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Symbolism
 
 
 
SYMBOLISM in the Slav and the Mediterranean Countries
 
 
 
It is easily forgotten that Prague is further West than Vienna. The geography of our imagination is a construct sometimes independent of physical reality. Until 1918, Slovakia and the Czech Republic were part of the Austrian Empire and their artists had easy access to all that was going on in Vienna and the rest of Europe.

Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957) was born in Opocno in East Bohemia, and is best known today as one of the pioneers of abstraction. But ne turned in that direction when he was already past forty and had a considerable Symbolist њuvre behind him. He was a precociously gifted draughtsman, whose first lessons were from his father. He left school at thirteen and was apprenticed to a saddler. Five years later, he took classes with the Nazarene painter Frantisek Sequens, while working as a medium to supplement his funds. Sequens taught him that art must concern itself with poetic and philosophical issues. Kupka was an avid reader who devoured Plato and Mme Blavatsky, the Vedas and Schopenhauer, Bergson and Nietzsche. Another Nazarene painter, the obscure Karl Diefenbach, revealed to Kupka the affinities between painting and music.

In 1895 he left for Paris, where he came under the influence of Forain, Ensor, Steinlen and Toulouse-Lautrec. Technically very able, Kupka produced works in a wide variety of styles, from political satire touched with populist irony to the grandiloquence or mysticism of the Symbolist idiom. Even within this idiom, his manner is extremely varied: decorative mysticism in The Principle of Life and dramatic fantasy in The Black Idol. The latter was clearly the inspiration for Dracula's castle in Francis Ford Coppola's film. In the painting known as Epona-Ballade or The Joys, Kupka places his dark-haired companion of the day alongside an earlier mistress who had died in 1898.
Kupka's superlative technique allowed him to work in many different styles. Certain of the works he painted on his arrival in Paris show a flawlessly naturalistic idiom, while the realism and irony of his line opened the way for a career like that of Felicien Rops. But Kupka was a man of very different character, and a combination of many factors -his penchant for the esoteric, his passion for music, and the impact of the 1909 Futurist manifestations - precipitated the breakthrough into abstraction.



Frantisek Kupka
The Principle of Life

 
 
The international career of Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) illustrates the great mobility enjoyed by artists in this period. Born in Moravia, he worked in Vienna and in Munich before moving on to Paris, where he studied at the Acadйmie Julian and ultimately won considerable success. His drawings were regularly published in various periodicals including ha Plume, and he drew numerous posters for Sarah Bernhardt. He decorated the Bosnian pavilion at the 1900 World Fair and spent some years in the United States before returning to his own country, where he devoted himself exclusively to painting. Mucha was a virtuoso in many domains; he designed exquisitely intricate jewelry and his drawings and posters are the embodiment of Art Nouveau.

His first commission from Sarah Bernhardt was a matter of luck. He was at his printer's workshop on Christmas Eve when news came that the famous actress wanted a poster within the next few days. All the other artists having left, the printer had recourse to Mucha, who was then unknown. The printer disliked Mucha's design, unlike Bernhardt, who was delighted with it and continued to commission work from him for many years.
One of the original features of Mucha's posters was his habit of working from photographs, as many surviving examples show. His paintings have undeniable charm, but he himself was too content with life to express in his work the intense melancholy (or affectation thereof) which pervades the work of his Symbolist colleagues.
Between 1795 and 1919, Poland had no official existence, having been divided into three unequal parts under Prussian, Russian and Austrian government.


Alphonse Mucha.
Sarah Bernhardt, 1896


Like many other Symbolist artists from Khnopff to Klimt, Mucha made substantial use of photography. A friend of Nadar and of other major Parisian photographers of the period, he depicted the large-format bellows camera designed for portrait photography that he used in the drawing The Photographic Art. Ingres had already remarked that photography "is very beautiful, but you mustn't say so", and at its invention, photography terrified artists; they threw down their brushes in despair at the perfection with which photographs captured reality. In the 1850s, the many painters who used photography for their work tended to conceal and even deny the fact. Others, like Delacroix, openly admitted using it. Mucha did not suffer the typical dichotomy of the 19th century artist who used photography but was anxious about its relation to art. He loved photography for itself, was a lifelong amateur photographer and made widespread use of photos in his work. For him, the camera was a useful toy that performed the task which Baudelaire scornfully attributed to it, that of documentation, note-book, and timesaver.

In the second half of the 19th century, Prussia and Russia began to enforce a policy aimed at assimilating the population. German and Russian became the official languages and the teaching of Polish in schools was no longer permitted.
The Austrians governed the southern part of Poland, including Cracow, the former royal capital. Their occupation was less repressive, at least to the extent that Austria did not try to assimilate the Polish population. This probably accounts for the fact that the Symbolist vein in Polish art was largely centred on Cracow.
Poland's oppression lasted for over a hundred years, despite a number of insurrections, and inevitably left its mark on the arts. Like other countries similarly oppressed - we might compare Ireland or French Canada - the national language and the national faith helped define and preserve the national identity. Above all, the lack of a true national government meant that Polish identity had to be represented and defended by a "government of souls", and this became the mission of writers and artists. This responsibility is constantly invoked in the writings and paintings of the period; one cannot expect to understand the development of Polish art without some notion of the historical situation.
True, Polish representatives sat in the Austrian parliament (and even, at one point, in the Russian Duma), life was not uniformly difficult and the wealthier classes in the Austrian part of the country were not averse to speaking German. Hence the importance assumed by the duty of memory, as embodied in the person of Stanczyk. He was a clown at the royal court in the 16th century, but 19th century literature turned him into a personification of lucid patriotism.


The almost "sacred" status of memory also explains why a number of artists and intellectuals sought to return to their "roots" among a peasantry which had, in their view, remained culturally pure. Two of the protagonists of this movement, the poet Lucjan Rydel and the painter and writer Stanislaw Wyspianski, married women of peasant families. These themes are developed in Wyspianski's play The Wedding (Wesele) of which Andrzej Wajda has made an excellent film.
Polish artists of the turn of the century travelled as widely as any others, finding their way to Paris, Berlin, Munich and Saint Petersburg. Wladyslaw Slewinski was in Pont-Aven with Gauguin and returned to Poland as the bearer of the good news. But the most striking and dramatic spokesman for Symbolist ideas in Poland was the writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski (1867-1927).

Przybyszewski's features are known to us from Munch's painting Jealousy. He is the bearded figure of greenish complexion behind whose back two lovers meet. Munch, Strindberg and Przybyszewski all met in Berlin; the point of contact may have been Przybyszewski's wife, Dagny Juel, who was Norwegian. She was also a woman of great beauty and both Munch and Strindberg seem to have been fascinated by her. The painting no doubt reflects this situation.
Przybyszewski was a poet, theoretician of art, and occasional pianist, who cut a scandalous, not to say a devilish, figure. Borrowing from the repertory of the then fashionable Satanism, he coolly urged those who turned to him for advice to commit suicide. His complicated private life ended in tragedy for Dagny Juel.
He settled in Cracow when he was thirty (a year after Munch's portrait), and his house soon became known as "Satan's Synagogue" after the title of one of his novels. He befriended Stanislaw Wyspianski and together they founded the magazine Zycie (Life), which became the organ of "Young Poland", an artistic and literary movement. Przybys-zewski was at pains to offend the Catholic sensibility of his compatriots, proclaiming a blasphemous distortion of the famous opening phrase of the Gospel of Saint John: "In the beginning was lust." This led him to a satanist theory of the creation of man and woman. It was Satan, he declared, who separated the original androgyne (a notion borrowed from the humorous myth recounted by Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium). The two sexes thus created have desperately sought to return to unity ever since. We must therefore thank Satan for the joys and torments of sexual desire.
Art, according to Przybyszewski, is a reflection of the absolute, and it is the artist's duty to reveal the "naked soul" (naga dusza) and to give utterance to the "cry" of the individual. Whatever the merit in these ideas, the tinsel in which Przybyszewski wrapped them has not worn well and has tended to discredit them.

Jacek Malczewski (1858-1929) was a pupil of Jan Matejko, a supremely rhetorical painter whose entire њuvre was devoted to the glorification of Polish history. A similar obsession with history transpires from the poignant works that Malczewski devoted to Poles deported to Siberia. This is the subject of In the Dust Storm; a dust devil on a country road becomes a powerful metaphor for the way in which the memory of the fettered bodies of the deported could surge unexpectedly into the mind.
The grandiloquent rhetoric of paintings such as Melancholia (1890-1894) and Vicious Circle (1895-1897) returns to the obsessive question of the nation's frustrated hopes. But Malczewski did not restrict himself to this subject, and treated both mythological and Christian themes. Death itself is the subject of several of his paintings. In one of these (Thanatos I), death is represented by an androgynous winged figure who draws an old man out of his manor by running the whetstone over the blade of a scythe. The old man represented is the artist's father, who had died four years before. In another (Death), the angel of death lays her fingers as if in a healing gesture upon the eyelids of the man kneeling trustingly before her.
 


Jacek Malczewski
Death

 

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) was born in the small town of Drohobycz where he taught drawing after studying architecture in Lvov and art at the Vienna School of Fine Art. A major author (best known for The Street of Crocodiles), he was also a fine draughtsman and engraver. The majority of his work was destroyed during World War II, but the extraordinary sequence of prints entitled The Book of Idolatry (1920) fortunately survived. It is devoted to a single subject - the voluntary humiliation of a man before a woman.

It is tempting to seek a clinical explanation for his choice of subject matter and to maintain that Schulz's work merely reflects his fetishistic inclinations. But the quality of the work transfigures this obsession and endows it with meaning, while the subject necessarily evokes the myriad representations devoted to relations between the sexes during the Symbolist age. Schulz's work began to appear after World War I, at a time when the Western European public perceived the major preoccupations of the preceding decades as clichйd and moribund. But given his treatment of this central Symbolist theme, Schulz might properly be regarded as the last great representative of the Symbolist spirit.

 


Bruno Schulz
Revolution in the City

 
 
 
For Russia, the first decades of the century marked a crucial phase in its troubled history. Torn since the early 19th century between a keen interest in the West, and the deep suspicion with which Western religion, scientific and political ideas were often viewed, the country was plunged into an insoluble debate and an equally insoluble institutional crisis.
The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 necessitated a fundamental restructuring of rural society, which inevitably led to yet further reforms. Land had to be distributed to the emancipated peasants. The intelligentsia took an interest in the fate of the peasantry. Its first naive impulse, in 1874, was a crusade to educate the popular classes and prepare them for the coming revolution. The repression which ensued favoured the development of terrorism, culminating in the assassination of Czar Alexander II in March 1881. The timing was unfortunate: he was on his way to the Duma to sign a liberalising law.

The development of the railway and the industrialisation of the country led to the rise of a new class, coinciding with the decline of the landed gentry. Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), himself the grandson of emancipated serfs, paints a humane and moving portrait of "lives coming undone" among the incomprehending gentry. (He also wrote an amusing parody of Symbolist theatre in The Seagull.)

The arts, in this context, were torn between the traditional, populist views of the Wanderers (Peredwishniki), who favoured a realistic chronicle of Russian life, and that of cosmopolitan artists and writers receptive to Western ideas. Orthodox Russia was also attracted to the Symbolist spirit, precisely to the extent that religious Symbolism remained a potent force in that country. In 1899 a number of these "cosmopolitan" artists, founded the magazine Mir Iskustva (The World of Art) in Moscow. They wished to keep their readers informed of significant artistic events in Munich, Berlin, Vienna and Paris. Notable among them was Sergei Diaghilev who was later to found the Ballets Russes, Leon Bakst, his stage and costume designer, Constantin Somov and above all the painter Mikhail Vrubel.

Despite his short and tragic life, Mikhail Alexandrovich Vrubel (1856-1910) was the most influential of the Russian painters working in the Symbolist vein. The son of Danish and Polish parents, he studied law in Saint Petersburg before enrolling in that city's School of Fine Arts at the age of twenty-four. He devoted five years of his life to restoring the frescoes of the Church of Saint Cyril in Kiev and finally settled in Moscow where he was welcomed into the circle of Savva Mamontov, a wealthy patron of the arts. At his request, Vrubel created opera sets and designed various objects manufactured at the artistic colony which Mamontov had established on his country estate.

Vrubel depicted a variety of subjects, including ballet and mythological (Pan, 1899) and allegorical themes. But his reputation is based on a series of paintings illustrating Lermontov's poem "The Demon". It is the story of a quasi-supernatural being who is in love with the beautiful Tamara. He arranges for her fiance to be assassinated by bandits, then seduces her in the convent to which she has retired. She dies and the Demon remains alone and in despair. The figure of the Demon undergoes a slow transformation in Vrubel's paintings. First depicted as a "demon of superhuman beauty" he eventually becomes, in the words of George Heard Hamilton, "a being half-woman, fallen to earth, his body contorted and crushed, his wings with their peacock feathers crushed beneath him, and on his face an expression of unspeakable despair". Vrubel himself went mad at the age of thirty-six. He lost his sight at forty and died four years later. Identifying Vrubel with his theme, the painter Vassili Denissov (1862-1920) commemorated Vrubel's death in his water-colour The Fallen Demon, on the Death of Mikhail Vrubel (1910).


Mikhail Alexandrovich Vrubel
Seated Demon
1890

 
 
Leon Bakst (1866-1924) made his reputation by designing sets and costumes for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, but his paintings are very much in the Symbolist vein. Terror Antiquus (1908) shows the sinking of Atlantis, and with it, a world and its values cataclysmically destroyed. Konstantin Somov (1869-1939) was also active in the circle of Mir Iskustva. His manner is more traditional than that of other Russian artists mentioned so far, at times romantically atmospheric (as in his Fireworks of 1922), at others bizarrely evocative (as in Sorcery of 1898).



Leon Bakst
Terror Antiquus
1908




Konstanin Somov
Sorcery
1898




Mysticism and eroticism characterise the Symbolist works of Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), whose marked tendency to polarisation between two colours or even monochromaticism foreshadows Suprematism; thus the yellow of The Flower Gathering (1908) or the red of Oak and Dryads of the same period. But Malevich's Symbolism also partakes of the heady atmosphere of Russia with its religious, theosophical anthroposophic, esoteric and occult activities. The Flower Gathering has an esoteric philosophical import in direct line of descent from the Nabis , and in particular from Maurice Denis, who had visited Moscow and exhibited there. Yet in this mystical garden, the feminine triad may well be regarded as a Far Eastern version of the European "Three Graces". And in Oak and Dryads we may perhaps detect a synthesis of Greek tradition, the Biblical tradition of the Tree of Life and the Far Eastern "tree of illumination". The mystery of the Cosmos is presented to our eyes in the meeting of the male (the phallic tree) and female (the womb within the tree). Epitaphios (The Shroud of Christ) is orthodox in inspiration but draws on Buddhist models despite the icono-graphical debt it owes to Vrubel's Kiev frescoes.



Kasimir Malevich
Oak and Driads
1908



The Lithuanian artist, Mikolajus Ciurlionis (1875-1911), lived in poverty and solitude, taking a passionate interest in the writings of Nietzsche and Rudolph Steiner and in the mythology of his own country. He lived in Warsaw for six years and died at the age of 36. His work, still relatively unknown in the West, combines the decorative and the mystical. Tending toward abstraction, it draws much of its inspiration from music, as in his Sonata series.



Mikolajus Ciurlionis
Star Sonata
. Allegro
1908
 
 
 
The Mediterranean Countries
 
 
We have still to consider Italy and Spain. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that Italy became a unified state. The crucial year was 1861, when Victor Emmanuel was crowned King of Italy. (Serfdom was abolished in Russia in the same year.) Though the nationalists ardently desired that Rome should be the capital of the new state, it remained merely the capital of the Pontifical States. And so it might have remained, had not the French defeat by the Prussian army at Sedan in 1870 and France's subsequent capitulation led to the withdrawal from the city of French troops.
In Italy as in Spain, innovative art forms developed mainly in the great industrial and commercial centres of the North, particularly in Milan and Barcelona. The style was frequently derived from the most graceful - and insipid - forms of French Symbolist art. This description summarizes the works of the Spanish artists Juan Brull-Vinolas (1863 1912) and Adria Gual-Queralt (1872-1944). Brull-Vinolas attended the Barcelona School of Fine Arts before studying in Paris, where he took up residence. In addition to his work as a painter, Gual-Queralt was a prominent stage director and taught acting. He played a significant role in the theatre and was one of the major figures of the Catalan modernist movement.

French influence also made itself felt in Italy, for example in the work of Gaetano Previati (1852-1920) who at one stage of his career produced "decadent" and "mystic" works. Motherhood was exhibited in Milan in 1891 and provoked a lively polemic, earning him an invitation to the Parisian Rose+Croix Salon. Previati's Paolo and Francesca (1901) is very much in French Symbolist style, while the execution of his 1907 Eroica in which the pigment is applied in dynamic (divisionist) stripes, offers a foretaste of Futurism а la Boccioni.



Gaetano Previati
The Three Marys at the Foot of the Cross

 

Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899), who died at the age of thirty-nine, had a singularly unfortunate childhood. After his mother's death, his father abandoned him in the streets of Milan. He spent three years (from twelve to fifteen) in a reform school, and it was thanks to the director of this establishment that he was accepted by the Brera Academy, then attended by many outstanding artists. He practised first a naturalist vein, then pointillism, and turned to Symbolism when he was past thirty. It was at this point that he was suddenly taken with a passion for literature and philosophy. Withdrawing into the Grison mountains, he began to read Maeterlinck, d'Annunzio, Goethe and Nietzsche, and to study Indian philosophy.
His admiration for Nietzsche is expressed in the frontispiece he drew for the Italian translation of Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Inspired by traditional representations of the Annunciation, it bears the title The Annunciation of the New Word. On the wall of the garden in which the scene unfolds can be read: "May the children of thy womb be beautiful for love, strong for battle, and intelligent for victory"
A painting such as Love at the Springs of Life (1896) is overwhelmingly Symbolist, in the pantheism inspired by the Alpine landscape and in the winged figure sitting by the spring. A letter from the artist to a friend confirms its symbolic content: The painting "represents the joyful and carefree love of the woman and the pensive love of the man wreathed in the natural impulses of youth and of springtime. The path they follow is narrow and bordered with rhododendrons in bloom, and they are dressed in white (a pictorial representation of lilies). 'Eternal love', say the red rhododendrons, "eternal hope," replies the evergreen privet. An angel, a mystical and suspicious angel, spreads its great wing over the mysterious fountain of Life. The water flows out of a bare rock, both of which are symbols of eternity." The artist's language reflects the tenor of his philosophical meditations in his mountain retreat.



Giovanni Segantini
The Punishment of Luxury


Alberto Martini (1876-1954) was above all an outstanding illustrator, as witness the splendid Indian ink drawings he executed in 1908 to illustrate the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. The terror of Poe's work is evoked by the way the black ink devours the white page like a dark cloud hiding the moon and by the energetic dramatisation of attitudes. In his youth, Martini studied the drawings of such 16th century German artists as Durer and Cranach.
He also illustrated the writings of Dante, Boccaccio, Mallarmй, Verlaine and Rimbaud. He lived in Paris from 1928 to 1931, and the Surrealists, seeing affinities between his work and their own, made overtures to Martini but were rebuffed.



Alberto Martini
Tales of Edgar Allan Poe

 
 
 
 
Post-Symbolism
 
 
It is now easy to see why Symbolism was finally swept aside by the triumph of Modernism. The Great War marked such a break with the past that young people in the twenties might easily entertain the disquieting sense of living in a completely different world. A modicum of critical sense was sufficient for young people who had firsthand experience of the war to be disgusted by the propaganda of either side. And this led them to question the values that they were exhorted to defend. The First World War was experienced by the leading intellectuals of the period as the suicide of Europe. This suicide was first and foremost cultural, and it is significant that the Surrealists sought to destroy the vestiges of culture that had survived.
The first notion to be discarded was that of "decadence". It had outlived its purpose. But what was to take its place? For some, the answer was "primitivism", that putative ally of progress and modernity. Like Decadence, Primitivism was a specious concept lacking serious foundation, but it carried conviction; people felt that they understood it. In 1926, when Alexander Calder first arrived in Paris, his friends hastened to explain that it was better to be a primitive than a decadent. Calder possessed a child's love of play and a thoroughly American faith in "nature"; he consequently chose to be a primitive. In practice, this meant that he did not trouble to acquire a demanding - and perhaps stifling - technique; instead, he trusted his own impulses. These were supposed to be ground-breaking, and in many cases, so it proved.
Meanwhile, the theorization of the unconscious in terms of libidinal economy had occurred, and it seemed likely that this was an ultimate truth. The atom could not be split; there was nothing beyond or behind the libido. The primary point of reference here was Freud. But there was also Nietzsche and, further afield, the Marxist notion of ideology; further afield again was the crudely articulated Darwinian concept of the struggle for life, another of the fundamental "truths" which moralising sentimentality had shielded from sight. This was one of the conclusions drawn from the savagery of the war. It was therefore necessary to unmask the contents of the unconscious and its hidden drives. The Surrealists set about fulfilling this programme, discarding Symbolist idealisation on the way.
The great political powerhouse of the time was the 1917 Revolution and the extraordinary upheavals that it had initiated. No more talk of "other worlds"; there was a new world to create. Art must henceforth serve a social purpose (we remember Odilon Redon's revulsion from this idea). Without troubling themselves about the nature of artistic creation, intellects argued at length over the form in which the artist should serve society. Symbolism was tainted with the image of des Esseintes, of the solitary artist indulging in sterile and private experiments. In the Soviet Union, Stalin imposed his own brutal, elementary solution to the problem.
These were some of the reasons, good and bad, that led to the rejection of all things Symbolist. Each generation makes its selection. Many artists fell into oblivion, some of them deservedly; others were recategorised. Gauguin, for instance, one day ceased to be a Symbolist and became something more acceptable: a "primitive". Had he not proclaimed himself a savage? Why take the trouble to find out what he meant by the word when it seemed so obvious that he sought the substratum of authenticity in man? But was it so obvious? It seems likely that Gauguin was referring with painful nostalgia to the only truly savage period in life, that of early childhood. Gauguin was brought up in Peru, and when he left the country at the age of seven, he experienced his departure as a tragic, irreversible exile.
Artists of more radical temper sought to bring an end to the conventional discourse of art; they hailed the death of art.

In France, Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia ("Where is modern art going? To the shithouse!") were of this tendency. Even before the First World War, the Futurists had attempted to break with the past. These provocative and hyperbolic procedures were necessary, particulary in Italy, if contemporary mentalities were not to stand in their way. (Spain's turn came much later, with Bufiuel and Dalf.) Machines were the Futurist theme par excellence, but a fascination with machines and, above all, with the car can also be found in the work of Picabia and Duchamp. Picabia painted several works whose titles suggest that they are portraits, but which in fact represent an engine or mechanism (Star Dancer on a Transatlantic Steamer and Paroxysm of Pain).



Marcel Duchamp
The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.
(The Large Glass).
1915-1923
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

 

The revolutionary brilliance of Marcel Duchamp's work was widely hailed as a complete break with the past. And it was, of course, a break with facile pre-First World War aestheticism. But, pace modernist theory, one can also detect a real continuity with the past in certain aspects of his work. How could things be otherwise? Every rebellion bears the mark of the oppression which gave rise to it. Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) and his Given. both deal with the paradigmatic Symbolist subject: Woman. But in these works she is no longer fatale, she is simply and utterly inaccessible. A new predicament is presented. Symbolist Woman was a source of anxiety because moral codes had been 'blurred'; in Duchamp's sardonic perspective, Woman is inaccessible not because the codes are uncertain, but because they have been completely rejected.

This becomes clear in relation to the cardboard box (la boite verte) into which Duchamp inserted all the torn-up bits of paper on which he had noted ideas relating to The Large Glass. Duchamp's procedure constituted a cynical and mechanistic presentation of the sexual act ("As if an alien had sought to imagine this kind of operation," as Andrй Breton put it); a sexual act of which The Large Glass, in its austerity, offers no explicit narrative. By contrast, Given offers an illusionistic, three-dimensional representation of a recumbent naked woman whose legs are spread open towards the spectator. Her inaccessibility is signified by the fact that she can be seen only through two holes pierced in a barn door - which cannot be opened.
The absence of all narrative content was one of the first rules of modern art, as evinced in the works of Picasso and Matisse. But like the religious or mythological art of the past, the works of Duchamp cited above do present the spectator with a complex narrative derived, in this case, not from myth or scripture but from the artist himself. Perhaps, then, Duchamp simply reversed the Symbolist values that had prevailed during his youth, substituting irony for the ideal.
As Picabia's first wife, Gabrielle Buffet, reports, in 1910 Duchamp and Picabia began "an extraordinary rivalry in destructive, paradoxical statements, in blasphemy and inhumanity..." Even in the first decade of this century, they were attracted by the kind of radical cynicism whose consequences the impending war would so definitively and star-tlingly reveal. Duchamp and Picabia exposed the cynicism beneath the fine sentiments described by Thomas Mann as concealing the "individual's immense loss of value", a loss that "the war simply brought to a head, lending it concrete form and expression".
To understand the energies of Futurism and the need felt by its artists to savage consecrated values, one must attempt to imagine the often stifling context of the time.


The constant transformation of people's way of life, ever faster means of communication, the development of the car ("An automobile driven at a hundred miles an hour is more beautiful than the Venus de Milo," proclaimed Marinetti, the theoretician of Futurism), made the obligation to venerate the past unendurable. And then the "Woman problem" that Symbolism so interminably ruminated on: what should be done about that? The Futurists chose to ignore the issue and proclaim their "scorn for Woman". In the same spirit they suggested filling up Venice's Grand Canal with concrete.
In the early part of his career Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) painted works whose mood was not far removed from Symbolism. Two such are the semi-abstract paintings from States of Mind I: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (1911). The transition toward Futurism is apparent in the determination (present in Previati's Eroica) to escape the static model of eternal beauty and attempt to evoke movement by means other than those used by Romantics such as Delacroix. The photographic experiments of Muybridge and Marey had captured movement in process, and Duchamp and Balla had already tried to portray it.



De Chirico
Love Song




Surrealism, no less than Futurism, bears the unacknowledged imprint of Symbolism. This is true not only of the "proto-surrealist" work of Giorgio di Chirico but of certain works by Max Ernst; The Clothing of the Bride (1940) has clear affinities with Gustaves Moreau. Something similar may be said of Paul Delvaux, who, though he never used the painterly equivalent of "automatic writing", is universally regarded as a Surrealist. Yet the Symbolist filiations of his work are blindingly obvious. More recent artists, whose works of obsessive eroticism and cruelty display an unequivocally Symbolist heritage, are still classified, by force of habit or by sheer negligence, as late Surrealists.



Max Ernst
The Antipope



Finally, we should not forget that such paradigms of modernism as Picasso, Kupka, Kandinsky and Malevich at one time painted in an idiom close to Symbolism and that some of them came to abstraction by extrapolating from the Symbolist tendency towards formal simplification. Abstraction may be considered the most demanding and Neo-Platonic aspect of Symbolism. In the course of the decades that have passed since the emergence of what we term "Symbolism", new ways of perceiving and explaining the world have emerged. The inadequacies of Symbolist theory are obvious enough; the inadequacies of modernist theory have become increasingly apparent. Underlying this opposition are divergent ways of viewing the world and man's destiny in it. Each seeks to justify itself and demonstrate that its hopes or despair have solid foundations. There can be no final verdict.

 

 
 

 
 
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