Neoclassicism and Romanticism

Realism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism


Art Nouveau (1890–1910)

Alphonse Mucha
Aubrey Beardsley

Nabis (1890-1905)


Fauvism - 1905

Odilon Redon
Aubrey Beardsley
Paul Gauguin
Auguste Rodin

Gustav Klimt

Arnold Bocklin
Eugene Carriere
James Ensor
Henri Fantin-Latour
Paul Gauguin
Ferdinand Hodler
Fernand Khnopff 
Max Klinger
Jacek Malczewski
Hans von Marees
Gustave Moreau
Alphonse Mucha
Odilon Redon
Auguste Rodin
Felicien Rops
Henri Rousseau
Giovanni Segantini
Jan Toorop
Mikhail Vrubel
see also: Symbolism

Arnold Bocklin. The Island of the Dead


The roots of Symbolism can be traced back at least as far as the Romantic trends of the early 19th century. The movement shared strong affinities with similar contemporary developments in poetry, philosophy, and music, creating a synthesis and union of the arts. Its official debut came in 1886, when Jean Moreas launched the manifesto of Symbolist poetry, which included the figurative arts, in Le Figaro. However, in reaction to the objective recording of nature that was so characteristic of Impressionism, certain painters had already shown a need to express a "reality" beyond the evidence gained from visual perception - notably the spiritual aspects, allusions, and ambiguities inherent in mere sight.

If it is true that the reality we see - according to Platonic philosophy - is but a poor copy of the world of "ideal forms", then it is the task of the artist, in his or her role as perceiver with an "inner eye", to decipher the hidden meanings and translate them into sensitive forms that can be understood by everybody - that is, as stated by Gustave Kahn, to "objectivize the subjective" as opposed to the tendency, pursued up until this time, of "subjectivizing the objective". The Symbolist poets were the first to explore the relation-ships between sounds, smells, and colours, and who alluded to the mysterious affinities between the visible and the invisible. Not by chance was Charles Baudelaire's anthology Les Fleurs du Mai (1857) the most popular source of inspiration for many Symbolist painters in the 1880s and 1890s. They were joined by scientists, such as Eduard von Hartmann and Jean Martin Charcot, who were interested in the imagination and recognized that dreams were a means of expressing as image the fantasies and desires of the subconscious. Symbolism was an international movement that spread throughout Europe, although the forms it took varied considerably. The unifying element was not so much the style - the break with realism did not bring about a uniform end to objective representation and choice of new artistic language - as a refusal to choose contemporary subjects drawn from current affairs and social realism. Instead, artists desired to give substance to content derived from poetry, mythology, and psychological research.

An anticipation of this choice of themes can be seen in the experience of the English Pre-Raphaelites who gathered around Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) in the 1870s. Once again, it was French artists who played the leading role in this debate about aesthetics, which was pursued with intensity by magazines such as La Revue Wagnerienne and Le Mercure de France, as well as in the philosophical and literary writings of Henri Bergson and Huysmans. In his novel .4 Reborns, published in 1884 and considered by many to be the "bible" of aesthetic decadence. Huysmans describes the work of three painters - Gustave Moreau, and Odilon Redon - as being among the most sophisticated creations. His leading character, Des Esseintes, surrounds himself with their work in order to escape from the vulgarity of everyday existence. Amid a climate of Impressionist realism. Gustave Moreau (1826-98) exhibited Oedipus and the Sphinx in 1864, a painting rich in mysterious and fantastic allusions. This work heralded a form of Symbolism drawing on classical and biblical mythology, on medieval legends and on the fables of La Fontaine. This new stvle dealt with exotic themes and investigated the subject of death in compositions that were deliberately formal in language, rich in colour, and filled with esoteric details and references. Odilon Redon (1840-1916) received much acclaim with the publication of his first lithographic album in 1879, appropriately entitled Dans le reve. He followed this with illustrations to Gustave Flaubert's La Tentation de Saint Antoine and a number of other successful collaborations with poets and writers. In his series of black-and-white drawings, charcoal sketches, and lithographs completed before 1895, Redon depicted bewildering and contorted images that are both real and unreal, human and monstrous.

They are typical of the ambiguity of his visionary art. The influence of French Symbolism throughout the rest of Europe varied in importance from country to country. Research into the unity of the arts was conducted with special enthusiasm by Jan Toorop (1858- 1928) in Holland, Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) and Felicien Rops (1833-98) in Belgium, Michail Vrubel (1856-1910) in Russia, Gaetano Previati (1852-1920) and Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899) in Italy, and Edvard Munch (1863-1944) in Norway. Spiritualism was particularly fashionable in Germany, where its artistic treatment drew on the aestheticism of the late Romantic tradition. The Secession exhibitions provided an excellent opportunity to advertise the Symbolist aesthetic. An original interpretation of decadent culture, inspired by fin-de-siecle literary references, was offered by Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901), an artist who worked in various European cities, Like many German romantics of the second half of the 19th century, he travelled to Italy, attracted by the myths of classical art. Bocklin was fascinated by mysterious and visionary themes, which he expressed in formal academic terms. His technically flawless methods of composition and representation gave the viewer the feeling that he was fathoming an impenetrable landscape that was both enigmatic and real. The sirens, centaurs, and heroes that Bocklin drew from classical mythology are presented as real, flesh-and-blood men and women, as romantically suggestive as the landscape that surround them. Yet there is also an uneasy feeling about these scenes, which are apparently literary and mythological and yet are imbued with psychological undertones.

The artist stated: ''A painting must say something and make the spectator think, like a poem, leaving him with an impression, like a piece of music.'' Max Klinger (1857-1920), who first met Bocklin in 1887 while in Berlin and again later in Florence, could enchant and mystify the spectator with his magical effects and lofty themes. As was pointed out in 1920 by de Chirico, the originality of his work lay in the allusive symbolism that he created by modifying scenes from contemporary life with visions from antiquity. He used images of a timeless world to elaborate upon themes of grotesque realism, in order to achieve "a highly impressive dream reality" and ''a suggestive and romantic interpretation of modernity". Myth and reality, past and present, the sacred and the erotic, and the ordinary and the extraordinary, were all to be found together on his large canvases. His paintings were often of exaggerated complexity, radiating a sinister aura. Klinger was especially interested in graphic techniques and the analogy between art and music, classifying each etching in his series as an opus. His principal aim was to bring about a synthesis of the arts as a means of expressing a broader notion of life. Among a number of works dedicated to this were the painting Christ of Olympus (1896) and the sculpture Beethoven (1902).


Gustave Moreau. Cleopatra


Literary and artistic movement that originated with a group of French poets in the late 19th century, spread to painting and the theatre, and influenced the European and American literatures of the 20th century to varying degrees. Symbolist artists sought to express individual emotional experience through the subtle and suggestive use of highly symbolized language.

Symbolist literature

The principal Symbolist poets include the Frenchmen Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Jules Laforgue, Henri de Régnier, René Ghil, and Gustave Kahn; the Belgians Émile Verhaeren and Georges Rodenbach; the Greek-born Jean Moréas; and Francis Viélé-Griffin and Stuart Merrill, who were American by birth. Rémy de Gourmont was the principal Symbolist critic, while Symbolist criteria were applied most successfully to the novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans and to the theatre by the Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck. The French poets Paul Valéry and Paul Claudel are sometimes considered to be direct 20th-century heirs of the Symbolists.

Symbolism originated in the revolt of certain French poets against the rigid conventions governing both technique and theme in traditional French poetry, as evidenced in the precise description of Parnassian poetry. The Symbolists wished to liberate poetry from its expository functions and its formalized oratory in order to describe instead the fleeting, immediate sensations of man's inner life and experience. They attempted to evoke the ineffable intuitionsand sense impressions of man's inner life and to communicate the underlying mystery of existence through a free and highly personal use of metaphors and images that, though lacking in precise meaning, would nevertheless convey the state of the poet's mind and hint at the “dark and confused unity” of an inexpressible reality.

Such Symbolist forerunners as Verlaine and Rimbaud were greatly influenced by the poetry and thought of Charles Baudelaire, particularly by the poems in his Les Fleurs du mal (1857). They adopted Baudelaire's concept of the correspondances between the senses and combined this with the Wagnerian ideal of a synthesis of the arts to produce an original conception of the musical qualities of poetry. Thus, to the Symbolists, the theme within a poem could be developed and “orchestrated” by the sensitive manipulation of the harmonies, tones, and colours inherent in carefully chosen words. The Symbolists' attempt to emphasize the essential and innate qualities of the poetic medium was based on their conviction of the supremacy of art over all other means of expression or knowledge. This in turn was partly based on their idealistic conviction that underlying the materiality and individuality of the physical world was another reality whose essence could best be glimpsed through the subjective emotional responses contributing to and generated by the work of art.

Such masterpieces as Verlaine's Romances sans paroles (1874; Songs Without Words) and Mallarmé's L'Après-midi d'un faune (1876) sparked a growing interest in the nascent innovations of progressive French poets. The Symbolist manifesto itself was published by Jean Moréas in Le Figaro on Sept. 18, 1886; in it he attacked the descriptive tendencies of Realist theatre, Naturalistic novels, and Parnassian poetry. He also proposed replacing the term décadent, which was used to describe Baudelaire and others,with the terms symboliste and symbolisme. Many little Symbolist reviews and magazines sprang up in the late 1880s, their authors freely participating in the controversies generated by the attacks of hostile critics on the movement. Mallarmé became the leader of the Symbolists, and his Divagations (1897) remains the most valuable statement of the movement's aesthetics. In their efforts to escape rigid metrical patterns and to achieve freer poetic rhythms, many Symbolist poets resorted to the composition of prose poems and the use of vers libre (free verse), which has now become a fundamental form of contemporary poetry.

The Symbolist movement also spread to Russia, where Valery Bryusov published an anthology of Russian and French Symbolist poems in 1894–95. The revival of poetry in Russia stemming from this movement had as its leader Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov. His poetry expressed a belief that the world was a system of symbols expressing metaphysical realities. The greatest poet of the movement was Aleksandr Blok, who in Dvenadtsat (1918; The Twelve) united the Russian Revolution and God in an apocalyptic vision in which 12 Red Army men became apostles of the New World, headed by Christ. Other Russian Symbolist poets were Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov, Fyodor Sologub, Andrey Bely, and Nikolay Gumilyov.

The Symbolist movement in poetry reached its peak around 1890 and began to enter a precipitous decline in popularity around 1900. The atmospheric, unfocused imagery of Symbolist poetry eventually came to be seen as overrefined and affected, and the term décadent, which the Symbolists had once proudly flaunted, became with others a term of derision denoting mere fin-de-siècle preciosity. Symbolist works had a strong and lasting influence on much British and American literature in the 20th century, however. Their experimental techniques greatly enriched the technical repertoire of modern poetry, and Symbolist theories bore fruit both in the poetry of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot and in the modern novel as represented by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, in which word harmonies and patterns of images oftentake preeminence over the narrative.

One of the few successful Symbolist novels was À rebours (1884; Against Nature) by J.-K. Huysmans. The book relates the varied and surprisingly resourceful experiments in aesthetic decadence undertaken by a bored aristocrat. The 20th-century American critic Edmund Wilson's survey of the Symbolist movement, Axel's Castle (1931), is considered a classic of modern literary analysis and the authoritative study of the movement.

Mikhail Vrubel. The Perl


Symbolist painting

Symbolism in painting took its direction from the poets and literary theorists of the movement, but it also represented a reaction against the objectivist aims of Realism and the increasingly influential movement of Impressionism. In contrast to the relatively concrete representation these movements sought, Symbolist painters favoured works based on fantasy and the imagination. The Symbolist position in painting was authoritatively defined by the young critic Albert Aurier, an enthusiastic admirer of Gauguin Paul , in an article in the Mercure de France (1891). He elaborated on Moreas' contention that the purpose of art “is to clothe the idea in sensuous form” and stressed the subjective, symbolical, and decorative functions of an art that would give visual expression to the inner life. Symbolist painters turned to the mystical and even the occult in an attempt to evoke subjective states of mind by visual forms.

Such Postimpressionist painters as Gauguin and Vincent VanGogh as well as the Nabis may be regarded as Symbolists in certain aspects of their art. However, the painters who are truly representative of Symbolist aesthetic ideals include three principal figures: Moreau Gustave, Redon Odilon, and Puvis de Chavannes Pierre. Moreau was a figurative painter who created scenes based on legendary or ancient themes. His highly original style utilized brilliant, jewel-like colours to portray the ornate, sumptuous interiors of imaginary temples and palaces in which scantily clad figuresare caught in statuesque poses. His work is characterized by exotic eroticism and decorative splendour. Redon explored mystical, fantastic, and often macabre themes in his paintings and graphics. His paintings stress the poetics of colour in their delicate harmonies of hues, while his subject matter was highly personal in its mythical and dreamlike figures. Puvis de Chavannes is now remembered primarily as a muralist.

Symbolist theatre

Dramatists also took their lead from the French Symbolist poets, especially from Mallarme. As drama critic for La Dernière Mode during the 1870s, Mallarmé opposed the dominant Realist theatre and called for a poetic theatre that would evoke the hidden mystery of man and the universe. Drama, for Mallarme, should be a sacred rite in which the poet-dramatist revealed the correspondences between the visible and invisible worlds through the suggestive power of his poetic language. For the Symbolist playwright, the deeper truths of existence, known instinctively or intuitively,could not be directly expressed but only indirectly revealed through symbol, myth, and mood. The principal Symbolist playwrights were Maurice Maeterlinck in Belgium and Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam and Paul Claudel in France. Also influenced by Symbolist beliefs were the Swedish playwright August Strindberg and the Irish poet and dramatist W.B. Yeats.

Noteworthy examples of Symbolist theatre include Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's Axël (first performed 1884; definitive edition 1890), Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande (1892), with its dreamlike atmosphere, and the highly satirical Ubu roi (1896) by Alfred Jarry. In 1890 the French poet Paul Fort founded the Theatre d'Art, where Symbolist dramas were presented along with readings from ancient and modern poetry. When Fort retired in 1892 Aurélien Lugné-Poë continued Symbolist production at his Théâtre de l'Oeuvre well into the 20th century. Though Symbolist theatre did not last long as a unified movement, its sharp break with the realistic tradition along with its reliance on fantasy, atmosphere, and mood influenced 20th-century playwrights and theatrical production.

(Encyclopedia Britannica)


Paul Gauguin. Nirvana (1890)

see also: Symbolism