SYMBOLISM in Great Britain & United
Thomas Cooper Gotch
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
Deposition 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.