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SYMBOLISM in Great Britain & United States

Thomas Cooper Gotch
The Message
An art with obvious affinities to Symbolism had appeared in England in the 1850s - ten years before the Symbolist phase of Gustave Moreau and thirty years before Moreas' manifesto. The ideological context was, of course, very different. In France, the secular and scientistic overtones of realism found their ideological justification in hostility to the Catholic Church. In England, as we have seen, the influential theoretician John Ruskin (1819-1900) regarded the imitation of nature as a pious tribute to the Creator. As a painter, Ruskin used a cyanometer to measure the intensity of the sky's blue; the greater the precision with which an artist depicted nature, the more perfect the tribute paid to God.

Ruskin concerns us here because he took up the cudgels on behalf of the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of young artists which included John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Both displayed highly precocious talents: Millais was ten when he entered Sass's School (which prepared pupils for the Royal Academy), and was admitted to the Academy at eleven. Rossetti was admitted to Sass's at thirteen, and entered the Academy four years later. The two young men met in 1848 (aged 19 and 20 respectively) through William Holman Hunt, whose Eve of Saint Agnes, based on the poem by Keats, was much admired by Rossetti.

The three shared an antipathy to the tradition of chiaroscuro and "tobacco juice" hues favoured by the Academy since the days of its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (whom the three young men dubbed "Sir Sloshua"). They announced that, in the interests of naturalism and of truth, they would use only bright colours and unified lighting, turning for inspiration to Italian painters of the centuries before Raphael, in particular to Orcagna and Benozzo Gozzoli. The three of them therefore established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which eventually came to include four further members. As a token of membership, they pledged to sign their paintings P.R.B. but kept the significance of the acronym to themselves. Enquiries elicited various suggestions such as "Please Ring Bell"; Rossetti's version, as Timothy Hilton notes in his book on the Pre-Raphaelites (London/New York 1970), was "Penis Rather Better".

Nothing in their early style connects them with Symbolism. The critics were predictably hostile to their innovations, mounting a vigorous attack. In 1851, at the height of this onslaught, one of the new members appealed to Ruskin, who wrote a letter to the Times on their behalf. "I have no acquaintance with any of these artists and only a very imperfect sympathy with them," he stated. But he went on to commend Charles Allston Collins' painting Convent Thoughts: "I happen to have a special acquaintance with the water plant Alisma Plantago and never saw it so thoroughly or so well drawn."

Inapposite as Ruskin's defence seems, it had the desired effect, and the young Pre-Raphaelites wrote to him to express their gratitude. On the day on which he received their letter, Ruskin and his young wife paid an unexpected visit to Millais. Ruskin was ten years older than Millais and began to hope that, under his guidance, the younger artist would become the Turner of his day. The upshot was unexpected: during a holiday together in Scotland Millais painted Ruskin's portrait and Effie Ruskin fell in love with Millais. Two years later she left Ruskin, her marriage was annulled, and she married Millais.

Of course, realism was not the sole criterion in English art of this period. The public was greatly enamoured of the country's medieval heritage, which had survived better than that of France. It also favoured fairy tales and stories of witchcraft and magic derived from Celtic legends. Germany was the principal foreign influence. Albert, the Prince Consort (1819-1861), was German, and through him the public became acquainted with the German Nazarene movement, which sought to combine exact observation of nature with a form of romantic archaism.

The precocious John Everett Millais (1829-1896) did his best work before he was thirty. At the age of twenty-three he painted his famous Ophelia drifting downstream with her scattered nosegay; four years later, in 1856, he painted Autumn Leaves, an affecting symbolic work in which four young girls are seen burning leaves under a beautiful evening sky. The work is a melancholy momento mori, a very English and very 19th century equivalent to Herrick's celebrated imperative "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may".

That same year he completed The Blind Girl, in which, with ostentatious virtuosity, he depicted the blind girl surrounded by the beauties of a nature that she cannot see. The following year came a somewhat enigmatic work in Arthurian vein, Sir humbras at the Ford. A grey-haired knight on horseback fords the river; he carries a barefoot girl and boy across the ford with him. The painting became so famous that Sir John Tenniel parodied it in the figure of the White Knight in Lewis Caroll's Through the Looking Glass. Millais, at the age of twenty-eight, now drops out of our story. Henceforth he devoted himself to portraits and history painting, which earned him fame, wealth and ultimately a knighthood.

John Everett Millais


Things went otherwise with his friend Rossetti (1828-1882). The son of an Italian political refugee, he was not only a painter but a poet; he wrote The Blessed Damozel, set by Claude Debussy as the cantata La Demoiselle Elue. His strongest works have intimate connections with his own life and the women in it.

In 1850, a young member of the Brotherhood accompanied his mother to her milliner. Elizabeth Siddal, the salesgirl, dazzled him. He made friends with her and she soon became the favourite model of the young artists. Two years later, Rossetti and Elizabeth were living together. In 1855 they were married. There was no happy ending to the story; Rossetti was unfaithful and Elizabeth committed suicide in 1862 by taking an overdose of laudanum.

Rossetti was shattered. At the age of thirty-four, he suddenly aged and grew fat. He left the house where Elizabeth had died and moved to Chelsea where he surrounded himself with an exotic menagerie: "owls, rabbits, doormice, wombats, woodchucks, wallabies, a raccoon, parrots, peacocks, lizards, salamanders, a laughing jackass and a Brahmin bull," in Timothy Hilton's inventory.

A year later, Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix as a last tribute to Elizabeth. The work represents the Beatrice of Rossetti's namesake, Dante, with whom he strongly identified. Beatrice bears the features of Elizabeth Siddal and is shown in a state of ecstatic receptivity at the instant of death. A flame-red bird, the Holy Ghost, swoops down to place a poppy in her hands (the flower is doubtless a symbol of oblivion, but one should also note that laudanum is derived from opium). It is thought that the two figures in the background represent Eros (in red) and Dante (by analogy, Rossetti himself) in darker clothes.

Another woman was soon to enter the artist's life. Five years before Elizabeth's death, Rossetti and Burne-Jones had been much taken by the sculptural beauty of Jane Burden. They had met her at the theatre in Oxford during the summer of 1857. The purpose of their visit was to fresco the Oxford Union Debating Hall, but they were so ignorant of fresco technique that the works began to fade six months after completion. Jane was immediately recruited as a model and soon after married another member of the Brotherhood, William Morris (1834-1896), who established an influential interior-decorating firm producing wallpaper, curtains, tapestries and furniture.

Some time after Elizabeth's death, Jane Burden left Morris and went to live with Rossetti. She was the model for such paintings as Venus Verticordia (1864-1868), La Ghirlandaia (1873) and the impressive Astarte Syriaca (1877). In each of these paintings, Rossetti foregrounds Jane's highly characteristic features, endowing them with a fetishized sensuality of undoubted fascination. In 1872, ten years after Elizabeth's death, Rossetti himself took an overdose of laudanum, but survived.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Astarte Syriaca

Rossetti was the most "Symbolist" of the Pre-Raphaelites; the others were, for the most part, painstaking realists. The distinction had little resonance in England. In France, when Gauguin painted The Vision after the Sermon, his old friend Pissarro aspersed Gauguin's sincerity. England escaped this ideological storm.

Another member of the Brotherhood, William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), carried his obsession with realism to the point of sailing to the Holy Land, in the hope that his religious paintings would acquire greater authenticity. For his painting The Scapegoat, Hunt tethered a billy-goat in the desert near the Dead Sea. Appropriately enough, the animal died.

Hunt's most celebrated work is probably The Light of the World. A preoccupied Christ, wearing a threefold crown of light, gold and thorns, holds a lantern in his hand; benighted, he knocks at a door. As the tall weeds growing on the threshold evince, the door has long been closed. It is, of course, the door of the soul. Lithographic reproductions of the work were once to be found in Christian schools the world over. The edifying message of the painting conformed to public expectations of the time. Oscar Wilde's observation that "All art is quite useless" should probably be understood as a provocation directed towards those who believed that all art must be socially and morally useful rather than his last word on the subject.

Rossetti did not possess the technical mastery of Millais. Millais' realism, notably in his Ophelia, is as obsessive as Hunt's; Rossetti was less concerned with detail than cither Hunt or Millais. He turned to his own advantage the difficulty he experienced with perspective, creating paintings whose lack of depth suggests a timeless world distinct from that of everyday life, His painting is more allusive than that of the other Pre-Raphaelites - perhaps in compensation - ana as a result his work is both more evocative and more moving.

Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was reading theology at Oxford when, with William Morris, he discovered Rossetti's work. When Rossetti delivered a lecture at the Working Man's College, Burne-Jones approached him, soon becoming a disciple, though Rossetti was only five years his senior. Burne-Jones' women are derived from the Renaissance figures he had had occasion to study in the course of several journeys to Italy. Mild, pale and ethereal, they appear in paintings dealing with Greek mythology and Celtic legends. Burne-Jones' paintings, like Rossetti's, lack real depth, and this, along with their narrative or allegorical content, lends his work a Symbolist quality.

Edward Coley Burne-Jones
The Wedding of Psyche


Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

group of young British painters who banded together in 1848 in reaction against what they conceived to be the unimaginative and artificial historical painting of the Royal Academy and who purportedly sought to express a new moral seriousness and sincerity in their works. They were inspired by Italian art of the 14th and 15th centuries, and their adoption of the name Pre-Raphaelite expressed their admiration for what they saw as the direct and uncomplicated depiction of nature typical of Italian painting before the High Renaissance and, particularly, before the time of Raphael. Although the Brotherhood's active life lasted not quite five years, its influence on painting in Britain, and ultimately on the decorative arts and interior design, was profound.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 by three Royal Academy students: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a gifted poet as well as a painter, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, all under 25 years of age. The painter James Collinson, the painter and critic F.G. Stephens, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and the critic William Michael Rossetti (Dante Gabriel's brother) joined them by invitation. The painters William Dyce and Ford Madox Brown, who acted in part as mentors to the younger men, came to adapt their own work to the Pre-Raphaelite style.

The Brotherhood immediately began to produce highly convincing and significant works. Their pictures of religious and medieval subjects strove to revive the deep religious feeling and naive, unadorned directness of 15th-century Florentine and Sienese painting. The style that Hunt and Millais evolved featured sharp and brilliant lighting, a clear atmosphere, and a near-photographic reproduction of minute details. They also frequently introduced a private poetic symbolism into their representations of biblical subjects and medieval literary themes. Rossetti's work differed from that of the others in its more arcane aesthetic and in the artist's general lack of interest in copying the precise appearance of objects in nature. Vitality and freshness of vision are the most admirable qualities of the seearly Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Some of the founding members exhibited their first works anonymously, signing their paintings with the monogram PRB. When their identity and youth were discovered in 1850, their work was harshly criticized by the novelist Charles Dickens, among others, not only for its disregard of academic ideals of beauty but also for its apparent irreverence in treating religious themes with an uncompromising realism. Nevertheless, the leading art critic of the day, John Ruskin, stoutly defended Pre-Raphaelite art, and the members of the group were never without patrons.

By 1854 the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had gone their individual ways, but their style had a wide influence and gained many followers during the 1850s and early '60s. In the late 1850s Dante Gabriel Rossetti became associated with the younger painters Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris and moved closer to a sensual and almost mystical romanticism. Millais, the most technically gifted painter of the group, went on to become an academic success. Hunt alone pursued the same style throughout most of his career and remained true to Pre-Raphaelite principles. Pre-Raphaelitism in its later stage is epitomized by the paintings of Burne-Jones, characterized by a jewel-toned palette, elegantly attenuated figures, and highlyimaginative subjects and settings.

Encyclopædia Britannica


William Holman Hunt
The Lady of Shalott
Illustrations for Poems by Alfred Tennyson
Burne-Jones in turn attracted the veneration of Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), probably the most remarkable English illustrator of the industrial age. He too was a precocious talent: at the age of fifteen he had illustrated his favourite books (Madame Bovary, Manon Lescaut). By the time of his death at the age of twenty-six (he died of of tuberculosis, in Menton, where he had gone in search of a favourable climate), he had made a lasting impact on the art of illustration. It was a field in which a number of outstanding artists were then working, including Walter Crane, co-founder with William Morris of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.

It was through Burne-Jones that, in 1891, Beardsley, then aged eighteen, met Oscar Wilde. Wilde was writing his Salome in French (Arthur Douglas subsequently translated it into English), and asked Beardsley to illustrate it.

Beardsley's drawings are admirably suited to the technical possibilities of industrial reproduction. Ambitious and supremely gifted, the young artist developed a perverse and playfully theatrical style partly inspired by Greek vase painting. The venomous elegance of his drawings has an ornamental rhythm akin to the abstract decorations of Islamic palaces. For Salome, Beardsley ironically appropriated the decadent theme of the evil, emasculating woman. His characters are often grotesque - notably in drawings he later described as "naughty", representing, for example, grimacing "Gobbi" afflicted with monumentally tumescent phalluses. As a homosexual, Beardsley did not experience the anguish awoken in artists by the problematic state of relations between the sexes. Wilde described Beardsley's muse as having "moods of terrible laughter".


Beardsley and Mackintosh

The young English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) came to the critics' attention with his 300 drawings for a version of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, which was published by William Morris' Kelmscott Press. He also developed his own unique stylistic mark, based on very artificial figures, immersed in ornamental detail that was secondary but distinct in its superficial elegance and fine line work. A prolific illustrator who only worked in black and white, he skilfully translated the aesthetic spirit of the hedonistic fin de siecle culture into his illustrations for Oscar Wilde's Salome, published in 1894. Rich in hidden metaphors and perverse erotic details, the drawings are a sophisticated expression of a cerebral art form. With these and other works published in The Studio from 1893 and in The Yellow
Book from 1894, Beardsley exerted a great influence over graphic art in Europe and, especially, in the US.

Aubrey Beardsley

In the field of furniture, contrasting with the exuberant and precious ornamentation of the French style, and in particular with that of the Ecole de Nancy where echoes of Rococo were still present, a more rational and controlled use of line was adopted in Britain. Greater attention was paid to practicality, anticipating furniture design in the 20th century. In Scotland, the designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) formed The Glasgow Four with Herbert MacNair and the sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald. The distinguishing points of their style were the preference for straight lines and geometrical shapes, rather than curved lines and organic shapes, and a symmetry of composition based on aligned and parallel elements. In 1897, Mackintosh started on a large architectural project - the design of the Glasgow School of Art. It is an austere, compact building, with a "disturbed symmetry" due to the presence of some asymmetrical elements. The features of his rigorously simple architecture, as seen in the Glasgow School of Art and in some privately commissioned houses, are also to be found in his production of furniture, which helped to spread the style internationally. He abandoned the use of colour and precious decorative detail, adopting instead the exclusive, sharp black-and-white design of varnished wood and a grid design with chequered bars (which he claimed was of Japanese derivation), seen in his famous high-backed chair.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Harvest Moon


Art Nouveau

ornamental style of art that flourished between about 1890and 1910 throughout Europe and the United States. Art Nouveau is characterized by its use of a long, sinuous, organic line and was employed most often in architecture, interior design, jewelry and glass design, posters, and illustration. It was a deliberate attempt to create a new style, free of the imitative historicism that dominated much of 19th-century art and design. Art Nouveau developed first in England and soon spread to the European continent, where it was called Jugendstil in Germany, Sezessionstil in Austria, Stile Floreale (or Stile Liberty) in Italy, and Modernismo (or Modernista) in Spain. The term Art Nouveau was coined by a gallery in Paris that exhibited much of this work.

In England the style's immediate precursors were the Aestheticism of the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, who depended heavily on the expressive quality of organic line, and the Arts and Crafts Movement of William Morris, who established the importance of a vital style in the applied arts. On the European continent, Art Nouveau was also influenced by experiments with expressive line by the painters Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The movement was also partly inspired by a vogue for the linear patterns of Japanese prints (ukiyo-e).

The distinguishing ornamental characteristic of Art Nouveau is its undulating, asymmetrical line, often taking the form of flower stalks and buds, vine tendrils, insect wings, and other delicate and sinuous natural objects; the line may be elegant and graceful or infused with a powerfully rhythmic and whiplike force. In the graphic arts the line subordinates all other pictorial elements—form, texture, space, and colour—to its own decorative effect. In architecture and the other plastic arts, the whole of the three-dimensional form becomes engulfed in the organic, linear rhythm, creating a fusion between structure and ornament. Architecture particularly shows this synthesis of ornament and structure; a liberal combination of materials—ironwork, glass, ceramic, and brickwork—was employed, for example, in the creation of unified interiors in which columns and beams became thick vines with spreading tendrils and windows became both openings for light and air and membranous outgrowths of the organic whole. This approach was directly opposed to the traditional architectural values of reason and clarity of structure.

There were a great number of artists and designers who worked in the Art Nouveau style. Some of the more prominent were the Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who specialized in a predominantly geometric line and particularly influenced the Austrian Sezessionstil; the Belgian architects Henry van de Velde and Victor Horta, whose extremely sinuous and delicate structures influenced the French architect Hector Guimard, another important figure; the American glassmaker Louis Comfort Tiffany; the French furniture and ironwork designer Louis Majorelle; the Czechoslovakian graphic designer-artist Alphonse Mucha; the French glass and jewelry designer Renй Lalique; the American architect Louis Henry Sullivan, who used plantlike Art Nouveau ironwork to decorate his traditionally structured buildings; and the Spanish architect and sculptor Antonio Gaudн, perhaps the most original artist of the movement, who went beyond dependence on line to transform buildings into curving, bulbous, brightly coloured, organic constructions.

After 1910 Art Nouveau appeared old-fashioned and limited and was generally abandoned as a distinct decorative style. It was important, however, in moving toward the 20th-century aesthetic of unity of design.

Encyclopædia Britannica

Mahlon Blaine was a twentieth century American artist who is remembered chiefly today for his brilliant illustrations to many books, both children's and adult. His mastery of line was, and remains, unique and masterful. Likened, rightfully, to Aubrey Beardsley, Blaine was another original mind, and his interest in portraying the animal nature of humanity lost him a wider audience.

The only monograph on the artist so far published is The Art of Mahlon Blaine (Peregrine Books, 1982), and this wonderful book, which includes a deep insight into the artist by his colleague Gershon Legman, contains a good cross-section of Blaine's colour and b-&-w art and an excellent bibliography of Blaine books compiled by Roland Trenary.

Many other books illustrated by Blaine turn up commonly in secondhand bookshops: his illustrated versions of Voltaire's Candide and Sterne's A Sentimental Journey are frequently encountered. These books are good examples of his work, but the enthusiast is advised to pursue the many other Blaine-illustrated books, especially the weird-fantastic fiction titles so perfectly-suited to his work.

Mahlon Blaine

Other British artists of this period were active in other circles. George Frederick Watts, for instance, favoured a more "continental" manner - his "soft focus" is reminiscent of Levy-Dhurme or of the more Symbolist works of Fantin-Latour. "I paint ideas, not things," he declared. "My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man." To which one may retort, with Odilon Redon : "There is a literary idea wherever plastic invention is lacking." From today's perspective, Redon's dictum is the aptest criterion for evaluating works of the Symbolist period. Not all Symbolist painters attained such power.

George Frederick Watts


As the spokesman of innovative aesthetic theory, Oscar Wilde (1854— 1900) deserves our further attention. He personified the figure of the dandy а la Robert de Montesquiou though with greater wit and more manifest humanity. His comedies, laced with delightful paradoxes, deride the prejudices and snobbism of the Victorian society he knew so well. His essays present his conception of art in a certain whimsical disorder. As a public figure he was the embodiment of the fin de siecle aesthete. It is thought that Bunthorne, in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience (1881), was originally conceived as a caricature of Rossetti, but the British public assumed it was a portrait of Wilde, who had already made himself famous at the age of twenty-seven by his inspired posturing. Bunthorne is a highly affected fellow who readily acknowledges in private that he has no use for the aesthetic oddities he publicly pretends to enjoy. The satire was amusing and reassured a public disconcerted by the aesthetic preferences of Wilde or of artists like Rossetti and Whistler. The aphorism cited above comes early in Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is the last of a scries that deserves to be quoted in full:

"All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
(...) All art is quite useless."

Some of these aphorisms are rather modern in tone, though the portentous notion of a hidden "peril" has dated badly. Wilde gives concise expression to some essential truths about art: art is indeed both surface and symbol, both delectation and communication, an intimate fusion of what is represented and of the means by which it is represented. It is at once an "aesthetic arrangement", in Whistler's famous phrase, and an evocation of an aspect of experience which cannot be signified by any other means.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) may be described as a precursor of Symbolist art in the same sense as Goya, Fuseli or Blake. British by birth, he made his career in the United States, to where his parents emigrated when he was eighteen. His allegorical work, an outgrowth of the Romantic spirit, possesses irresistible charm. The sequence of paintings entitled The Voyage of Life is reminiscent of allegories of human life in the English tradition of edifying literature, of which Pilgrim's Progress is perhaps the most perfect example. By contrast, The Titan's Goblet, which dominates a vast landscape, is born of the same imaginative vein as Goya's Panic. Partly because Cole died relatively young, at 47, the more imaginative part of his њuvre had little influence on the next generation of artists, though he did contribute to the founding of the Hudson River School of landscape painting.

His The Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire have a clearly didactic purpose, yet Cole's treatment possesses a colouristic charm enhanced by his vision of wide-open spaces. This poetic reverie delighted his public, which also found comfort in the idea that it was being instructed and elevated.

Thomas Cole
The Voyage of Life: Youth


Though there had always been a taste for imaginative painting in Protestant America, the country was not receptive to the Symbolist aesthetic. Decadence had emerged in Europe in opposition to the scientific world view and the religion of progress; it had little appeal in the New World, where these were founding tenets. Like the Romans confronted with the art of the Greeks, the popular classes in America, with their pragmatic outlook and fundamentalist religion, were suspicious of any notion that artists had access to a "superior reality". The populist and mercantile mentality, so pervasive in the United States, inclined to see in a taste for the arts a foolish affectation.

The poet W. H. Auden went so far as to suggest that, when Oscar Wilde was sentenced to jail in 1895 for homosexuality, it reinforced the assumption, already well entrenched in the United States, that art and poetry were pastimes attractive only to women and effeminates. Wilde had enjoyed tremendous success with the media during a lecture tour in the United States when he was only twenty-seven. On that occasion he had displayed great virtuosity in provocation, and the public he had successfully shocked felt thoroughly vindicated by his condemnation fourteen years later.

The dominant trend in America was a form of realism whose romantic overtones were particularly prominent in the representation of nature. Symbolist works were relatively rare, but occasionally appeared in the production of artists practising other genres. Most of those today classified as Symbolists received their artistic training in Europe. This was the case with John White Alexander (1866-1915), and Elihu Vedder (1836-1923). Vedder came to fame through his illustrations for the Ru-baiyat of Omar Khayyam. He was taught the rudiments of his art by a genre painter, Т.Н. Matteson, and went to Europe for the first time in 1856. He never considered studying in England: it was Paris and above all Florence that attracted him. In 1867 he settled in Rome, though he frequently returned to the United States. He also painted landscapes in a romantic vein, but we are concerned here with his fantastical or allegorical works such as The Cup of Death.

A self-taught painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) also came to Europe, traversing the Atlantic four times between 1877 and 1896. In the 1880s he began to treat sombre, expressive subjects drawn from the operas of Wagner (Siegfried and The Flying Dutchman, and the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. His Death on a Pale Horse is an expressive conjunction of the imaginary and the real; the apocalyptic figure of Death is shown galloping around an ordinary racecourse.

Albert Pinkham Ryder


Arthur Bowen Davies (1862-1928) played a historic role in American art: as President of the Society of Independent Artists, he contributed to the organisation of the famous Armory Show, which brought the American public into contact with modern art. Critics of the day considered him a Romantic artist, but the label is somewhat uninformative. A work like The Unicorns (1906) stands at the crossroads between Romanticism, Symbolism, and even Surrealism.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) went to Europe when his father, an engineer, was put in charge of the construction of a railway between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He studied at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, where his classmates included Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros. Together they created the Society of Three (Societe des Trois), an amiable fiction which allowed Whistler, who settled in London, to maintain his contacts with artistic and literary circles in Paris; his friend Stйphane Mallarme translated his famous Ten O'Clock Lecture into French. Whistler was no Symbolist in his subject matter, though he had in common with the Symbolists a resolve to dissociate art from the utilitarian. This, of course, he shared with Wilde. In 1885, six years before Wilde published the views quoted above, Whistler declared: "Art is a goddess of dainty thought - reticent of habit, abjuring all obtrusiveness, purposing in no way to better others. She is, withal, selfishly occupied with her own perfection only - having no desire to teach." (Ten O'Clock Lecture).

Alphonse Legros

SYMBOLISM in Belgium and the Netherlands
Belgium became an independent state in 1830, and during the half-century that concerns us here was a crossroads of commerce and culture. The French language spoken in one part of the country favoured ties with France, but Belgium was also receptive to the influence of Germany and Britain. Between 1860 and 1914, the country enjoyed unprecedented industrial and economic development, significantly aided by King Leopold II's creation of a state in the Congo basin (it was founded in 1878 and remained his private property until 1У0У). This influx of wealth helps to explain the sudden development of the arts in Belgium.

Culturally and socially, the country had not followed the same path as France, its closest neighbour. Historical circumstance, notably the fifteen year period after Waterloo when it was part of the predominantly Calvinist and Dutch-speaking Netherlands, had enhanced the importance of Catholicism among all social classes. These economic and socio-cultural factors clearly affected the development of Belgian art of the period and in particular the solitary and exalted mood characteristic of Belgian Symbolism. Another factor was a wealthy and hospitable bourgeoisie, which took an active interest in literature and music. All this created an environment favourable to Symbolist art.

Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865) was an artist of uneven quality who nevertheless contrived, with the financial assistance of the Belgian government, to build himself a studio in the shape of a Greek temple; it now houses his Museum. Wiertz embodies the transition from Romanticism to Symbolism. The Beautiful Rosine (1847) is academic in technique but of a conception unusual for its time; the subject of death and the maiden had, of course, often been treated by German artists of the 16th century. It depicts a buxom nude gazing placidly at a skeleton whose skull is labelled with the work's title. The "Beautiful Rosine" is not the woman we thought she was. Wiertz's work affords amusing insights into contemporary attitudes. The devil attending The Novel Reader (1853) speeds her on the way to perdition with nothing more nefarious than the novels of Alexandre Dumas.

Somewhat surprisingly, the same subject was also dealt with by the witty and cynical Felicien Rops (1833-1898) in an 1878-1880 water-colour entitled The Librarian, though no author is singled out for election by the devil. Rops was an astonishing virtuoso graphic artist who exploited some of the commonplaces of the Symbolist repertoire with detachment and theatrical flair.

Antoine Wiertz
A Scene in Hell

Somewhat surprisingly, the same subject was also dealt with by the witty and cynical Felicien Rops (1833-1898) in an 1878-1880 water-colour entitled The Librarian, though no author is singled out for election by the devil. Rops was an astonishing virtuoso graphic artist who exploited some of the commonplaces of the Symbolist repertoire with detachment and theatrical flair.

He began his career in quite different vein, producing caricatures and humorous drawings for d satirical weekly Uylenspiegel, which he founded in 1856. Thereaftt like a great cinйaste, he sensed the drift of the cliches of his times and played upon them in masterly fashion. One constant in his work thus Woman, Death and the Devil, a theme that he handles with exuberantly provocative irony. On occasion the theme was imposed, in his illustrations for books such as Barbey d'Aurevilly's Les Diaboliques. More often it derives from his own imagination, as in Death at the Ball (1865-1875), which he began at about the time Gustaves Moreau was painting his Oedipus and the Sphinx. Rops here shew grater formal inventiveness than Moreau, seven years his senior; he might be said to anticipate Expressionism. His The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Pornokrates (both 1878) are similarly original conceptions.

Felicien Rops
La mujer y el pelele con abanico

Discussing Pornokrates in a letter to Rops, the Brussels lawyer and novelist Edmond Picard, who owned the work, spoke of "the feminine being (I'etre feminin) who dominates our age and is so amazingly different from her ancestors..." The phrase is conventional, but the very recurrence of cliches is what makes them significant. Rops also pandered to public demand by exploiting the cliches of his day, and it is a pleasure to watch his keen wit at work. Full of derision, his work also bears the imprint of that immense facility which, by his own admission, prevented him from reaching the heights in his chosen art form.

The father of Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) was an Austrian aristocrat who chose to reside in Belgium and was appointed Deputy Prosecutor of Bruges. As a result, Khnopff spent the first seven years of his life in that sublime but stagnant city; it appears in transfigured form in a number of his works. Khnopff carefully moulded his public persona, becoming a prize specimen of the dandy. He was not without wit and simultaneously pursued the profession of society portraitist. Around 1900, like des Esseintes, he drew up plans for a villa of geometrical lines and had it built for himself. Unfortunately, it has not survived. His motto, "on n'a que soi" ("one has only oneself"), made a principle of his overt narcissism. Khnopff showed his work at the Rose+Croix Salon at the invitation of Sar Peladan but his greatest triumph came when he exhibited at the Vienna Secession in 1898. Reacting to one such exhibition, the critic Felix Feneon singled him out for criticism: "M. Fernand Khnopff and a good number of his fellow exhibitors cannot be made to grasp the fact that a painting should first and foremost seduce by its rhythms, that a painter shows excessive humility in choosing subjects rich in literary meaning, that three pears on a table cloth by Paul Cezanne are moving and sometimes mystical, and that, when they paint it, the Wagnerian Valhalla is no more interesting than the House of Representatives." The parallel with Odilon Redon's self-imposed strictures is clear.

Though Khnopff indulged in the academic cliches of the age, in certain works he transcended them and showed real formal invention. One such work is Memories, a large pastel dating from 1889. Khnopff's superlative technique is central to the ambiguous charm of this painting. The model for all seven figure was Marguerite Khnopff, the artist's sister. Photographs often served Khnopff as studies for his paintings; Memories shows almost photographic precision of technique. Anticipating certain of today's mixed-media trends, Khnopff also retouched his own photos.

Fernand Khnopff

It has been said that he was in love with his sister; she perhaps became a second self within the hermetic bubble of his narcissism. This identification might also account for the androgynous ambiguity of a number of the women he painted; these are generally endowed with too large a chin to seem entirely feminine. Such is the case with the painting known variously as Art, or The Sphinx, or The Caresses (1896)

James Ensor (1860-1949) is too potent and fertile an artist to fit the categories available to theory. He clearly belongs among the Symbolists, but rather after the fashion of the poet Jules Laforgue. Both Ensor and Laforgue use their powers of derision to unmask and disintegrate the threadbare, skeletal shibboleths revered by their more solemn and blinkered colleagues.
Born in Ostend, the son of an English father and a Belgian mother, James Ensor received a hostile reception not only from the critics but also from his own supposedly avant-garde colleagues. He escaped expulsion from the Salon des XX in 1889 by a single vote - his own. It was around 1900, when he was past forty, that Ensor finally won the recognition until then denied him. He was awarded the title of Baron, but his belated success had an unexpected consequence: Ensor's inspiration ran dry and the man survived the artist.
By a strange coincidence, Ensor had the same childhood experience as Leonardo da Vinci: a large black bird flew in through the window and settled on the crib of the terrified child.

James Ensor
Christ's Entry into Brussels


Ensor's shopkeeping parents sold toys, articles for the beach, souvenirs and carnival masks. It is these masks, along with sardonic and insolent skeletons, that provide the dominant theme of Ensor's work. The ferocious sarcasm of his paintings, drawings and prints is, however, balanced by the pathos of his tragic representations of a Christ who figures as the artist's alter ego.
This identification, also to be found in the work of Paul Gauguin and Henry de Groux, may appear excessive if not indeed blasphemous. It is no doubt meant to assert the artist's singularity. But it also touches upon a rather less obvious psychological process. It is something of a commonplace to note that the ego is not fully formed at birth. It takes shape throughout childhood, moulded by the sometimes painful conflict between the anarchy of the drives on the one hand and the sometimes intolerable demands of the cultural ideal on the other. An ego that struggles to conform to accepted norms and is thus led, as artists often are, to take some other, less familiar route, may be tempted to regard itself as both hero and victim. This is why Christ's final triumph, the triumph of the "stone rejected by the builders and which is become the corner stone," stands as the model of a victory accomplished by sacrifice and voluntary suffering.

In Ensor's paintings, Christ's persecutors wear the features of the critics who attacked his work - names saved from oblivion only by the artist's resentment. But even the ultimate triumph of the painter-as-Christ, Ensor's colossal Christ's Entry into Brussels, is a hollow one. His diminutive, mild-featured Christ seems frail and isolated, overborne by a tide of brutal masks and rampant vulgarity. This may, in part, explain Ensor's reaction to his eventual success. He had sought the kind of sensitive acknowledgement that his work commands today, and received in its stead formal honours and unthinking accolades.
Ensor's startling palette and formal invention combine with his irony to remove him from the scope of contemporary stereotypes. No reproduction can do his colours justice, and the reader leafing through this book should bear in mind that Ensor's work needs more than most to be encountered face to face.

The work of Xavier Mellery (1845-1921) divides into two categories: a delicate, domestic world of some charm, and mural art of predictable allegorical content. Fernand Khnopff chose Mellery as his teacher, and The Abandoned Town might be considered a dreamlike transposition of the silent, shadowy scenes that feature in the best of Mellery's work.
The aspirations and imaginative powers of Henry de Groux (1867-1930) were clearly greater than his technical ability. He was a notably difficult character, a fact he despairingly acknowledged in his diary: "It is my destiny to compromise everything." His art nevertheless elicited a favourable reaction from Guillaume Apollinaire and an enthusiastic one from Lйon Bloy.

The latter hailed him as a prophet after seeing the Mocking of Christ (1887), which de Groux had painted at the age of twenty-one. The painting is comparable in its overblown rhetoric to the films of Abel Gance: a convulsive mass of human bodies engulfs the figure of Christ - whose appearance is modelled on that of the artist himself. The prophetic nature of his Great Upheaval has already been discussed; it does indeed convey in naive form, the sense of "world's end" that is more articulately set forth in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche.


Henry de Groux
The Death of Siegfried


Both Emile Fabry (1865-1966) and Jean Delville (1867-1953) proclaimed themselves "idealist" painters and strove to elevate the public through their art. Their work is consequently guided by edifying principles rather than by formal invention. In this respect, they are representative of much Symbolist art. Both displayed their work at the Rose+Croix Salon and were at one point influenced by Peladan.

Fabry lived to be over a hundred; he left a corpus of highly mannered works, all depressive faces and strangely swollen heads. These evoke the theatrical world of Maurice Maeterlinck; in the words of Felicien Rops, Maeterlinck's works were suited to "women of the North, with brackish hair, hydrocйphalie foreheads and other-worldly eyes, part angel and part seal".
The monstrous creatures of his painting The Gestures fit this description perfectly. Fabry himself described the period before 1900 as "the period of my nightmare", acknowledging the influences of Wagner, Maeterlinck, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Emile Fabry

Delville was a devotee of the occult who published a book entitled Dialogue among Ourselves. Cabbalistic, Occult and Idealist Arguments (Dialogue entre nous. Argumentation kabbalistique, occultiste, idealiste, 1895). In it, he developed various notions held by occultists: he believed in a divine fluid, reincarnation, dangerous telepathic forces, invultuation and ecstasy. These convictions guided his hand in works such as The Angel of Splendor; a rather over-deliberate vision of ecstasy, or Satan's Treasures, in which luxurious bodies lie sleeping among the seaweed and coral as Satan, with a dancer's agility, bestrides and takes possession of them.

Jean Delville
Satan's Treasures

The work of Georges Minne (1866-1941) exemplifies the anaemia and prostration of his age. It dwells insistently upon subjects such as mourning and impotence: a mother weeps over her dead child, adolescents are stilled amid the briars, men and women are racked and contorted by guilt. It was not by chance that the artist came to this sort of subject. Infant mortality was high at the time, but the mother with her dead child may also reflect the lack of spiritual perspectives experienced during the last decades of the century. Minne's form, radiating the intense and suffering religiosity of his country, is characterized by often painfully affected references to postures and attitudes in the work of the Flemish primitives. Copies of his Fountain of the Kneeling Youths (1898) are now to be seen in Brussels, Ghent, Vienna and Essen. It is probably the best work of his Symbolist period; elsewhere, the contorted gestures, the hysterically knotted hands, convey the idea of pathos rather than pathos itself. Minne stands on one of the outer limits of Symbolist sensibility.

George Minne
The Outcast


The intimate, dreamy works of William Degouve de Nuncques (1867-1935) show signs of the influence of both Mellery and Khnopff.

The Degouve de Nuncques were an old French family who settled in Belgium during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Degouve de Nuncques' father was a giant of a man who cultivated his eccentricity; in the words of the painter's friend, Henry de Groux, he "detests anything that represents authority, loves animals even more than mankind, and walks about with a loaded shotgun to shoot at neighbors bent on harming his cats."

He encouraged his son to daydream, thus favouring the development of a talent which owed more to imagination than to technical facility. Degouve de Nuncques' work is sometimes awkward, but a painting like The Pink House is singularly evocative of the feeling of homecoming elicited by a warmly lit house under a starry sky. Many of his works may be considered poetic evocations of childish daydreams, The Pink House among them. There is a childish innocence to these nocturnal visions in which a black swan sails silently past ivy-covered tree trunks, or angels kiss in the squares at night (The Angels of Night) while chestnut trees lift their white candle-sticks in the moonlight.

Leon Frederic (1865-1940), Belgian painter, reached Symbolism through an overexacting realism. Torn between Symbolism and naturalism, Frederic exhibited at the Brussels Salon in 1878, then with the Essor circle. In 1898 his works were exhibited at the Salon d'Art Ideahste. He also painted vast sociopolitical canvases.
Frederic, an idealist painter torn between Symbolism and academic realism and between lofty concepts and social commitment, produced remarkable works of symbolic depth.

Born, like Ensor, in Ostend, Leon Spilliaert (1881-1946) was the son of a wealthy perfumer. He was the last of the Belgian Symbolists. For many years he was afflicted with acute anxiety; his insomnia drove him to wander nightlong through deserted streets and along empty beaches. He haunted the street where Ensor lived, to the point where the latter remarked that he could never take a stroll on his own because Spilliaert was always at his door.

Spilliaert's work achieved its characteristic form while he was still quite young. By the age of 23, he was creating expressive and simplified forms of great authority; his singular use of visual rhythms and voids on occasion communicates a sense of anxiety worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. One such painting is Vertigo, Magic Staircase (1908) in which a female figure descends a nightmare staircase of ever larger steps. Other works stress a sense of solitude enhanced by endless empty beaches and the silent sea. The horizontality of the Belgian coast is made to seem as immutable as fate.
Spilliaert's mood shifted with the passing years. His marriage, the birth of his daughter, and his move to Brussels during the twenties gave his work a new orientation. As early as 1904 he had turned against his Symbolist works and was tempted to destroy them. Fortunately they survive, original in themselves and, like Munch, a significant point of transition between Art Nouveau and Expressionism.

Suffering from insomnia, this late Symbolist prowled by night through the streets and along the deserted beaches that he depicts. By the age of 23, he was creating expressive and simplified forms of great authority; his singular use of visual rhythms and voids on occasion communicates a sense of anxiety worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. One such painting is Vertigo in which a female figure descends a nightmare staircase of ever larger steps. Other works stress a sense of solitude enhanced by endless empty beaches and the silent sea. The horizontality of the Belgian coast is made to seem as immutable as fate. But humanity is present in the form of the truculent, metaphorical eroticism inhabiting this desolation, as in The Posts and The Forbidden Fruit.

Constant Montald
The Nest


Like Belgium, the Holland of the last decades of the 1800s was a prosperous country and a point of intersection for both commerce and culture. Unlike Belgium, Holland was and remains a Protestant country. This seems to have been the decisive factor that made Belgium rich in Symbolist art and Holland comparatively poor.

The form of realist art favoured in the Netherlands and exemplified at the turn of the century by the School of the Hague was the product of an implicit theology, a philosophy of life and of art which lies outside the present subject. Van Gogh, now probably the most famous painter of this period, was initially a practitioner (albeit a very independent one) of the style then prevailing in Holland; to find a new and different approach, he had to go to France. Should one conclude that the pragmatic outlook of a Protestant society had lost touch with the symbolic register active in Catholic countries - as of course throughout Asia, Africa and South America? A century of anthropological studies has clearly identified the symbolic structure of human societies and of our representations of the world. This structure is far from arbitrary; it obeys a logic similar to the logic of dreams. And scientific positivism, the dominant ideology of the turn of the century, could not perceive the function or logic of this register. This is what incited a "public weary of Positivism" (as Huysmans put it), to turn to "charlatans" and "windbags". It also led certain artists to put their art at the service of the Ideal - a fallacy similar to that of placing one's art at the service of the People.

Johan Thorn Prikker
on from the Cross

The two significant Symbolist figures of the Netherlands are Jan Toorop (1858-1928) and Johan Thorn Prikker (1868-1932). Toorop discovered Symbolism while staying in Belgium; Thorn Prikker was in turn influenced by Toorop and by his admiration for Maurice Denis.
Toorop is a painter of striking formal eccentricity. A partial explanation lies in his origin and childhood: he was half-Javanese and spent his childhood in Java. The figures encountered in his paintings are those of the Javanese shadow theater, with their long, thin arms. From our own perspective, the work of both Toorop and Thorn Prikker appears schematic and overliteral. Toorop himself offers a perfectly banal commentary on his painting The Three Fiancees (1893): "The central fiancйe evokes an inward, superior and beautiful desire... an ideal suffering... The fiancйe on the left symbolizes spiritual suffering. She is the mystic fiancйe, her eyes wide with fear...." The bride on the right has "a materialistic and profane expression..." and stands for the sensual world.

Thorn Prikker took Toorop's formalism a step further; the garland worn by The Bride echoes Christ's crown of thorns. The work is of considerable formal interest and suggests that the schematic forms favoured by both artists were stages in the process of abstraction.
It is significant that Toorop transformed his style in painting a testament of love for his infant daughter. The Young Generation shows the child seated in her high chair, turning her back on the past and lifting her arms to the luminous and mysterious world that opens before her.

Richard Nicolaus Roland Holst
Anangke (Necessity)

SYMBOLISM in 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 Nibelungen legend 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 a decadent; 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.

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's Symbolist 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


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, his Paraphrase 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. His Devil 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
Ulysses and the Sirens

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


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.

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, Klimt was 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 of Egon 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. Judith I

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 and anxiety 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, Kubin devoted 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 Leap and 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.

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. And in Death Leap, a Tom Thumb plunges toward his destiny: the vulva.

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

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.

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.