire and steel, and the Symbolist poets, impotent sons
of a domineering age, sought refuge in air and water:
"The water of the old canals is cretinous and mental
So dismal between the dead towns...
Water so lifeless, that it seems fatal.
Why so naked and so barren already? And what is
the matter with it, that, entirely given over to its
somnolence, to its embittered dreams, it has thus
become no more than a treacherous mirror of frost
in which the moon itself finds it painful to live?"
Georges Rodenbach's verse is eloquent of the mood of depression
and decline that characterises the Symbolist state of mind.
Symbolist poets were inclined to evoke the moon rather than the sun,
autumn rather than spring, a canal rather than a mountain stream,
rain rather than blue skies. They complained of sorrow and ennui, of
disillusionment with love, of impotence, weariness and solitude, and
they lamented their birth into a dying world.
These leitmotifs are given caustic expression in the poetry of
Jules Laforgue. In his work too, the moon, evening and autumn are
predominant, but they are found there in the company of a ferocious
"Everything comes from a single categorical imperative,
but what a long arm it has, and how remote its womb!
Love, love which dreams, asceticizes, and fornicates;
Why don't we love one another for our own sakes in our own little
Infinity, where did you spring from? Why are our proud senses
mad for something beyond the keyboards bestowed,
do they believe in mirrors more fortunate than the Word,
and kill themselves? Infinity, show us your papers!"
"Infinity, show us your papers!" The tone is one of truculent
defiance, and it is characteristic of those who discover the
relativity of a culture which they had innocently believed to be the
vehicle of absolute truth. Symbolism was imbued with a powerful
nostalgia for a world of meaning which had disintegrated in the
space of a few brief decades. This is the reason for the melancholy
and anxiety expressed whenever an artist looks beyond the surface of
things. For if a whole series of Symbolist artists strike one as
sickly and emollient - one might cite Edmond Aman-Jean, Lucien
Lйvy-Dhurmer, Charles Maurin, Edgar Maxence and Alphonse Osbert - it
is because they chose to ignore reality; they preferred to offer a
comforting illusion in perpetuating what had already ceased to
To what, then, does the "symbol" at the heart of Symbolism stand
opposed? By now, our answer is clear: to the limited "reality" of
the age, to the given, to the profane. A symbol, by its very nature,
refers to an absent reality In mathematics it signifies an unknown
quantity; in religion, poetry or art, it lends substance to an
unknown quality - a value that remains out of reach. In a religious
context, this quality is unknown (or unknowable) because it belongs
to a different order of reality - a supernatural order - and can
therefore be signified only by a sacred object. The sacred, in this
view, is merely a semantic category, and should not be confused with
the divine; as the Chinese sage puts it, one must not confuse the
moon with the finger that points to it. But even the irreligious
must acknowledge that there are things to which we cannot directly
refer. We need symbols to communicate these things.
This is true of the emblematic categories of culture which have
not yet attained the threshold of language, but which draw their
substance from a vast network of implicit values which structure the
hierarchy of the world for each individual consciousness, signifying
the position it occupies within this hierarchy. It is also true of
the future, which is constituted as much by man's hopes, fears, and
waking dreams, as by the unavoidable material conditions imposed by
history. So much human energy is expended in reaching beyond the
narrow field of the given, as Laforgue ironically remarks:
"Why are our proud senses
mad for something beyond the keyboards bestowed,
do they believe in mirrors more fortunate than the Word,
and kill themselves? Infinity, show us your papers!"
This is the core of the conflict between the two world views: on
the one hand, a given and immutable world, favourable to trade and
industry but indifferent to the values which lend substance and
savour to life; on the other a world dialectically related to a
transcendent model (religious, visionary or poetical) that spurs the
individual to action by proposing a creative transformation of the
given. Western civilisation in the 19th century underwent a surgical
operation which severed these two components of our relation to the
world. From that point on, it seemed, reality could no longer lend
its weight to the dreamer, nor dreams bestow wings upon reality. The
two were at war.
It is thus apparent that Symbolist art does not merely touch upon
long-standing illusions which society was finally learning to
overcome. Nor is it simply the naive expression of some first,
tentative forays into the realms of the unconscious, a world soon to
be charted so thoroughly. It goes much further than that, pointing
to the constantly shifting state of culture and to what the eminent
Hellenist E. R. Dodds termed an "endogenous neurosis". This explains
why a significant part of Symbolist art reflects a new uneasiness in
the relations between men and women. For culture does not only
confirm the individual's personal identity, it also provides the
foundation of his or her sexual identity. Though this identity has a
physiological foundation, it is also, inevitably, a cultural
construction. A breach or dislocation in the body of culture will
inevitably affect the mode of interaction between men and women.
Here the relevance of Georges Duby's analysis of the Middle Ages is
clear: "Fissures appear at the points of articulation; they grow
gradually wider and eventually split the body apart, but they almost
always turn out to exercise their corrosive effect only insidiously.
In spite of the illusion fostered by the apparent tumult of merely
superficial agitation, it is always in the very long term that their
reverberations bring about collapses, and these are never more than
partial since indestructible vestiges always subsist."
It is thus the nature of Symbolist art to attempt to record a
process which had till then been massive, involuntary and very
largely unconscious - though the collective will and the decrees of
those in power had always had some power over it. The role of
symbols as the traditional cement of the community had been tested
during catastrophes. But by orcibly removing unprecedented numbers
of men and women from the countryside and transforming them into the
atomistic individuals of the newly created proletariat, the
Industrial Revolution not onli made adjustment more difficult; it
modified the order of priorities. "Grub first," as Bertolt Brecht
and Kurt Weil's Threepenny Opera puts it, "Morals later!" For the
new city-dwellers, solidarity in obtaining the necessities of life
replaced the former community of meaning.
The upper class had greater leisure to ponder the loss of meaning
implied by the new order of things. Involvement in militant activity
might do duty for a sense of community among the impoverished; for
the rich, all sense of community was lacking. Symbolism is thus the
negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression
of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past.
Those who had the means to do so sought solace from the brutal
pursuits of the world by sipping at the soothing philtre of the
arts. But even they were confronted with anxiety and nightmares from
which none could then hope to be exempt.
Symbolist art thus strove to represent something other than
self-evident physical reality. It was romantic up to a point; it was
often allegorical; it was dream-like or fantastic when it wished,
and it occasionally reached into those remote areas delineated by
Freud in his exploration of the unconscious. Its antecedents may be
sought among figures such as Fuseli, Goya or William Blake. But the
roots of Symbolism are also to be sought in the fertile soil of
Romanticism - the Romanticism of Novalis, E.T.A. Hoffman and Jean
Paul rather than Alfred de Musset or Victor Hugo. The solipsistic
stance so central to Symbolist art is to some extent prefigured in
Romanticism. The movements are nevertheless distinct. Rooted in the
Protestant mentality of Germany, Romanticism implied a fervent,
mystical bond with Nature seen as the created word of God.
Symbolism, on the other hand, born of the Catholic mentality of
France, Belgium, Austria and parts of Germany, no longer showed the
same veneration for nature. "Nature, as he [des Esseintes] used to
say, had had her day; the disgraceful uniformity of her landscapes
and skies had finally worn out the patient appreciation of the
refined. In the last analysis, how platitudinous she is, like a
specialist confined to a particular domain; how petty-minded, like a
shopkeeper stocking one article to the exclusion of any other; what
a monotonous storehouse of meadows and trees, what a banal purveyor
of seas and mountains! Besides, there is not a single one of her
supposedly subtle and grandiose inventions that it is beyond the
means of human genius to create; no Fontainebleau forest, no
moonlight that cannot be reproduced by a decor bathed in electric
lighting; no waterfall that hydraulic engineering cannot imitate to
perfection; no rock that papier-mache cannot counterfeit; no flower
that fine taffeta and delicately coloured paper cannot match! No
doubt about it, this sempiternal chatterbox has by now wearied the
indulgent admiration of all true artists, and the time has surely
come for artifice to take her place whenever possible."
These words were given to his idiosyncratic brainchild by Joris-Karl
Huysmans in 1893, almost exactly a century ago. In Against Nature,
the caustic art critic and brilliant novelist enshrined some of the
more striking features of Symbolist art. No longer was nature to be
studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the
artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from
the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety,
a face, unsettling as it might be, to the profoundest dreams. And
not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole,
the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with
subterranean fissures. The whispering collapses distantly audible
throughout the edifice offered a discreet foretaste of the world's
end. "Decadence" was the great issue of the Symbolist age,
"decadence" the term that des Esseintes chose to characterize it.
Decadence meant the rejection of "progress" as a misunderstanding
of the true nature of things. Everyone else was climbing onto the
bandwagon of progress; the decadent chose to stay behind. Turning in
on himself, he rejected the exoteric culture of science and sought
consolation in esoteric pursuits. It was the combination of this
attitude with the dictates of fashion that made the dandy the
Symbolist figure par excellence: the "prince of an imaginary realm"
in Disraeli's words. And it was the need for a purely imaginary
superiority that lay behind the somewhat hysterical arrogance of
that supreme dandy, Count Robert de Montesquiou. Montesquiou was the
model for both the comical figure of des Esseintes and the tragic
Baron de Charlus in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.
We are thus faced with an insoluble paradox. For in "normal"
times - in periods of lower social tension - far from being the
secret garden of a few privileged souls, the underlying Symbolism of
culture, which these lonely figures were so eager to preserve,
constituted the common ground on which the cohesion of society as a
whole was built.
Art, from the very outset, had been laden with symbols. Only
quite recently, as a result of a notorious misunderstanding of the
Renaissance ideal of "imitation of nature", had it been assumed that
it was the artist's business scrupulously to reproduce what he saw.
Yet, if art is to hold our interest it must refer to something over
and beyond itself and its manifest subject. At its best, even
Impressionism captures a part of daily reality as elusive as the
metaphysical: the fleeting moment of immediate experience.
Impressionism is thus a kind of borderline case, contriving to be
compatible with an age which, under the sway of Positivism, rejected
as unreal that which could not be touched and measured.
The high-strung idealism of so much Symbolist art led to its
rejection in later years. The First World War was a devastating
exposй of contemporary illusions, and in works such as Celine's
Journey to the End of the Night a despairing conclusion was drawn.
Almost at the same time came Freud's revelation of the hidden roots
that sustained a certain kind of idealism: sublimation. Similarly,
the critical apparatus elaborated by Marx and widely accepted by
historians and thinkers has allowed us to comprehend how ideology
uses mythopoeic representations to consecrate the existing hierarchy
It is easy enough to see why the naive complacency of much
Symbolist art laid it open to criticism. But time has passed,
ideas have changed, and we are now in a position to take a fresh
view. The anthropologists of this century have shown how the
symbolic foundation of culture is indispensable to the
well-being of individuals and to the survival of society. It
alone can signify values worth serving and provide each member
of society with a clear perception of his or her individual and
sexual identity. Such things are not within the purview of
reason, but arise out of a preverbal, symbolic order which
reason cannot afford to ignore. Nor has Symbolism ceased to
exist. It remains active today in the work of poets and
dramatists; an attentive ear will discover vestiges of it even
in the essentially modern plays of Samuel Beckett. It is also
spectacularly present in the cinema, in the baroque splendours
of Fellini and Pasolini.
Indeed, irony was never incompatible with Symbolism. Academic and
sentimental works predominate, but French Symbolist poetry numbers
amongst its exponents not merely Jules Laforgue, whom we have cited,
but Alfred Jarry. Jarry's dandyism and whimsicality make him very
much a Symbolist; in his oeuvre, we encounter a transition to the
modernism of Duchamp.
It was in fact among Symbolist artists that a notion of the
absolute autonomy of art first appeared. The assertion had a
particular resonance in a society which by and large expected art to
be "edifying". Modernism took up this doctrine and required that
art, like mathematics, be recognized as a separate realm, unrelated
to the context in which it appeared. In several respects, then, a
real continuity can be seen to exist between the art of that age and
our own. If we fail to perceive this, it may be because we believe
that Modernism marked a radical and definitive break with the past.
But this is yet another myth: the founding myth of Modernism itself.
Art, or The Sphinx, or The Caresses.1896
Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Literary and artistic movement that originated with a group of
French poets in the late 19th century, spread to painting and the
theatre, and influenced the European and American literatures of the
20th century to varying degrees. Symbolist artists sought to express
individual emotional experience through the subtle and suggestive
use of highly symbolized language.
The principal Symbolist poets include the Frenchmen Stéphane
Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Jules Laforgue, Henri de
Régnier, René Ghil, and Gustave Kahn; the Belgians Émile Verhaeren
and Georges Rodenbach; the Greek-born Jean Moréas; and Francis
Viélé-Griffin and Stuart Merrill, who were American by birth. Rémy
de Gourmont was the principal Symbolist critic, while Symbolist
criteria were applied most successfully to the novel by Joris-Karl
Huysmans and to the theatre by the Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck. The
French poets Paul Valéry and Paul Claudel are sometimes considered
to be direct 20th-century heirs of the Symbolists.
Symbolism originated in the revolt of certain French poets
against the rigid conventions governing both technique and theme in
traditional French poetry, as evidenced in the precise description
of Parnassian poetry. The Symbolists wished to liberate poetry from
its expository functions and its formalized oratory in order to
describe instead the fleeting, immediate sensations of man's inner
life and experience. They attempted to evoke the ineffable
intuitionsand sense impressions of man's inner life and to
communicate the underlying mystery of existence through a free and
highly personal use of metaphors and images that, though lacking in
precise meaning, would nevertheless convey the state of the poet's
mind and hint at the “dark and confused unity” of an inexpressible
Such Symbolist forerunners as Verlaine and Rimbaud were greatly
influenced by the poetry and thought of Charles Baudelaire,
particularly by the poems in his Les Fleurs du mal (1857). They
adopted Baudelaire's concept of the correspondances between the
senses and combined this with the Wagnerian ideal of a synthesis of
the arts to produce an original conception of the musical qualities
of poetry. Thus, to the Symbolists, the theme within a poem could be
developed and “orchestrated” by the sensitive manipulation of the
harmonies, tones, and colours inherent in carefully chosen words.
The Symbolists' attempt to emphasize the essential and innate
qualities of the poetic medium was based on their conviction of the
supremacy of art over all other means of expression or knowledge.
This in turn was partly based on their idealistic conviction that
underlying the materiality and individuality of the physical world
was another reality whose essence could best be glimpsed through the
subjective emotional responses contributing to and generated by the
work of art.
Such masterpieces as Verlaine's Romances sans paroles (1874;
Songs Without Words) and Mallarmé's L'Après-midi d'un faune (1876)
sparked a growing interest in the nascent innovations of progressive
French poets. The Symbolist manifesto itself was published by Jean
Moréas in Le Figaro on Sept. 18, 1886; in it he attacked the
descriptive tendencies of Realist theatre, Naturalistic novels, and
Parnassian poetry. He also proposed replacing the term décadent,
which was used to describe Baudelaire and others,with the terms
symboliste and symbolisme. Many little Symbolist reviews and
magazines sprang up in the late 1880s, their authors freely
participating in the controversies generated by the attacks of
hostile critics on the movement. Mallarmé became the leader of the
Symbolists, and his Divagations (1897) remains the most valuable
statement of the movement's aesthetics. In their efforts to escape
rigid metrical patterns and to achieve freer poetic rhythms, many
Symbolist poets resorted to the composition of prose poems and the
use of vers libre (free verse), which has now become a fundamental
form of contemporary poetry.
The Symbolist movement also spread to Russia, where Valery
Bryusov published an anthology of Russian and French Symbolist poems
in 1894–95. The revival of poetry in Russia stemming from this
movement had as its leader Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov. His poetry
expressed a belief that the world was a system of symbols expressing
metaphysical realities. The greatest poet of the movement was
Aleksandr Blok, who in Dvenadtsat (1918; The Twelve) united the
Russian Revolution and God in an apocalyptic vision in which 12 Red
Army men became apostles of the New World, headed by Christ. Other
Russian Symbolist poets were Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov, Fyodor
Sologub, Andrey Bely, and Nikolay Gumilyov.
The Symbolist movement in poetry reached its peak around 1890 and
began to enter a precipitous decline in popularity around 1900. The
atmospheric, unfocused imagery of Symbolist poetry eventually came
to be seen as overrefined and affected, and the term décadent, which
the Symbolists had once proudly flaunted, became with others a term
of derision denoting mere fin-de-siècle preciosity. Symbolist works
had a strong and lasting influence on much British and American
literature in the 20th century, however. Their experimental
techniques greatly enriched the technical repertoire of modern
poetry, and Symbolist theories bore fruit both in the poetry of W.B.
Yeats and T.S. Eliot and in the modern novel as represented by James
Joyce and Virginia Woolf, in which word harmonies and patterns of
images oftentake preeminence over the narrative.
One of the few successful Symbolist novels was À rebours (1884;
Against Nature) by J.-K. Huysmans. The book relates the varied and
surprisingly resourceful experiments in aesthetic decadence
undertaken by a bored aristocrat. The 20th-century American critic
Edmund Wilson's survey of the Symbolist movement, Axel's Castle
(1931), is considered a classic of modern literary analysis and the
authoritative study of the movement.
Symbolism in painting took its direction from the poets and
literary theorists of the movement, but it also represented a
reaction against the objectivist aims of Realism and the
increasingly influential movement of Impressionism. In contrast to
the relatively concrete representation these movements sought,
Symbolist painters favoured works based on fantasy and the
imagination. The Symbolist position in painting was authoritatively
defined by the young critic Albert Aurier, an enthusiastic admirer
of Gauguin Paul , in an article in the Mercure de France (1891). He
elaborated on Moreas' contention that the purpose of art “is to
clothe the idea in sensuous form” and stressed the subjective,
symbolical, and decorative functions of an art that would give
visual expression to the inner life. Symbolist painters turned to
the mystical and even the occult in an attempt to evoke subjective
states of mind by visual forms.
Such Postimpressionist painters as Gauguin and Vincent VanGogh as
well as the Nabis may be regarded as Symbolists in certain aspects
of their art. However, the painters who are truly representative of
Symbolist aesthetic ideals include three principal figures: Moreau
Gustave, Redon Odilon, and Puvis de Chavannes Pierre. Moreau was a
figurative painter who created scenes based on legendary or ancient
themes. His highly original style utilized brilliant, jewel-like
colours to portray the ornate, sumptuous interiors of imaginary
temples and palaces in which scantily clad figuresare caught in
statuesque poses. His work is characterized by exotic eroticism and
decorative splendour. Redon explored mystical, fantastic, and often
macabre themes in his paintings and graphics. His paintings stress
the poetics of colour in their delicate harmonies of hues, while his
subject matter was highly personal in its mythical and dreamlike
figures. Puvis de Chavannes is now remembered primarily as a
Dramatists also took their lead from the French Symbolist poets,
especially from Mallarme. As drama critic for La Dernière Mode
during the 1870s, Mallarmé opposed the dominant Realist theatre and
called for a poetic theatre that would evoke the hidden mystery of
man and the universe. Drama, for Mallarme, should be a sacred rite
in which the poet-dramatist revealed the correspondences between the
visible and invisible worlds through the suggestive power of his
poetic language. For the Symbolist playwright, the deeper truths of
existence, known instinctively or intuitively,could not be directly
expressed but only indirectly revealed through symbol, myth, and
mood. The principal Symbolist playwrights were Maurice Maeterlinck
in Belgium and Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam and Paul Claudel in
France. Also influenced by Symbolist beliefs were the Swedish
playwright August Strindberg and the Irish poet and dramatist W.B.
Noteworthy examples of Symbolist theatre include Villiers de
L'Isle-Adam's Axël (first performed 1884; definitive edition 1890),
Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande (1892), with its dreamlike
atmosphere, and the highly satirical Ubu roi (1896) by Alfred Jarry.
In 1890 the French poet Paul Fort founded the Theatre d'Art, where
Symbolist dramas were presented along with readings from ancient and
modern poetry. When Fort retired in 1892 Aurélien Lugné-Poë
continued Symbolist production at his Théâtre de l'Oeuvre well into
the 20th century. Though Symbolist theatre did not last long as a
unified movement, its sharp break with the realistic tradition along
with its reliance on fantasy, atmosphere, and mood influenced
20th-century playwrights and theatrical production.
Symbolism in France
Symbolism acquired its name in France. The term was suggested by Jean
Moreas (ne Ionnis Papadiamantopoulos), in the literary supplement of
Le Figaro of 18 September 1886. Moreas' subject was the so-called
"decadent" poets; in his view, "Symbolist" was a more appropriate
description. "Symbolic poetry," he continued, "attempts to clothe
the Idea in a perceptible form which, though not itself the poem's
goal, serves to express the Idea to which it remains
The poem is thus an attempt to render perceptible a reality which
would otherwise remain ineffable. Such is the function of the
symbol: to express what is absent, or, in the case of Symbolism,
what is "transcendental" or "otherworldly".
The transcendental was originally a category of religious
thought: the God of the Jews and the Christians is transcendental.
But transcendence is not necessarily or exclusively religious. There
is much in reality which matters to us and yet remains for the most
part out of reach, as though in another world. This is true of the
past as of the future, and it also applies to that area of culture
which serves as a repository of profound and enduring values.
In order to speak of these things, we place our speech under the
sign of the aesthetic, signifying that the reality of which we speak
is not the practical reality of everyday. This sign might be a
rhythm of speech, the recourse to music or to a particular register
of colours, or a more or less emphatically hieratic or "unreal" form
Jean Moreas' article dealt with poetry and not with the fine
arts. But, despite the author's own reservations (he deplores the
critic's "incurable obsession with labelling things"), artists
recognized their own aspirations in Moreas' words and adopted the
Symbolist label. He thus gave a name to something which had, till
then, been no more than an ill-defined mood or state of mind. For
Symbolism was not born in 1886 and an art applying the principles
articulated by Moreas, and to that extent Symbolist, had already
appeared in France twenty years before. I refer to the work of
But before considering Moreau's work, let us give some thought to
the meaning of the word "Symbolist" when applied to artists of that
period. A painter may be termed a Symbolist for formal reasons,
because of the content of his works, or for both these reasons at
The first genuinely Symbolist painter was Gustaves Moreau (1826—
The son of an architect employed by the City of Paris and himself
a precociously talented draughtsman, Moreau enrolled at the
Beaux-Arts at the age of twenty. He admired Delacroix and, in
particular, Theodore Chasseriau, remaining under the latter's
influence for some ten years. At the age of thirty he travelled to
Italy, revelling in the art of the Quattrocento and in Byzantine
mosaics. On his return to Paris, he exhibited at the Salon, where he
won considerable success in 1864 with his Oedipus and the Sphinx, a
painting of high academic finish. Five years later he gave up
exhibiting for good. From then on he lived and worked at his town
house at 14 rue de la Rochefoucauld, which has since become his
museum. Its holdings include the majority of his abundant production
(850 paintings, 350 water-colours and 5,000 drawings).
Moreau was a solitary artist who chose a most unusual path.
Though he was a contemporary of Manet and the Impressionists, his
brushstroke and use of colour have nothing in common with them. This
is a different world, peopled with figures from the Bible and
classical mythology. Emile Zola, proselytising in favour of
naturalism, dismissed Moreau's work as "a mere reaction against the
modern world," specifying the ideological issues at stake when he
added "the danger to science is slight". Manet (whom Zola rightly
defended) may seem the greater artist on purely aesthetic grounds,
but Moreau's work is nonetheless significant as an exposition of the
cultural fantasies of his time.
That solitary original, Gustave Moreau, developed a style of
sumptuous preciosity. The abundant, precious detail, the "necessary
luxury", were, in his view, an essential aspect of art. His subject
matter was almost entirely confined to ancient mythology, historical
legend I Alexander the Great) and the Bible (Samson and Delilah,
Moses, Salome). Salome, who had forced King Herod to bring her the
head of John the Baptist "in a charger", sees that head appear
before her as she again dances before the King.
Oedipus and the Sphinx
Huysmans was aware of this; he wrote at length of the
"Salome" who appears in a number of Moreau's works.
The castrating woman is so widely encountered in the art of this
period that one cannot help but dwell on its significance.
It is treated in ironic form by Felicien Rops, in academic and
conventional form by Franz von Stuck; it gained pathos in the
paintings of Edvard Munch and terror in the work of Alfred Kubin.
These are but a few of the artists who treated this subject: why
does it recur so insistently?
It goes without saying that the late 19th century was a
singularly puritanical age. Now it seems that puritanism tends to
appear spontaneously, untheorised and unsystematic, at times of
great cultural mutation.
Every revolution, political, religious or industrial, is followed
by a phase of puritanical public discourse and legislation. This can
best be understood if we allow that relations between the sexes are
profoundly influenced by the unspoken rules of a symbolic social
When the old rules and cultural forms are rejected or ignored,
individuals lose their bearings. Thus a young man, confronted with a
woman whom he desires, asks himself how he must behave if she is to
acknowledge him life poignantly expresses the fallacy of dialectics
of "nature" and "culture", the "spontaneous" and the "artificial".
Even today, these notions fundamentally distort our perception of
the manner in which the self is constructed through culture.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), for instance, might be be
considered the official painter of the Third Republic. He produced a
large number of allegorical subjects, but there is nothing
particularly Symbolist about that. Innumerable academic painters
treated subjects such as "Progress guiding industry" or "The arts
bestowing their blessings on mankind".
Today, Puvis de Chavannes' paintings strike one as insipid in
colour and subject matter - to say nothing of the simpering
expressions he confers on certain of his characters. Yet we cannot
deny him a degree of originality in his formal and simplified
organization of space and in the way he handles large planes of
colour in works such as The Poor Fisherman. If we describe him as
Symbolist, it is largely because a naturalistic or illusionistic
representation of the world is not his primary concern.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
Musee du Louvre, Paris
His influence is perceptible in the work and theories of various
artists. Its first theoretical formulation was given by Maurice
Denis, when, in the late 1880s, he defined a painting as "a flat
surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order". He had
taken the idea from his friend Paul Serusier, who had it from Paul
Gauguin; he, in his turn, owed it (as we shall see) to the young
Emile Bernard. Symbolism, thus defined, opens the way to
abstraction, as Serusier's painting The Talisman first showed.
Indeed, the major pioneers of abstraction, Kandinsky, Malevich,
Kupka and Mondrian all began their careers as Symbolist painters.
Criticism and art history have, on occasion, bestowed a high
status on the precursors of a movement later deemed significant.
This is a notion that should be handled with the utmost care; it
suggests that art progresses in the same way as science, one
discovery becoming possible thanks to an earlier one, whose sole
importance was its pioneering role. Unlike science, art does not
"progress". It adapts to changing social relationships and modes of
production and registers transformations in everyday life and in the
representation of the world. As the circumstances of life and the
way it is perceived change, so old forms come to seem irrelevant and
new forms are needed. An artist does not make a "discovery" in the
sense that scientists do. But he does discover a "means". Thanks to
this "means", he can avoid repeating the familiar forms derived from
an obsolete conception of the world; he can once more touch upon the
heart of the matter.
The eighth of nine children of a poor insurance salesman,
Carriere was brought up in Strasbourg, where he received his initial
training in art at the Ecole Municipale de Dessin as part of his
apprenticeship in commercial lithography. In 1868, while briefly
employed as a lithographer, he visited Paris and was so inspired by
the paintings of Rubens in the Louvre that he resolved to become an
artist. His studies under Alexandre Cabanel at the Ecole des
Beaux-Arts were interrupted by the Franco–Prussian War (1870–71),
during which he was taken prisoner. In 1872–3 he worked in the
studio of Jules Cheret. In 1878 he participated in the Salon for the
first time, but his work went unnoticed. The following year he ended
his studies under Cabanel, married and moved briefly to London where
he saw and admired the works of Turner. Success eluded him for a
number of years after he returned to Paris and he was forced to find
occasional employment, usually with printers, until as late as 1889,
to support his growing family. Between 1880 and 1885 his brother
Ernest (1858–1908), a ceramicist, arranged part-time work for him at
the Sиvres porcelain factory. There he met Auguste Rodin who became
and remained an extremely close friend.
The Young Mothers.
Thus Emile Bernard understood the expressive power of colour
treated as a unified plane (with greater intensity than in Puvis de
Chavannes). But Bernard communicated his intuition to Paul Gauguin,
and it was Gauguin who took it to its logical conclusion and to its
highest pitch of intensity. Symbolism thus tends to include all
those artists who were not primarily concerned with a so-called
"realistic" representation of the world. It also includes artists
such as the Belgians Jean Delville and Leon Frederic, the occult
idealism of whose subject matter clearly designates them as
Symbolist despite their overtly academic style. But the most
convincing Symbolists are those who, like Gustaves Moreau, may be
classified as such for both the form and content of their work.
Moreau's manner was initially academic, but underwent a slow
transformation to encompass surprising audacities of impasto and
colour. This may not prevent us from thinking it mannered and
precious. Odilon Redon aptly defined it as "the art of a bachelor".
Yet it is worth noting that, during the few years late in his life
when he taught at the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Moreau's pupils
included Georges Rouault, Henri Matisse and Albert Marquet.
His work is narrative; he was occasionally driven to deny, in
tones of disabused weariness, that he was a "literary" artist. But
biblical or mythological subjects do not, in themselves, make a
painting Symbolist. Moreau fits into this category because he chose
subjects which gave expression to the fantasies - one might almost
say psychodrama - of sexual roles and identity that characterise his
age. He did this by depicting figures like Salome, but also by the
surprising and almost invariable androgyny of his male subjects.
Symbolism thus touched upon the fantasies of the age as it did
upon the realm of dreams, though the latter was by no means its
exclusive preserve, dreams having been a favourite subject of the
Romantics. But the Symbolist dream had lost the confident elan of
Romanticism; it had become more enigmatic, more perverse.
The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their
withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of
the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories
to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of
nothing outside himself. Certain artists, like Fernand Khnopff, made
a virtue of their solipsism. Others, like Redon, sought a technique
capable of rendering the elusive, enigmatic qualities of experience.
It follows that our subject can be divided into a number of more
or less overlapping circles. A significant part of Symbolist art is
tinged with a religiosity of a Catholic, syncretic or esoteric kind.
Symbolism also produced a certain mystique of art for art's sake, in
the spirit of James Abbott McNeill Whistler or Stephane Mallarme.
Though these trends are, in theory, easy to distinguish, they tended
in practice to mingle; the artists' needs were not so various as
their styles, and their works frequently hung side by side in the
salons. Finally, certain artists were Symbolists only for a certain
period, while others remained so throughout their lives.
French sculptor Claudel is best known for her love affair with
fellow artist Auguste Rodin, the basis for a late '80s French film
starring Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Adjani. Ayral-Clause, a
professor of French and the humanities at California Polytechnic
State University at San Luis Obispo, cites original documents and
other research to argue that although Rodin is usually depicted as
having abandoned a wimpy Camille, in fact Camille was so feisty and
in-your-face (a necessity for a woman artist in a man's world) that
he wound up running for cover to escape her "insults" once their
15-year-long affair was over. Camille went mad and spent her last 30
years in an asylum. Ayral-Clause's account of these events is clear,
although sometimes marred by an artificial prose style with odd
syntax: "Events that are denied at the time they occur are often
brought back to life through letters or journals discovered later
on." Art history students may be disappointed by the generalized
comments about Claudel's artworks themselves (shown, along with
photos, in 69 b&w illustrations), since the woman, rather than the
artist, is in the limelight in this biography. By contrast, Ayral-Clause
fully accepts Rodin as a great artist and great man, reserving
criticism for Camille's brother, the far-right-wing poet and
diplomat Paul Claudel, who ensured she was buried in a common grave
for paupers despite the family's great wealth.
The Age of Maturity. Destiny, or Life.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris
Auguste Rodin, who was born in Paris in 1840 and died in Meudon
in 1917, was similar in age to many of the Impressionists. He was
attracted and inspired by all the proposals and formal suggestions
that came from their movement, but also by the newly emerging "ideiste"
art - painting from the imagination. A highly gifted artist, who
developed great skill as a sculptor. Rodin began his career under
the sculptor Carrier Belleuse, working on the decoration of the
Commercial Exchange in Brussels. His liberation from academism came
through his study of Michelangelo on a trip to Italy in 1875. He was
impressed by the epic nature of nude muscular figures and by the
technique of "incompleteness". The creation of The Gates of Hell in
1880 revealed Rodin's search for a new, vital, and impassioned
monumentality, with a Dionysian rhythm, in which the core of the
sculpture seems to explode into the surrounding space and the
figures appear to dissolve in the luminosity of the whole.
Rodin was mainly interested in the subject of movement. Although he
was not a great theorist, it is clear from his thoughts on
sculpture, collected by his students and his secretary, the poet
Rainer Maria Rilke, that he believed in the need to overcome "closed
form" and to "transfer inner feelings to muscular movements; give
movement to express life". "The expression of life," he said, "can
never be halted or frozen if it is to conserve the infinite
flexibility of reality." The statues and groups that he created,
both the famous monumental examples and smaller works such as the
sensitive nude ballerina figures (Iris, Messenger of the Gods,
1890-91), are rarely calm and restful, even when action is not
crucial. Rodin was accused by many artists and critics - including
Matisse, who visited him in 1906 and sought his advice in the medium
- of neglecting the whole, of not achieving a compositional or
sculptural synthesis, but rather of proceeding with an assembly of
separate details, albeit each realized with the inspiration of
genius. However, he continued with his research into the
many-faceted and ever-changing profiles of an object, pursuing the
organic vitality that seemed to animate the sculpture from within. A
great modeller rather than a sculptor, Rodin found it very difficult
to work in stone, so the job of translating his extraordinary
inventions into marble was left to the skilful collaborators whom he
had gathered around him: Emile-Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929), who
worked as an assistant in his studio from 1893 to 1908, and Charles
Despiau (1874-1946). Together with Aristide Maillol (1861-1944),
they continued the debate into this new form of sculpture, by now
free from academic mannerism and devoted to recapturing essential
formal values derived from the relationships between mass and light
and filled and empty space, and from the rhvthmic articulation of
planes and lines. For Maillol this renewal process ranged from a
return to the classical ideal forward to the neo-Hellenic plastic
arts (he lived in Greece for a year and was inspired by the ancient
statues). In contrast, Bourdelle, boosted by his Christian faith,
reverted to medieval-inspired sculpture of simplified, robust, and
THE GREAT WORKS OF RODIN
Rodin's first sculptural assignment was the ornamental doors (The
Gates of Hell) for the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, commissioned by
the Ministry of Fine Arts in 1880. The narrative scenes, taken from
Dante's Divine Comedy and from Ovid's Metamorphoses, comprised more
than 186 figures in high and low relief, their dramatic passion
reflected in the pained faces and exaggerated movements. The doors
were never completed and were broken up into smaller sections;
Bourdelle then reassembled them according to Rodin's elaborate
scheme, producing four examples to be found today in museums in
Paris, Zurich, Philadelphia, and Tokyo. Various motifs were taken by
Rodin and enlarged in later elaborations — The Three Shadows (1880),
The Kiss (1886), and The Thinker (1888) - the last being an
enigmatic and symbolic meditation on human destiny. From 1884 to
1886 Rodin worked on the Burghers of Calais group, erected later in
1895. This was a realistic depiction of the six French citizens who
during the Hundred Years' War offered to give their lives to King
Edward III if he were to raise the siege on their, by then,
destitute city. When Rodin was commissioned in 1885 to sculpt the
funerary monument of Victor Hugo, destined for the Pantheon, he
planned a group featuring the poet naked and pensive, accompanied by
gesticulating Muses. This interpretation, not being sufficiently
conventional, was rejected, and the work was not finished (albeit in
an altered form) until 1909. when it was placed in the gardens of
the Palais Royal. A similar fate befell the monument to Balzac,
commissioned in 1883 by the Societe des Gens de Lettres and rejected
by them following a discussion over its excessively free technique
and its originality, deemed too superficial and inadequate in its
portrayal of the subject. Cast in bronze after Rodin's death, it v.
as placed in the Boulevard Raspail in 1939.
Musee Rodin, Paris
Gauguin sought a society in which relations between the sexes were
harmonious - harmonious, we should perhaps add "as the relation
between mother and child"; a society, at all events, in which such
relations were governed by the implicit code that regulates the
behaviour of a people still possessed of a tradition. We have seen
that, in the European society of his day, this code had been
disrupted by the impact of the industrial revolution. This helps to
explain why the collective dream of European society was invaded by
femmes fatales, and was a factor in Gauguin's departure for the
If Van Gogh typified the artist passionate about his own anguish
in an unappreciative society that alienated him to the point of
self-destruction, then Paul Gauguin was the daring, nonconformist
painter - less complicated, but equally as compelling. Driven by a
"terrible longing for things unknown", he fled a bourgeois existence
for lands unscathed by Western ideas of progress, conventions, and
rules. There, he could express himself with absolute freedom,
discovering the spirituality of civilizations that were to him
mysterious -"the only ones left that could provoke real emotions".
Gauguin came to painting at a late age and was introduced by
Pissarro into the Impressionist circle (he took part in the group's
exhibitions of 1879 and 1886). While in Brittany, a region that
conserved its popular traditions, he was stimulated by the
experiments of Bernard and Anquetin. They sought to replace the
fragmented colour and fleeting nature of Impressionism with a style
that used large areas of flat, uniform colour, surrounded and
defined by thick, dark outlines - similar to the effect achieved by
stained glass. Instead of glorifying colour and light, Gauguin aimed
for a "silent harmony" of dense hues, vibrant with music, as a
background to simplified shapes with foreshortened strokes, and
completed by large, decorative arabesque lines.
After Brittany, Gauguin visited Tahiti, where, enraptured by the
charm of the landscape and the Polynesian people, he rediscovered
the emotive and magical value of colour and became fascinated by
indigenous mythology. His increasing awareness of spiritual concerns
in every field of art was reflected in his paintings, which
contained new and complex symbols derived from Indian art (for
example Nirvana, which shows the Dutch Buddhist painter Meyer de
Haan); Japanese prints (a current fashion in the West); and
Pre-Columbian art, which he knew well through his Peruvian family
tradition. Despite these varied influences, the works never lost
their spontaneity and decorative gaiety. Between 1888 and 1900, the
artist created a series of stylized pictures in which his dependence
on memory, sensation, and the imagination overshadowed the
importance of nature. Looked upon by young artists as their
charismatic master, Gauguin advised, "Don't paint from nature too
much. Art is an abstraction, extract it from nature and dream of the
creation that will result." Gauguin's last great work -Where do we
come from? What are we? Where are we going? (1897) - appears to be a
final and painful meditation on the destiny of humanity, summarizing
life's passage from childhood to old age. It pays tribute to
Symbolism, which championed the role of the imagination in
creativity, and allows Gauguin to condense his figurative
experiences by combining earlier motifs and characters in a large
and highly decorative composition. The harmonious but sombre colours
enhance the mysterious, ambiguous imagery, creating a powerfully
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Gauguin was only episodically a Symbolist painter. Some of his
canvases are more Symbolist than others, and his most ambitious
work, his artistic testament Where Do We Come From? What Are We?
Where Are We Going? draws its formal inspiration from the great
murals of Puvis de Chavannes. His painting is not allegorical, as
Puvis de Chavannes' compositions were, nor is it programmatic;
Gauguin offered different interpretations to different people. But
it is imbued with a mood of sensual melancholy. The veiled, allusive
Symbolism that results has considerable resonance.
Gauguin set himself apart from the more conventional aspects of
Symbolism, but the style he created has no truck with naturalism; it
emphasised the emotional value of colour in ways to which no
reproduction can do justice. Moreover, his ideas about colour were
of considerable interest to the next generation of painters.
The site of this influence was Pont-Aven, in Brittany, where a
small colony of painters had settled. The year was 1888.
Emile Bernard (1868-1941), a precociously gifted painter born
into modest circumstances, came to spend the summer there. He was
twenty years old and a fervent Catholic, a point not without
relevance in the ideological context of the time. Gauguin was forty.
In Paris, Bernard had already met Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac and van
Gogh. And he had worked out a theory of painting, which he explained
to Gauguin. It called for a more autonomous use of colour, which was
to be applied in flat areas separated by a black line as in
Emile Bernard. Madeleine au Bois d'Amour
Musee d'Orsay at Paris
During the summer of 1888 Paul Serusier (1864-1927) also arrived
in Pont-Aven. He was twenty-four. His father, director of the
Houbigant perfumery, had marked him down for a commercial career.
Serusier refused; enrolling at the Academie Julian, he found himself
in the company of Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson and Pierre Bonnard. At
Pont-Aven, Gauguin took him in hand. Together they went out to
Gauguin's advice to Serusier was noted down by Maurice Denis
(1870-1943): "How do you see that tree?" Gauguin asked as they stood
in a wood called the Bois d'Amour, "Is it really green? Then put it
down in green - the most beautiful green in your palette - and that
shadow is rather blue? Don't be afraid to paint it as blue as
Serusier painted the Bois d'Amour on the back of a cigar box.
Returning to Paris, he unwrapped it under the eyes of his friends.
"Thus, in paradoxical, unforgettable form," Maurice Denis noted, "we
were presented for the first time with the fertile concept of 'a
flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order'.
Thus did we learn that every work of art is a transposition, a
caricature, the passionate equivalent of a sensation received."
Realizing the significance of Serusier's little painting, they
dubbed it The Talisman.
Charles Filiger the most mystical of the Pont-Aven painters.
Alfred Jarry entrusted him with the illustration of the Symbolist
magazine l'Ymagier. He exhibited at Rose+Croix Salon in 1892.
Charless Maurin was one of the most influential artists in the
revival of interest in the art of the colour etching at the end of
the 19th century in France. An associate of the painters of the
Nabis circle, Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis etc., his themes were mostly
inspired by the quiet emotion of interior domestic life - frequently
depictions of mothers with their children.
Exoticism and Rousseau
The myth of Exoticism captivated the minds of many avant-garde
artists and writers as the 19th century drew to a close. It
represented an escape from bourgeois society, with its declining
spiritual values, and an urge to travel to distant lands
uncontaminated by progress in order to pursue a more natural,
"savage" lifestyle. Following in the wake of Gauguin's move to
Tahiti, Kandinsky travelled around north Africa, Nolde sailed to New
Guinea, Pechstein explored China, and Klee and Macke spent time in
Tunisia. The French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) pursued this
same ideal in his quest to capture a spirit of innocence. While
still very much rooted in French city life, and for many-years a
conventional man, he nevertheless projected images of an exotic
world of magic and freshness. Known as "Le Douanier" because he
worked for the Paris customs service until 1893, he was an untrained
painter. However, amid much criticism and controversy, the exclusive
intellectual elite of late 19th-century Paris at the end of the
century claimed to understand the "hedonistic mystifications" of
symbolism in his work. Rousseau worked within a climate that
borrowed elements from African sculpture and contrasted them with
Greek classicism, achieving a style that was unpretentious, shunning
facile mannerism and the pretentious intellectualism of "art for
art's sake". Rousseau made a name for himself as a primitive artist
through the Salons des Artistes Independents, to which he was
invited in 1886, and gained widespread recognition from 1904 to
1905, when he embarked on his "jungle" scenes, such as Explorers
Attacked by a Lion and The Hungry Lion, the latter shown at the
Salon d'Automne in 1905 in the room of the Fauvists. He was adored
by literary figures, such as Alfred Jarry, whom he had painted in
1894, and Apollinaire, to whom he dedicated The Muse Lnspiring the
Poet in 1907, as well as by other painters such as Robert Delaunay,
whose mother commissioned The Snake Charmer in 1907. He was also a
composer of songs, which he performed at the banquet given by
Picasso in his honour in 1908.
A Carnival Evening, 1886
In art, method of painting evolved by Gauguin Paul ,
Bernard Emile, Anquetin Louis, Maurin Charles and others in
the 1880s to emphasize two-dimensional flat patterns, thus
breaking with Impressionist art and theory. The styleshows a
conscious effort to work less directly from nature and to
rely more upon memory.
It was Gauguin who used the word Synthetism, by which
hemeant a style of art in which the form (colour planes and
lines) is synthesized with the major idea or feeling of the
subject. Although he had exhibited with the Impressionists
until 1886, he did not share their disregard for defined
forms or compositional elements. He felt that their
preoccupation with the study of light effects in nature was
confining, superficial, and neglectful of thought and ideas.
He sought todevelop a new decorative style in art based on
areas of pure colour (e.g., without shaded areas or
modeling), a few strong lines, and an almost two-dimensional
arrangement of parts. He spent the summers of 1886 and 1888
in Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu, Brittany, France, with Bernard
and other disciples, where he founded the Synthetist group.
An example of this new decorative style is Gauguin's “Vision
After the Sermon” (1888; National Gallery of Scotland,
Edinburgh). This large work includes peasant women leaving
the church in thelower part of the canvas; above them is the
vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel, which was the
sermon of the day. Gauguin attempts to combine in one
setting two levels of reality, the everyday world and the
dream world. The lower figures are reduced to areas of flat
patterns, without modeling or perspective. The large colour
areas are intense and without shadows. The design is so
strong that the two realities fuse into one visual
Bernard and Anquetin used the name Cloisonnism to
describe their painting method, equating the design effect
oflarge areas of pure colour and wide black outlines to the
medieval cloisonnй enamel technique. In addition to his
interest in medieval art, Bernard enjoyed Japanese prints (ukiyo-e)
and the art of primitive cultures. Synthetism was to
influence the Nabis, a group of artists in the next decade,
and, for a while, the work of Vincent van Gogh.
in the decorative arts, an enameling technique or any
product of that technique, which consists of soldering toa
metal surface delicate metal strips bent to the outline of a
design and filling the resulting cellular spaces, called
cloisons (French: “partitions,” or “compartments”), with
vitreous enamel paste. The object then is fired, ground
smooth, and polished. Sometimes metal wire is used in place
of the usual gold, brass,silver, or copper strips.
Among the earliest examples of cloisonnй are six
Mycenaean rings of the 13th century BC. The great Western
period of cloisonnй enameling was from the 10th to the 12th
century, especially in the Byzantine Empire. In China
cloisonnй was widely produced during the Ming (1368–1644)
and Ch'ing (1644–1911/12) dynasties. In Japan, it was
especially popular during the Tokugawa (1603–1868) and Meiji
Group of young painters who espousedthe style known as
Synthetism and united under Paul Gauguin's informal tutelage
at Pont-Aven, Brittany, France, in the summer of 1888. The
artists included Bernard Emile, Charles Laval, Maxime Maufra,
Serusier Paul , Filiger Charles, Meyer de Haan, Armand
Seguin, and Henri de Chamaillard.
Gauguin and Bernard were the first to reject
Impressionist and pointillist techniques in favour of
Synthetist methods. The paintings executed by these artists
in the years between 1886, when they first met at Pont-Aven,
and 1888 show an overall simplification, a highly expressive
use of colour, and an intensely spiritual approach to their
subject matter. In their Breton landscapes, Gauguin and
Bernard employed bright areas of colour surrounded with
heavy, darkoutlines that give the painted surface the
appearance of medieval enamel and stained-glass work. The
content of their paintings often derived from the everyday
life of the Breton people.
Gauguin's disciples, enthusiastically accepting his
advice not to paint exclusively from nature, gradually
abandoned the Neo-Impressionist styles that they had adopted
in Paris. In their revolt against naturalism, the early
Synthetist painters emphasized the decorative potentials of
colour and line: a painting was to be primarily a flat
surface upon which colour was laid ornamentally. The
Swallow-Hole in the Bois d'Amour, Pont Aven, or The Talisman
(1888), painted by Paul Sйrusier under the direct guidance
of Gauguin, became the talisman of the young disciples.
Gauguin had instructed Sйrusier not only to paint the
landscape from memory but to be certain to paint the
different-coloured areas as intensely as possible. Upon the
return of the Pont-Aven school to Paris in the fall of 1888,
the members met regularly to discuss new developments in
French art, particularly Symbolism. In 1889 Gauguin arranged
an important exhibition of Impressionist and Synthetist art
that featured his own and others' works.
At one point in the existence of the Pont-Aven school,
the idea of an artistic and communal society had seemed
feasible, but, once Gauguin left for Tahiti, members of the
original group abandoned their hopes for this to
materialize. These artists became increasingly involved in
the development of Symbolist art theories and techniques.
Artists such as Sйrusier eventually became active in the
Acadйmie Julian and in the group of artists known as the
The Pont-Aven Schooland and the Nabis
Maurice Denis's statement that "what Manet was for his generation
in 1870, Gauguin was for his in 1890'' generally referred to the
manner in which Gauguin encouraged young artists to choose their
models and styles freely, and to draw on figurative sources inspired
by all cultures, not just those of the West. Between 1886 and 1888,
in the town of Pont-Aven in Brittany, Gauguin gathered a circle of
painters around him, including Emile Bernard and Louis Anquetin.
Their experiments led to the adoption of a style known as
cloisonnisme, which was characterized by dark lines enclosing areas
of intense, pure, and flat colour. The effect was highly decorative
and marked the emergence of a new attitude towards nature (in
contrast to Impressionism), in which inspiration came from memory
rather than real life and confined itself to the "essence" of an
object, rather than its appearance. Under the guidance of Gauguin in
Pont-Aven, Paul Serusier (1863-1927) painted a landscape in 1888
that summarized this new artistic freedom; it was later named The
Talisman because of its significance in the development of
Symbolism. Once back in Paris, at the Academie Julian, Serusier
urged his fellow students to seek out the basic roots of art. Among
them were Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Maurice Denis (1870-1943),
Henri-Gabriel Ibels (1867-1936), Paul Ranson (1864-1909), and,
later, Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and Felix Vallotton (1865-
1925). The young painters formed a group in 1892, taking the name of
Nabis, "prophets'' in Hebrew. Within the group, each artist had his
own particular role, for example, Denis was the "Nabi aux belles
icones", while Bonnard was the "Nabi tres japonard". The group
members would all meet periodically in Paul Ranson's studio, which
became their "temple". Here, the group experimented with the
spiritual, supernatural world of magic through ritual practices. It
was Maurice Denis, theorist of the Symbolist movement, who made the
famous rallying cry to the avant-garde: "Remember that a picture,
before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or any interpretation you
want, is essentially a flat surface covered in colours assembled in
a certain order". While some Nabis portrayed scenes from Parisian
life, others painted imaginary and mythological subjects.
Nonetheless, the whole group was united in its contempt for
naturalism. They translated feeling and emotion into decorative
compositions, ''synthetist" shapes reminiscent of inlay work, and
rhythmic colour harmonies modelled on stained-glass windows,
medieval enamelwork, and Japanese prints. With their emotional use
of colour and line they contributed, at the threshold of the new
century, to the breakdown of distinctions between fine and
decorative arts. They also heralded the beginnings of Modernism.
The Sick Girl
In the filiation thus formed, we see how an artistic tendency comes
into being, scatters and merges again like quick-silver.
Puvis de Chavannes had been the first to use colour in unified
planes; young Emile Bernard had arrived at this practice by his own
devices; Gauguin seized on the intuition and carried it to its
highest point of intensity, while Serusier finally passed it on to
his friends, forming with them the group known as Nabis .
We can thus perceive the first steps of an approach which, by an
entirely "phylogenetic" logic was to lead to Fauvism and the art of
Henri Matisse .
Matisse acknowledged that his painting Luxury I was in direct line
of descent from Puvis de Chavannes' Young Girls at the Seaside.
Nabi is the Hebrew word for prophet. The group designated
themselves prophets with a hint of irony; the term at first referred
to a group of friends who met once a month, first in a cafe in the
passage Brady, then, after Paul Ranson married, in his town house
at, 22 Boulevard du Montparnasse, which they dubbed "the Temple".
Paul Ranson (1862-1909) came of wealthy stock; his father was the
Mayor of Limoges in 1861. A portrait by Paul Serusier shows Ranson
as a "Nabi", wearing a chasuble and clutching a bishop's crook while
reading from an illuminated manuscript; around his head is a red
halo. Ranson drew tapestry cartoons for his wife to embroider.
Matisse appreciated his sinuous line and is said to have been
influenced by it.
Maurice Denis decided at only fourteen years of age that he
wanted to be a "Christian painter". His mild-toned paintings with
their flat areas of colour and sinuous line show formal similarities
with those of Ranson.
In 1918, Denis and Georges Desvallieres (1861-1950), founded the
Ateliers de l'Art Sacre.
Edouard Vuillard (1868 - 1940), french Symbolism, studied in
Paris at the Academie Julien alongside Pierre Bonnard. As a result
of their admiration of Serusier and Gauguin’s color theories, the
pair formed the Nabis in 1889. His early works were small-scale
prints, primarily color lithographs of Parisian life. His mother,
with whom he lived with until her death, was a dressmaker, which
inspired Vuillard’s interests in textiles and patterns. He began to
paint intimate interior scenes, incorporating these decorative
aspects into his work. Another hobby of Vuillard’s was photography,
which he used to study the innate movements of his friends and
family in their everyday life. He gained more recognition after 1900
and was commissioned as a portrait artist.
Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard also chose to treat the
canvas as a flat surface. But at the same time they favoured a novel
form of tension between the two-dimensional arrangement they created
and the spectator's inclination to interpret the picture as a
Both artists avoided the ornamental quality from which Denis'
paintings sometimes suffer, but it was Bonnard who made perhaps the
most original use of the revelation afforded by The Talisman,
creating an illusion of depth exclusively through the interplay of
colours. This is why a Bonnard always seems two-dimensionsal at
first glance. To the viewer's delight, space unfolds only gradually,
as though another world were unfolding before his eyes. But his
lyrical, intimate work lies outside the scope of Symbolism proper,
as does that of Vuillard.
Emile Bernard meanwhile felt that he had been cheated of his
undeniable originality. He painted a few more paintings in the
manner he had devised, including a group of Spanish Musicians
Did the young Picasso see this painting? The dominant blue tone
and the attitudes of the figures strongly suggest that he did, a
presumption that gains in strength when we compare it to Picasso's
painting Life (1903).
Bernard then sailed for the Middle East where he remained for ten
years, painting in a more traditional idiom. Long afterwards, he
grumbled to Renoir: "I was twenty years old, he (Gauguin) was forty.
It was easy for him to pass for the creator of something he had
He was unaware that his had been the spark that had set off a
great conflagration, and that he could not have kept it to himself
if he had wanted to.
Georges Lacombe (1868-1916), french painter. Much influenced by
Gauguin, he became a member of the Nabis. 1892 met Serusier.
Gauguin's influence is particularly clear in his wooden sculptures.
These treat symbolic (sometimes esoteric) subjects illustrating the
cycle of life and death.
Group of artists who, through their widely diverse
activities, were a majorinfluence on the art produced in
France during the late 19th century. Preaching that a work
of art is the end product and visual expression of an
artist's synthesis of nature into personal aesthetic
metaphors and symbols, they paved the way for the early
20th-century development of abstract and nonrepresentational
The Nabis were greatly influenced by Japanese woodcuts,
French Symbolist painting, and English Pre-Raphaelite art.
Their primary inspiration, however, stemmed from the
so-called Pont-Aven school which centred upon the painter
Gauguin Paul. Under Gauguin's direct guidance, Serusier
Paul, the group's founder, painted the first Nabi work,
“Landscape at the Bois d'Amour at Pont-Aven” (also called
the “Talisman,” 1888).
Armed with his painting and the authority of Gauguin's
teachings, Serusier returned to Paris from Pont-Aven and
converted many of his artist friends, who received his
aesthetic doctrines as a mystical revelation. Assuming the
name Nabis (from Hebrew navi, “prophet,” or “seer”), the
original members of the group were the French artists Denis
Maurice (with Serusier the group's main theoretician),
Bonnard Pierre, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Roussel Ker Xavier,
Ranson Paul, Vuillard Edouard, and Rene Piot. Later, a Dutch
painter, Jan Verkade, and the Swiss-born Vallotton Felix
joined the group, as did two French sculptors, Lacombe
Georges and Maillol Aristide.
In 1891 the Nabis held their first exhibition, attempting
in their works to illustrate Denis's dictum: “A picture,
before being a war horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is
essentially a flat surface covered by colours in a certain
order.” They soon began to apply this idea to such varied
works as posters, stained glass, theatre sets, and book
illustrations. But dissensions and desertions quickly
occurred within the group, which finally disbanded in 1899.
Only Vuillard and Bonnard, who came to call themselves
Intimists, and Maillol continued to produce major works of
Intimism - variety of late 19th- and early 20th-century
painting that made an intense exploration of the domestic
interior as subject matter. It was practiced principally by
Bonnard Pierre and Vuillard Edouard, the two most
distinguished members of the Nabis. To convey the warmth,
comfort, and quiet isolation of interior scenes, Bonnard and
Vuillard used the Impressionist broken-colour technique of
capturing the light and atmosphere of the fleeting moment.
But unlike the Impressionists, who derived their colours
from precise observation of the visual world, these painters
exaggerated and distorted natural colour to expressmood.
Both Bonnard and Vuillard displayed a strong decorative
sense in the arrangement of dense areas of colour. Using
rich, subdued colours, Vuillard produced paintings
characterized by harmonious composition and exquisite form.
Bonnard, somewhat less concerned with formal structure,
infused a playful tenderness into his bright, gently
coloured scenes (which usually included the unobtrusive
figure of his wife). Although Intimism did not attract a
wealth of followers as a movement, its achievements were
considerable enough to give it an influential place in the
art of the period. The term Intimism is best characterized
by Andre Gide's description of Vuillard's four-panel Figures
and Interiors (1896) as art “speaking in a low tone,
suitable to confidences.”
The Pont-Aven filiation was a singular phenomenon affecting several
generations of painters. The new understanding of colour out of
which it arose was not in itself Symbolist, but under its influence
artists rejected the realistic or naturalistic style favoured by
those who naively believed in "science and progress".
By contrast, the Rose+Croix Salon, founded in 1892 by the
novelist and publicist Josephin Peladan (1859-1918), was intended to
provide Symbolist art with an ideological underpinning. It lasted
only six years, and its chief merit was to bring together works from
all over Europe.
In Huysmans' novel La-Bas (Down There), one of his characters
speaks of Peladan as the "magus of trash" and the "Wobbly Man from
the South" (Peladan was born in Lyon). "These people are, for the
most part, old, failed columnists, journalists or petty youths
seeking to exploit the taste of a public worn out by Positivism!...
In addition to the dupes and simpletons, these little sects harbour
some frightful charlatans and windbags. - Peladan, among others..."
Theo van Rysselberghe, writing in 1892 to Octave Maus, shared
Huysmans' view: "Nothing is quite as sickening as the self-promotion
of Peladan and his abominable long-haired accomplices... and it is
sad to see worthwhile people believing in the sincerity and honest
intentions of this crooked character."
The son of a publisher of religious and literary periodicals,
Peladan was an eccentric and exhibitionistic Catholic who claimed to
have discovered Christ's tomb in Jerusalem (in the Mosque of Omar).
He acquired a measure of celebrity through his 1884 novel Le Vice
supreme (The Supreme Vice), for which Felicien Rops drew the
frontispiece and Barbey d'Aurevilly contributed a highly laudatory
Peladan revived for his own purposes the defunct secret society
of the Rosicrucians ("Rose+Croix"), which had brought together
various occult movements in the early 17th century. Its twin goals
had been world faith and a universal religion; the English
theosopher Robert Fludd (1574-1637) was a representative member. The
mission of Peladan 's Rose+Croix Salon (Salon de la Rose+Croix) was
to "honour and serve the ideal."
In 1891, Peladan, the poet Saint-Pol Roux and Count Antoine de la
Rochefoucauld promulgated "The Commandments of the Aesthetic
Rose+Croix". They proscribed history, patriotic and military
painting, "all representation of contemporary life," portrait
painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, "all animals either
domestic or connected with sport... flowers, bodegones, fruit,
accessories and other exercises that painters are habitually
insolent enought to exhibit." On the positive side, "in order to
favour mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, the order welcomes any
work based on legend, myth, allegory, or dream..."
The salon attracted artists from France, Belgium, the
Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany; participants included
Ferdinand Hodler, Carlos Schwabe, Jan Toorop, Fernand Khnopff, Jean
Delville, Georges Minne and Xavier Mellery.
The Joy of Life
Style of painting that flourished in France around the
turn of the 20th century. Fauve artists used pure, brilliant
colour aggressively applied straight from the paint tubesto
create a sense of an explosion on the canvas.
The Fauves painted directly from nature, as the
Impressionists had before them, but Fauvist works were
invested with a strong expressive reaction to the subjects
portrayed. First formally exhibited in Paris in 1905,
Fauvist paintings shocked visitors to the annual Salon
d'Automne; one of these visitors was the critic Louis
Vauxcelles, who, because of the violence of their works,
dubbed the painters fauves (“wild beasts”).
The leader of the group was Henri Matisse, who had
arrived at the Fauve style after experimenting with the
various Post-Impressionist approaches of Paul Gauguin,
Vincent van Gogh, and Georges Seurat. Matisse's studies led
him to rejecttraditional renderings of three-dimensional
space and to seek instead a new picture space defined by
movement of colour. He exhibited his famous Woman with the
Hat (1905) at the 1905 exhibition. In this painting, brisk
strokes of colour—blues, greens, and reds—form an energetic,
expressive view of the woman. The crude paint application,
which left areas of raw canvas exposed, was appalling to
viewers at the time.
The other major Fauvists were Andre Derain, who had
attended school with Matisse in 1898–99, and Maurice de
Vlaminck, who was Derain's friend. They shared Matisse's
interest in the expressive function of colour in painting,
and they first exhibited together in 1905. Derain's Fauvist
paintings translate every tone of a landscape into pure
colour, which he applied with short, forceful brushstrokes.
The agitated swirls of intense colour in Vlaminck's works
are indebted to the expressive power of van Gogh.
Three young painters from Le Havre, France, were also
influenced by Matisse's bold and vibrant work. Othon Friesz
found the emotional connotations of the bright Fauve colours
a relief from the mediocre Impressionism he had practiced;
Raoul Dufy developed a carefree ornamental version of the
bold style; and Georges Braque created a definite sense of
rhythm and structure out of small spots of colour,
foreshadowing his development of Cubism. Albert Marquet,
Matisse's fellow student at the Йcole des Beaux-Arts in the
1890s, also participated in Fauvism, as did the Dutchman
Kees van Dongen, who applied the style todepictions of
fashionable Parisian society. Other painters associated with
the Fauves were Georges Rouault, Henri Manguin, Charles
Camoin, and Jean Puy.
For most of these artists, Fauvism was a transitional,
learning stage. By 1908 a revived interest in Paul Cйzanne's
vision of the order and structure of nature had led many of
them to reject the turbulent emotionalism of Fauvism in
favour of the logic of Cubism. Matisse alone pursued the
course he had pioneered, achieving a sophisticated balance
between his own emotions and the world he painted.
The work of some of the Nabis and Pont-Aven artists (Emile Bernard,
Felix Vallotton, Charles Filiger) was also exhibited.
Peladan, obeying the peculiar logic of his public persona, in due
course adopted the title of "Sar" and replaced his given name,
Josephin, by the more resonantly Babylonian first name "Merodak".
The Gust of Wind
1986And it was in the guise of an oriental magus that he was
portrayed by Alexandre Seon in 1891.
With Peladan and Antoine de la Rochefoucauld, Seon was one of the
founders of the Rose+Croix Salon, where he often exhibited to
considerable critical praise from the Symbolist critics.
Though the portrait genre was proscribed by the Rose+Croix, this
exception was reclassified as an honneur iconique and thus became
Standing outside trends and movements, Odilon Redon (1840-1916), a
native of Bordeaux, produced a rich and enigmatic corpus: "Like
music," he declared, "my drawings transport us to the ambiguous
world of the indeterminate." In contrast with Goya's monsters and
Kubin's nightmare visions, his work is imbued with a melancholy
passivity. While origins of this disposition must be sought in the
artist's experience, the overall effect is entirely consistent with
the moods of Symbolism that we have defined: nocturnal, autumnal,
and lunar rather than solar. During the early part of Redon's
career, the nocturnal did indeed predominate. Only later did he
admit the light of day. His mature production began around 1875 when
Redon entered the shadowy world of charcoal and the lithographer's
stone. This period yielded sequences such as In Dream (1879), and
Origins (1883). Redon made it clear that they had been inspired by
his dreams, and they inspire in the spectator a conviction like that
It was only in the 1890s that he begin to use the luminous,
musical tones of pastel and oils. These became the dominant media of
the last fifteen years of his life. Redon's art was always commanded
by his dreams, but the thematic content of his work over his last
twenty years is more densely mythical, brimming with newfound hope
and light which rose quite unexpectedly out of the depths of the
artist's personality. This is particularly apparent in the various
canvases depicting the chariot of Apollo, the god of the sun.
The Fall of Icarus