Jennifer L Shaw. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
The symbolist movement began in France in the 1880s as a literary phenomenon. The term symbolism, however, quickly came to encompass a range of arts, from painting and sculpture to theater and music. While the movement is often said to have spanned the years 1885-1895, the ideas and aesthetic interests of symbolism are often traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and many early twentieth-century artists and writers continued to be influenced by its ideas. Symbolism was first and foremost a movement in French literature centered in Paris, and many of its central participants were French (Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud). Yet many artists and writers from elsewhere were also central to French symbolism: Maurice Maeterlinck, Émile Verhaeren, and Albrecht Rodenbach were Belgian, Jean Moréas was Greek, Téodor de Wyzewa was Polish, and Stuart Merrill was American. In addition, there were symbolist movements in Germany, Italy, Russia, and Belgium. Many scholars also see mid-nineteenth-century British aestheticism as a form of symbolism.
Each manifestation of symbolism had its own distinct characteristics. For example, most Belgian symbolists were more socially and politically engaged with working-class issues than their French counterparts, while Russian symbolism linked spiritual, social, and national concerns. Many artists and writers who never would have called themselves symbolists are considered under the rubric of symbolism because their work shares at least some of the same interests as that produced by self-proclaimed symbolist artists.
Proponents of symbolist aesthetics rejected the notion that the purpose of the arts is to represent the world as it appears to one’s senses. They proposed instead to create works that would use suggestive (and often abstract) forms, images, or sounds to embody transcendent (and sometimes spiritual) ideas and would thus offer their readers, viewers, or listeners an experience of truth, beauty, or the idea beyond the material realm. Symbolism—be it in literature, music, or the visual arts—is thus characterized by a paradox: It relies on an emphasis on material form (decorative patterns in painting, repeated sounds, or arrangements of words on the page in the literary arts) as the vehicle for transcending the material or empirical world. This foregrounding of form links symbolism to the emergence of modernist abstraction in art and literature.
For a long time, scholars saw the symbolist refusal to depict the empirical world as a reaction against naturalistic artistic and literary movements such as realism and Impressionism. Later scholarship suggested that, rather than seeing symbolism mainly as a rejection of naturalist aesthetics, it should be acknowledged that symbolism was embedded in wider cultural and political anxieties of the late nineteenth century. The dominant philosophies of positivism and Darwinism threatened to substitute empirical facts for the traditional religious explanations of the great mysteries of the world. Human activity was increasingly explained in mechanistic psychophysiological terms and human beings appeared to be less and less in control of their thoughts and behaviors. The development of capitalist economies led to an increasing commodification of daily life and an increasingly materialistic culture. Rather than situating symbolism in the rarified world of the aesthetic, scholars came to see the symbolist alternative to materialism—evocative abstraction, suggestion, mysticism, and dreamlike imagery—as an attempt to oppose the effects of materialism and capitalism.
Symbolism in French Literature
The symbolist movement was formally launched in 1886, when the poet Jean Moréas (1856-1910) published a manifesto in the major Parisian newspaper Le Figaro. Moréas described symbolism as the
enemy of teaching, of declamation, of false sensitivity, of objective description, Symbolic poetry seeks to clothe the Idea in a perceptible form that nevertheless will not be the ultimate goal in itself, but, which, even as it serves to express the Idea, remains subject to it. The Idea, for its part, must not allow itself to be deprived of the sumptuous robes of external analogies; for the essential character of symbolic art is never to reach the Idea itself. Accordingly, in this art, the depictions of nature, the actions of human beings, all the concrete phenomena would not manifest themselves; these are but appearances perceptible to the senses destined to represent their esoteric affinities with primordial ideas. (p. 60)
Moréas’ version of symbolism rejects all attempts to represent the perceptible world directly or instruct the reader straightforwardly. Instead, Moréas advocates allusive language that will allow the idea to be intuited by readers through a series of analogies. Moréas makes clear that for symbolism the important subject matter lies beyond the perceptible world. In addition, in the manifesto, Moréas advocates new kinds of verse no longer bound by traditional rules of poetic composition.
Moréas’ manifesto served many purposes. On one hand, it was a declaration of the direction modern poetry should take and thus part of a wider attempt on the part of young writers to find cultural legitimacy while declaring themselves outside the traditional French academy. This general trend toward establishing an independent literary milieu is perhaps most clearly evidenced in the plethora of literary magazines that emerged in the mid-1880s: Le Symboliste, La vogue, Le scapin, La Décadence, and Le Décadent. Some, such as La vogue, sought legitimacy as serious journals by publishing new work by young poets such as Gustave Kahn, Jean Moréas, Réné Ghil, and Édouard Dujardin alongside the work of already established symbolist heroes such as Mallarmé and Rimbaud. These small journals also published articles further formulating and often arguing the points of symbolist theory. Many journals founded in the 1880s and early 1890s were short-lived, some lasting less than a year. Some journals, however, such as La revue indépendante, La plume, and Les entretiens politiques et littéraires had more successful runs, and one, Le mercure de France, still exists, though its aims have been considerably broadened since the original publication.
While in some sense declaring his independence from tradition, Moréas also wanted to distinguish what he called “Symbolism” from the approach of other nontraditional writers and artists he designated as “Decadent.” In 1883, Paul Bourget had expounded a “theory of decadence” when discussing Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) in his Essai de psychologie contemporaine (Essay on contemporary psychology). Baudelaire’s figure of the hypersensitive dandy aesthete became the model for the decadent artist, and Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel À rebours (1884; Against nature) became a veritable handbook: The main character, Des Esseintes, became a fictional cult hero and model for aspiring decadent artists and writers.
There is a great deal of overlap between decadence and symbolism. Both reject the value of empirical descriptions of the natural world and look to the artist’s heightened sensitivity and imagination for the source of creativity. The aim of decadence, however, more often seems to be the rejection of bourgeois values and everyday morality in favor of detailed explorations of socially marginal and exotic subject matter: the occult, the femme fatale, sexual debauchery, extreme artifice, and aestheticism.
Conversely, symbolism, while sometimes overlapping in subject matter, is more seriously concerned with the search for a new approach to poetic, literary, or artistic form drawing on the experimentations of an older generation of writers such as Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. Moréas’ description of symbolism refers most directly to Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” from his volumeLes fleurs du mal (1857, expanded 1861; The flowers of evil)—a work that became a touchstone for symbolist artists and writers:
La nature est un temple où de vivants pilliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.
Nature is a temple whose living pillars
Sometimes emit confusing messages
Man passes through forests of symbols
That observe him with familiar glances.
Like extended echoes that blend in the distance
In a shadowy and deep unity,
Vast as the night and as the light,
The perfumes, the colors and the sounds are answered.
Baudelaire’s poem suggests that humans inhabit a world where the mundane can serve as a “forest of symbols” to which the poet is especially attuned. Everyday objects and experiences offer secret correspondences between sounds, scents, and colors in which the poet deciphers a higher meaning. The poem evokes two ideas that will be central to symbolism: first, the role of the artist or poet as a gifted seer capable of identifying connections that point beyond the perceptible world; and second, the importance of formal echoes in sensory data where scents, colors, and sounds “se répondent” (respond to one another) in synesthesia—the connection between different sensory realms.
Baudelaire had been strongly influenced by the work of the U.S. writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), whose prose writings he had translated in the 1850s. Mallarmé and others were especially influenced by Baudelaire’s 1859 translation of Poe’s essay “Philosophy of Composition.” Whereas Mallarmé was influenced by Poe’s allusive figures and economy of means, others looked to Poe’s status as poète maudit (damned poet), whose subject matter delved into mystery, the occult, and madness. In his work, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) followed this interpretation of Poe, taking on the mantle of damned poet for himself. For Rimbaud poetry was not a controlled process of self-expression in the tradition of romanticism but instead a vehicle for the unraveling and disorganization of self—”a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses “—that allows the exploration of those elements of human subjectivity associated with madness. As Rimbaud famously put it:” I is an other. … I am the spectator at the flowering of my thought: I watch it, I listen to it: I draw a bow across a string: a symphony stirs in the depths, or surges onto the stage” (p. 102). Rimbaud published Un saison en enfer (A season in hell) in 1873 and abandoned writing before the age of twenty. Other volumes of his work, Illuminations (1886) and Poésies complètes (1895), were published at the instigation of others long after they had initially been written.
Whereas Rimbaud’s questioning of the boundaries of poetry and of the self ultimately led him to abandon poetry, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) repeatedly wrote poems about the impossibility of embodying the Idea in poetic form. This is most famously thematized in the poetic symbol of l’azur, a term evoking both the color blue and the sky and alluding to the impossible ideal that the poet seeks to grasp and express. In an 1891 response to Jules Huret’s Enquête sur l’évolution littéraire (Survey of literary development), Mallarmé, attempting to describe his approach to poetry, expanded on Baudelaire’s notion of correspondences and turned it into the modus operandi of creation. According to Mallarmé,
to name an object is to suppress three quarters of the pleasure of the poem which is meant to be deciphered little by little: suggestion, that is the dream. This is the perfect use of mystery which constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little in order to show a state of the soul or, conversely, to choose an object and glean from it an emotional state by a series of decipherments. (1891 response to Jules Huret, Enqête sur evolution littéraire)
As this passage suggests, the purpose of a poem is not to put forth a clearly decipherable message about the exterior world or the intentions of the writer, but to set in motion a process of reading. The word on the page always points beyond itself or its obvious referents to an unknown that cannot be fixed. Mallarmé’s works place the emphasis on language’s material unfolding through the poem, and the reader’s unending act of decipherment is not a sign of the poem’s failure but of its success.
Symbolism and Music
Many symbolists share the notion that all art should aspire to the condition of music, which was thought to be the most emotionally direct aesthetic medium. In “Art poétique” (1884), Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) famously instructed poets on the importance of “music before all else.” This musicality was achieved in much symbolist poetry through rhyming, alliteration, assonance, and other rhetorical flourishes.
Mallarmé’s famous late poem Un coup de dés (1897; A dice-throw) takes the relationship between poetry and music even further than Verlaine. In this poem, Mallarmé radically experimented with type size and placement, leaving many blank areas, which themselves seem to carry meaning. The poem has been compared to a musical score with blanks that prescribe rests and with phrases that evanesce in much the same way as the music of Mallarmé’s contemporary, the composer Claude Debussy. Indeed, Mallarmé’s conception of his poems as a kind of music is brought out in an anecdote. When Debussy asked permission to set Mallarmé’s “Afternoon of a Faun” (1876) to music, Mallarmé responded: “But I thought I had already done that!” (Sieburth, in Hollier, p. 796).
No composer is more closely aligned with symbolism than Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Debussy is famous for setting many symbolist writings to music, including several poems by Baudelaire and Mallarmé. Most famously, he wrote “Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun,” meant to complement and extend Mallarmé’s poem. Perhaps more important, Debussy approached musical composition with aims parallel to those of many symbolists. As Debussy wrote in an article of La revue blanche in 1902, music should not be “confined to producing Nature more or less exactly, but rather to producing the mysterious correspondences which link Nature with Imagination” (quoted in Lloyd, p. 266).
Like the symbolists, Debussy experimented radically with the conventions of rhythm, abandoning artificial demarcations within musical time in a move analogous to the symbolists’ rejection of the classic meters of poetry. Debussy compared his desire to minimize symbol and ornament in music to Mallarmé’s carefully wrought economy of language. Debussy also rejected any notion that music should tell an easily decipherable narrative: “There are those who want music to tell base anecdotes! As if the newspapers didn’t perform this task wonderfully well already” (quoted in Lloyd, p. 263). Both Debussy and Mallarmé imagined that their work, because of its rejection of anecdotal references and formulas, required active participation by its audience and asked them to transcend the mundanity of everyday experience. Debussy emphasized not only sound but silence as an element of meaning in his music, and this has been described as analogous to Mallarmé’s emphasis on the pauses and blank areas of the page in his late poem “Dice Thrown.” Finally, both Debussy and Mallarmé composed works that circle around the theme of desire.
Many poets associated with symbolism were extremely interested in the German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). The French interest in Wagner went back to the 1860s, when Baudelaire had admired and written about him and Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Judith Gautier, and Catulle Mendès had all visited him. Wagner imagined his music-dramas as Gesamtkunstwerke (total works of art) in which all the arts would be combined in a single work to transcend the possibilities of individual media. While some critics emphasized the naturalist tendencies of Wagner’s music, French interpreters of Wagner imagined the orchestrator of the total work of art as a secular priest and the work itself as a means to provide a transcendent experience. Baudelaire described his experience of Wagner’s music-drama Lohengrin (1848) as ecstatic, instigating an involuntary dreamlike state. Furthermore, in a transformation of Wagner that would be seized on by the symbolists, Baudelaire relates this experience to the synesthetic ideal he had described in “Correspondences,” saying that music by its very nature suggests synaesthetic analogies. In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the performance of Wagner’s operas had been banned in France. Many French literary figures, however, visited the festivals at Bayreuth, and by the mid-1880s there was a veritable cult of Wagner in France. From 1885 to 1888 one of Mallarmé’s disciples, Édouard Dujardin, published a symbolist journal, La revue wagnérienne, devoted to Wagnerism.
Les Vingt and Belgian Symbolism
In Belgium, the avant-garde group Les Vingt (The twenty) held exhibitions, musical events, and readings from 1884 to 1893. Its founders, Edmond Picard and Octave Maus, aimed to promote avant-garde culture using the Wagnerian theory of the unification of the arts. The exhibition galleries of Les Vingt displayed works by avant-garde artists from Belgium and elsewhere. Performances of the work of contemporary composers (including Debussy) were held in the galleries. The elite of the literary world were invited to speak on literature, and readings of avant-garde poetry were regularly held. Belgium had long been fertile ground for the development of literature and the arts and the influence of France had always been strong. As a French-speaking nation close to France’s border, Belgium had hosted many exiled French artists and writers, including Baudelaire, and often works by French writers that could not be published in France were published in Belgium. Journals such as La jeune Belgique, L’élan littéraire, and La Wallonie contributed to the development of Belgian symbolism and also had a great influence in France. Many on the staff of La Wallonie, for example, were important players in the French symbolist movement. The Belgian symbolist writers Verhaeren, Maeterlinck, and Rodenbach participated in the literary events of Les Vingt. They were influential in the literary worlds of both Belgium and France. The journal L’art moderne championed Les Vingt and published many articles explaining its aesthetic platform, which was broadly antiacademic (and thus embraced Impressionism and Neoimpressionism alongside symbolism). Like the organization itself, the journal was devoted to a range of media—painting, sculpture, engraving, and furniture and costume design were discussed alongside literature and music. Significantly, L’art moderne also promoted a socialist political agenda and rejected the bourgeois public, the press, and the official exhibiting space of the Salon as its enemies.
The symbolist movement in Russia is known as the Russian Silver Age (1892-1917). Although it was a widespread cosmopolitan movement encompassing often contradictory elements, certain general outlines can be drawn. In the 1890s a young generation of Russian writers was strongly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Poe, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. The writer Valeri Briusov was instrumental in introducing Western work to the Russian audience through his translations of Baudelaire and Poe as well as his editorship of the important symbolist journal Vesy (The scales), which was modeled on Le mercure de France and published the works of Russian writers alongside European symbolists, including Moréas, Verhaeren, and Rémy de Gourmont. In 1892 three collections of verse were published under the title The Russian Symbolists. Rejecting positivism and materialism as well as the classic approach to literature, these writers followed the example of their Western counterparts. Writers such as Briusov, Konstantin Balmont, Fyodor Sologub, Zinaida Gippius, and Dmitry Merezhkovsky experimented with literary form and valued suggestion, intuition, and musicality in their work. The poet, mystic, and theologian Vladimir Solovyev described “life’s reverberating noise” as an “altered echo of transcendent harmonies.” Like their French and Belgian counterparts, Russian symbolists rejected the didactic depiction of the empirical world and conceived of a truer reality hidden by phenomenal experience. They believed that intuition was more important than objective knowledge. This borrowing of ideas from further west was accompanied by an aesthetics of art for art’s sake.
At the turn of the century Russian symbolism began to develop a much stronger character of its own, emphasizing a particularly Russian spiritual content. In 1901 Gippius and Merezhkovsky opened their Saint Petersburg Salon to contributors to Sergey Diaghilev’s journal World of Art and in 1902 Merezhkovsky founded the Religious Philosophical Society. This led to a cross-fertilization of the literary, visual, and philosophical components of the movement in a forum focused on cosmic consciousness and the particular role of Russia as an intermediary between Eastern and Western spirituality, and on various forms of occult theorizing. The writers Vyacheslav Ivanov, Aleksandr Blok, and Andrey Bely were important participants in this later phase of the symbolist movement. Andrey Bely (1880-1934) described the new Russian poetry as apocalyptic and poets as prophets of the end of European civilization who foreshadow in their work a new, more highly evolved form of human consciousness. Solovyev described the poet as a possessor of secret knowledge. Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921) wrote poems drawn from mystic experiences and based on dreams. Bely is perhaps best known for his symbolist novels, the most famous of which is Saint Petersburg (1913). The novel, composed of experimental suggestive prose, combines descriptive narrative with mystical symbolism and can be read on many levels.
In Britain a movement known as aestheticism is often seen as part of the wider symbolist movement. From the mid-nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, the artists and writers associated with British aestheticism experimented with the idea that art is a realm separate from the everyday world and the artist’s role is to cultivate and express beauty for its own sake. British aestheticists most often used very refined evocations of women from myth and legend as a means for exploring their own highly cultivated sensibilities. They rejected classic approaches to art and literature and disputed the notion that art should educate its audience about moral values. The retreat into the realm of highly refined art and the refusal to address contemporary issues are often regarded as an oblique attack on bourgeois morality and the growing commodity culture of nineteenth-century Britain.
The writers of the aesthetic movement drew on the work of British romantic poets such as William Blake (1757-1827). Some were also influenced by Baudelaire and the French symbolists. One of the precursors to the aesthetic movement was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was formed by a group of young painters and writers in the mid-nineteenth century. This movement rejected the classic aesthetic of the British academy and looked to other sources for its inspiration and subject matter. Many of their early works had Christian subjects. Often they tried to re-create the forms and methods of Gothic art and looked back to stories of knights and ladies. Pre-Raphaelite journals such as The Germcombined literary endeavors with explorations of the visual arts. Initially, the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic involved taking a detailed approach and for this reason it is often linked to realism. Nevertheless, many of the poems and paintings of artists such as James McNeill Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are rather vague and suggestive and these are commonly seen as part of the aesthetic movement. Writers associated with the aesthetic movement include John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Charles Swinburne, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde. Many participants in British aestheticism embraced the notion of synesthesia and looked for correspondences between poetry, painting, and music. Dante Rossetti often based his paintings on his own poems, especially those evoking stories from the writings of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), author of the Divine Comedy. Claude Debussy set Dante Rossetti’s poem “The Blessed Damozel” (1850) to music in 1887-1888. Rossetti had completed his own painting of this poem in 1881, and the painting, which had the poem inscribed on the frame, is thought to have inspired Debussy’s composition. James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was a close friend of Mallarmé and symbolist critics described him as a “painter-poet.” Whistler embraced the connection between art and music by giving his works musical titles such as “symphony” or “nocturne,” with subtitles designating colors or subject matter.
Symbolist theater relied on the Wagnerian idea of the total work of art, while also emphasizing the importance of using suggestion to reach metaphysical concepts of “the enigma of life” (Villiers de l’Isle Adam). The symbolists aimed to eliminate all traces of naturalistic or imitative acting, and all romance and melodrama. In theory, the actor was to be a depersonalized symbol pointing to a meaning beyond what was visible on the stage. In France, the Théâtre d’Art and the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre put on plays by symbolist writers and held experimental poetry stagings. In addition to the plays of French writers, they produced adaptations of works by Edgar Allan Poe, which had recently been translated by Mallarmé, and of Salomé, the play Oscar Wilde had written in French during his exile from Britain. Plays by the Belgian symbolists Maeterlinck and Rodenbach were also produced. Often the plays featured stage sets created by Paul Sérusier and other artists from the symbolist group the Nabis. In “On the Absolute Lack of Utility of Exact Staging,” the playwright and theorist Pierre Quillard wrote that “the set should be a pure ornamental fiction which completes the illusion through analogies of colors and lines with the play.… Theater will be what it should be: a pretext for dream” (quoted in Deak, p. 145). Significantly, the sets were meant not to echo the visible shapes or forms of the characters, but, in a kind of synesthesia, to analogize the essence of the play itself.
Plays by the Scandinavian writers Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and August Strindberg (1849-1912) also became important parts of the French symbolist repertoire. In a manifesto accompanying the opening of Aurélian-Marie Lugné-Poe’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, the symbolist critic Camille Mauclair identified Ibsen with the symbolist struggle to express “libertarian ideas or taste for aestheticism” and “modern beauty.” Ibsen’s plays Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House, The Lady from the Sea, Rosmersholm, and An Enemy of the People were all staged in the early 1890s. Part of the reason Ibsen was appropriated as a symbolist had to do with the staging. The Danish actor, director, and novelist Hermann Bang described Lugné-Poe’s staging of Rosmersholm as “without any firm contours. The actors wander restlessly over the stage, resembling shadows drifting continuously on the wall. They like to move with their arms spread out, … like the apostles in old paintings who look as if they’ve been surprised during worship” (quoted in Deak, p. 189). Bang’s description of actors resembling apostles and shadows on a wall gives us a sense of how the staging of the play used vagueness and suggestiveness to reach higher spiritual meanings. As Frantisek Deak points out in his study of symbolist theater, however, Bang saw these initial attempts by Lugné-Poe as a misappropriation of Ibsen and attempted to persuade Lugné-Poe to emphasize psychological elements in his staging. Many Scandinavian critics, who believed Ibsen’s play was realist, objected to the staging. Several of August Strindberg’s psychological dramas (including The Father and The Creditors) were also staged at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, despite the fact that he too had previously been understood to be a naturalist.
Symbolism in the Visual Arts
In the 1880s and 1890s, many European artists experimented with work that had similarities to symbolist literature. When applied to the visual arts, symbolism designates less a recognizable style than a general approach to art that rejects direct representation of the material world in favor of allusion and suggestion. While artists such as Paul Gauguin and the Nabis or Ferdnand Knopff consciously pursued an aesthetic agenda analogous to the project of literary symbolism, others, such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau or Auguste Rodin were annexed to the symbolist movement by a younger generation of artists in much the same way that Ibsen and Strindberg had been.
The aim of searching for more authentic ideas than those offered by material reality was in some sense similar to the traditional goal of idealization long pursued by academic art. The technical means by which symbolists pursued the idea was often quite innovative, however. In 1886, the symbolist critic Gustave Kahn offered a description of symbolism that lent itself to translation into visual media. Rather than portraying “the quotidian, the near at hand,” as realist and Impressionist artists had done, symbolists “wish to be able to place the development of the symbol in any period whatsoever, and even in outright dreams (the dream being indistinguishable from life).” With this reference to Schopenhauer’s theorization of the world as representation, Kahn proposed that symbolist artists or writers look inward for their subject matter: “The essential aim of our art is to objectify the subjective (the externalization of the Idea) instead of subjectifying the objective (nature seen through a temperament).” (L’Evénément, 28 September 1886). Kahn negated the naturalist writer Émile Zola’s championing of the expression of individual temperaments and called for the externalization of the transcendent Idea.
Symbolism and Modernism
The symbolist artists imagined that their privileged subjective states were best expressed through allusive, nonnaturalistic arrangements of line and color. The Talisman (1888), a painting by Paul Sérusier (1865-1927), is often said to be the first attempt by French symbolist artists to practice this aesthetic. In a story recounted by Maurice Denis, Sérusier is said to have painted the work following Gauguin’s instruction: “How do you see this tree, Gauguin asked in front of a corner of the Bois d’Amour: is it green? Then paint it green, the most beautiful green on your palette; and that shadow, rather blue? Don’t be afraid to paint it as blue as possible” (p. 50). In this way, bold and simplified color patterns were extracted from the natural landscape. In 1891 Albert Aurier wrote “Symbolism in Painting: Paul Gauguin,” in which he defined the characteristics of symbolist painting and suggested by Gauguin’s work embodied them. Like Moréas he emphasized the primacy of “the Idea” and necessity of clothing it in a synthetic form that would work by allusion. He stressed that the work should be subjective, because an object would not be considered as an object, but as a sign of an idea perceived by the subject.
Denis’s painting April (1892) demonstrates his own experimentation with this aesthetic. In 1890, Denis wrote in his manifesto “Definition of Neo-Traditionism”: “Before it is a battle horse, a nude woman, or an anecdote, a painting is a flat surface, covered with colors arranged in a certain order” (p. 1). Thus Denis, like the symbolist poets, foregrounded the abstract qualities of his medium and like them explicitly defined symbolism as a kind of modernism. The title of his manifesto points to the paradoxical nature of his symbolist project. Denis wished to turn to tradition in order to found a new (neo) kind of art. He argued that artists should look to aesthetic examples such as the Italian primitives and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898). That artist, who was France’s greatest painter of murals on national themes, interested the symbolists because his large, boldly patterned compositions in muted colors, such as Poor Fisherman(1881), seemed to suggest rather than define their subjects. His compositions were often described as dreamlike. The critic Téodor de Wyzewa, for example, explained the unanimous praise for the artist as being a result of “a thirst for dream, emotion and poetry.”
The Artist As Prophet
The notion that the artist was a seer or prophet who, in the words of the symbolist critic Camille Mauclair, “painfully saved our sickened souls from the excremental muck of materialism” (quoted in Matthews, p. 15), was explicitly embraced by many artists in France who wished to be associated with symbolism. Paul Gauguin as well as the artists who formed the avant-garde group the Nabis (Nabis is the Hebrew word for prophets) —Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, Édouard Vuillard, and Émile Bernard—are good examples of this. Art, they believed, had the potential to offer the kind of salvation that had previously been the terrain of traditional religions. Some, such as Denis, were part of a wider, extremely conservative neo-Catholic movement.
Others were looking for less traditional forms of spiritual meaning beyond everyday existence. Artists such as Paul Gauguin, Paul Ranson, and Odilon Redon in France, the Blue Rose group led by Pavel Kuznetsov as well as Mikhail Vrubel’ in Russia, and the Czech artist Frantisek Kupka embraced the occult mysticism that was in vogue during the late nineteenth century. Some artists employed principles of “sacred geometry” according to which basic shapes or harmonic ratios shared by plants, animals, or other natural objects were thought to demonstrate a universal continuum of form understandable to all. Such ideas were derived from the theosophy of Madame Blavatsky and Édouard Schuré and from the study of earlier illustrated treatises on the occult, which aimed to find unifying principles in disparate religions. These theories of the occult also shared an interest in dualistic principles of male-female, heaven-earth, and a three-part godhead of matter-mind-spirit, which were often represented using geometric diagrams. This emphasis on abstract geometry thus links the spiritualist emphasis of some symbolists to the more widespread modernism of the movement.
One of the main international exhibition forums for mystical symbolist art was the Order of the Rose Cross of the Temple and the Grail, whose Salons were held in Paris from 1892 to 1897. The order had been founded by the self-anointed “Sâr” Joséphin Péladan (1859-1918; Sâr was the title designating Assyrian royalty), a prolific art critic, the author of Androgyne and Vice suprême, and a high priest of the occult. He described the artist as the “supreme priest” who should represent “dreams instead of reality.” The flamboyant Péladan viewed himself and all his public activities as a work of art. He even coined the term kaloprosopia to describe this art of personality in which the externalization of an aesthetic idea in dress, gesture, and demeanor would ultimately lead to the internalization of this aesthetic as a personality trait, and visa versa. Péladan himself dressed in archaic silk robes and affected the pose of a quasi-Byzantine mystic.
Péladan and other symbolist artist-prophets expected to be rejected by the mass audience, thought to be incapable of interpreting the truths embodied in their art. Thus symbolism often brought with it a form of elitism that was sometimes used to support a conservative social agenda. The symbolist rejection of a wider bourgeois audience has also been interpreted as a protest against the degraded mass culture that resulted from industrial capitalism and the related effects of capitalism’s materialist values on human subjectivity. However much the symbolists themselves may have understood their elitism as a form of protest, their emphasis on the creative genius unwittingly reinforced the notions of individualism on which the growing art market traded.
Symbolist Primitivism: The Retreat From Western Civilization
Like Kahn, the symbolist art critic Albert Aurier described the artist as a visionary who, by looking inward, achieved access to the absolute. According to Aurier, this ability to communicate more directly with basic truths was shared by others whose “uncivilized” natures brought them closer to an originary state of being in which the senses were not yet dulled by daily exposure to decadent European culture: children, non-Europeans, peasants, madmen, and hysterical women. Symbolist artists who embraced the primitive wished to return their own consciousnesses to equivalent states of innocence and instinctiveness. In France, the symbolist interest in the primitive was related to the opening of markets between East and West, and to the expansion of colonialism that gave artists exposure to what were viewed as more primitive peoples and their art. Many artists borrowed from non-Western sources. The Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and many other late-nineteenth-century artists looked to the bold patterns and lack of traditional Western perspective of Japanese prints for a seemingly primitive source of artistic ideas.
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) retreated to Brittany in the 1880s in what he imagined was an escape to a more primitive region of France, where he hoped to set up an artists’ colony. There he painted several images of the natives, including the famous Vision after the Sermon (1888). This painting used bold patterns and generalized shapes to picture the mystical vision of “primitive” peasants. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) moved from Paris to Arles at about the same time and invited Gauguin to join him in a similar attempt to escape the metropolis. Ultimately, seeking a retreat to a primitive paradise, Gauguin fled Paris for Tahiti in the 1890s. He continued to paint boldly patterned works of primitive subjects—especially native women—until his death.
On one hand, many of the symbolists sincerely valued what they believed to be positive characteristics of so-called primitive peoples. On the other, they also believed that though women, children, and savages were closer to the absolute, they lacked the intellectual ability to recognize and identify universal ideas. Neither did such primitives possess the artistic ability to communicate the absolute through art. Only the artist-seer had both access to the absolute and the means to recognize and communicate it. Thus, while symbolism encouraged artists and poets to explore marginalized realms—to “become” momentarily feminine, mad, or primitive in the act of creativity—it also denied the possibility that traditionally “primitive” people could themselves be artists. It therefore shored up the elite status of already privileged European male artists. In addition, in the process of celebrating the people they saw as primitive, these artists reinforced the stereotypes that allowed the wider culture to marginalize them, or, in the case of colonialism, they justified imperial expansion as a needed civilizing force.
Artifice Against Nature
In Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel, À rebours (Against the grain, or Against nature), the decadent aesthete Des Esseintes withdraws into an elaborate world of his own construction in an effort fully to control his “reality.” Within the confines of his abode, the differences between nature and artifice, reality and imagination are effaced and the whims of his highly refined sensibility are indulged to such an extent that nothing natural remains. This transformation of the natural world into a product of the Des Esseintes artifice is well illustrated when the protagonist decorates his home with a live turtle encrusted with gold and jewels. (The turtle, not surprisingly, dies.) Des Esseintes’s walls are hung with the works of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau. Each artist pictures worlds that work “against nature.” Their works overtly claim status as products of the imagination rather than replications of the real.
Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) belonged to an earlier generation of artists and had little respect for the symbolist movement. He refused to exhibit with them at Sâr Péladan’s Salon of the Rose + Croix and described the “enthusiasm for the invisible … exclusive need of dreams, mystery mysticism, Symbolism and the undefined” as so much snobbery and posing (quoted in Cooke, 124). By the time Huysmans wrote about Moreau’s paintings Salomé (1874) and The Apparition (1876) in his novel, Moreau had been exhibiting scenes from the Old Testament and Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the Salon for nearly three decades. Despite this, Moreau did share some aims with the works of artists aligned with symbolism, though his aesthetic approach is quite different from artists such as Gauguin and the Nabis. His works embody the principle that one must move beyond the description of the everyday and against any sense of the replication of nature. Moreau’s paintings combine imagery and symbols from a wide range of sources (including Old Masters, Egyptian art, the Byzantine empire, and Asian culture). All these are incorporated into highly detailed paintings whose disparate symbols are held together by a distinctive painterly style. Elaborate and often minute patterns, sometimes painted, sometimes scratched into the paint, form a unifying armature or screen over the canvas. The effect is a disconcerting jewel-like surface and dreamlike treatment of the familiar that now appears to be wholly a product of the artist’s artifice.
Like Moreau, the printmaker and painter Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was chosen by Huysmans as an artist favored by his fictional decadent hero Des Esseintes. Redon’s small-scale works on paper differ greatly from Moreau’s intricately wrought history paintings. Redon’s imagery, however, like Moreau’s, draws on a range of sources, from ancient myth to Christian subjects to natural imagery to contemporary literature, and often combines sources in impossible and surprising ways that evoke formal or conceptual correspondences between seemingly disparate objects. This combination, reminiscent of dreams in which one thing metamorphoses into another, was sometimes further enhanced by the captions or evocative titles that accompanied the works. Like symbolist poetry, Redon’s prints push the reader into a process of interpretation where echoes between elements suggest meanings but resist any ultimate decipherment or closure. In Redon’s work, as in symbolist poetry, the viewer’s engagement with the process of interpretation seems to be the most important element.
In many works, Redon specifically thematizes the transformation of nature into imagination by transmuting natural forms into highly evocative dreamlike visions. In There Was Perhaps a First Vision Attempted in the Flower, a plate from the lithograph series Les origines (1883; Origins), the orb at flower’s center becomes an eye and the lashes give it the look of a carnivorous plant. In other works, flowers, spiders, or planetary orbs have human faces. Redon studied anatomy and natural history. His hybrid creatures cross categories of the natural world to become evocatively unnatural. Their hybridity also speaks to the possibility of a primeval continuum tying together different categories of being.
A similar hybridization of natural categories is seen in the works of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). In the series of paintings The Frieze of Life, the forms in background landscapes seem to be based on contemporary studies of the physiology of the human body. Furthermore, Munch described the landscape itself through physiological metaphors, sometimes of pulsing or breathing. In Munch, as in Redon, the metaphorical correspondences link disparate realms of being to point to basic structures or primeval truths beyond the immediately visible.
Symbolism, Gender, and Sexuality
Woman is a ubiquitous subject in symbolist art and literature. Sometimes, as in Denis’s April or the early work of Piet Mondrian, she is a positive symbol of innocence and possibility—desexualized and dematerialized. In paintings by D. G. Rossetti or Whistler, woman is a highly aestheticized and unattainable love object. In his early work, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) used the motifs of women and embryos to express the notion that woman could be the incarnation of a higher, purer, more spontaneous realm. At other times, woman is turned into a sexualized femme fatale, as in Jean Delville’s Idol of Perversity or in the works of the Belgian graphic artist Félicien Rops or the German artist Franz von Stuck. Thus, much symbolist visual art reinforces and amplifies a long-standing dichotomy between woman as virgin and woman as whore.
Significantly, each of these stereotypes aligns woman closely with nature. Such images reinforce the idea that woman, imprisoned within her biology—as the innocent vessel of the life-bearing force or as bearer of uncontrollable and instinctive sexual desire—is incapable of transcending her bodily functions and desires. Woman is a subcategory of nature and is linked to the primitivism that was such an important subtext of the symbolist project. The Belgian symbolist Ferdnand Khnopff’s Art (Caresses of the Sphynx, 1896) combines many of these elements. The Dutch symbolist Jan Toorop, with his flat linear vision, and Munch painted renditions of woman as femme fatale. Moreau’s images of Salomé and other female figures also fit this description.
Significantly, these works were produced at a time when feminist movements were experiencing a resurgence across Europe and when women were beginning to work in a number of male professions. This imagery may be seen partly as a cultural reaction to the emergence of a well-defined social type—”the New Woman”—a bourgeois woman who sought financial independence, education, and a professional life. To counteract this threat to traditional values, the mainstream definitions of femininity in late-nineteenth-century European culture denied woman the possibility of “genius.” And individual women who pursued intellectual or professional activities were described as “masculine.” Artistic representations of woman’s proximity to nature counteracted women’s demands for intellectual pursuits by reinforcing the boundaries between intellectually endowed virile masculinity and body-bound femininity. Patricia Matthews argues that the masculinity of the intuitive artist-seer was ultimately protected by the exclusion of women from the category of genius. Like the primitives, women might experience intuition, spirituality, or a loss of the boundaries of self, but because they lacked genius, they would never be able to transform those experiences into an understanding of higher truths; nor could they communicate those truths through art. One rare exception to this general belief was the sculptor Camille Claudel, whose works were praised by several symbolist critics. Nevertheless, many of them still related the power of Claudel’s works to her instinctual femininity. Other successful women artists and writers were said to have lost some of their femininity in expressing their genius.
The relationship between symbolism and sexuality was not always degrading to women. For some Russian symbolists, including the woman writer Zinaida Gippius and the male writers Ivanov and Merezhkovsky, sex was a source of liberation with the potential to unite humanity with God. Furthermore, many male symbolists conceived of their own projects in feminized terms. Intuition, spirituality, emotionalism, loss of intellectual control—all these were characteristics commonly aligned with the feminine. Many symbolists (Sâr Péladan is the most obvious example) enacted the role of feminized aesthete in their public lives, constructing personae that rejected bourgeois norms of masculinity. The British aesthete and writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) also assumed the role of the unconventional dandy (though in a less extreme form than Péladan). In the early twentieth century, many lesbians, including Romaine Brooks and Claude Cahun, would take the image of the male dandy as a model for their alternative visions of female sexuality.
Because it challenged normative values and offered alternative cultural forms, symbolism and the aestheticism that often accompanied it opened new avenues for imagining sexuality, which sometimes offered positive ways of conceptualizing the marginal subject position of the homosexual male. Rimbaud is famous for writing in a symbolist vein about his relationship with Verlaine. André Gide, who would openly theorize male homosexuality in dialogue form in Corydon (1911-1924), began his literary career in the symbolist milieu. Péladan described the androgyne as a symbol of creative possibility—an innocent creature prior to the corruption of sexuality who still embodied the intuitive possibilities of femininity without its negative aspects.
Wilde seems to have found something enabling in the images of the femme fatale (his version of Salomé clearly differs from the overtly misogynist versions produced by many late-nineteenth-century artists). Swinburne attacked normative sexual morality in his poems by incorporating perverse sexuality into his images of beauty. British artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, Simeon Solomon, and Edward Burne-Jones, and writers such as Pater and Swinburne, often represented androgynous figures. Richard Dellamora and Thaïs Morgan connect these androgynous figures to the construction of a homosexual subcultural identity in Britain. Morgan suggests that images of the androgyne and of the hermaphrodite were meant to be read both as symbols of the perfect art object (by the mainstream audience) and as specific objects of homosexual desire.
Symbolism and the Unconscious
Symbolism was part of a wider cultural trend in which the order, clarity, and hierarchy that had long been associated with traditional academic art were replaced by modes of representation that focused instead on experimentation with representational form and an emphasis on individual sensibility. In this sense, symbolism is connected to Impressionism in painting and naturalism in literature. In fact, many symbolist artists emerged from this naturalist milieu. Unlike naturalism, however, symbolism emphasizes the sensuous suggestiveness of language and form and the tendency of this suggestiveness to solicit individual interpretations from viewers and readers. Because symbolism suggested rather than instructing or describing, and because its subjects were so often themselves dreamlike, it seemed to open the door to a proliferation of fantasies in its audience. Thus the symbolist project was part of broader challenges to the notion of the autonomous human subject—a male subject for whom thought and representation had the potential to be transparent. When the boundaries of this traditional male subject position were opened up, many consequences, both aesthetic and political, followed.
The symbolist movement was one element in a general reconceptualization of human subjectivity that took place just as the existence of the unconscious mind was being imagined by psychologists and sociologists. One salient example of this theorization of the unconscious and the consequent questioning of the nature of subjectivity is to be found in the popular fascination with hysteria, hypnosis, and “suggestion.” The power of suggestion was thought to be especially strong when the subject had a weak or nervous personality (for example, children, primitives, and women). There was much debate over whether “normal” men with strong personalities were also subject to the suggestion of others. In 1891, Alfred Fouillee summed up the consequences of recent psychological discoveries, saying “contemporary psychology has wrested from us the illusion of a bounded, impenetrable, and absolutely autonomous ego (p. 811). The discovery of the unconscious led to the possibility that human beings were not truly in control of their thoughts and actions. Works of art were deemed to have the potential to open their audiences to a suggestibility analogous to the state of hypnosis. Thus, paradoxically, the symbolist rejection of material reality in favor of the world of dream took shape at approximately the same time empirical science was confirming the importance of fantasy in daily life.
Conservative critics such as Ferdinand Brunetière in France or Max Nordau in Germany worried that symbolist work, with its incantatory echoing sounds and forms and its refusal to point readers or viewers to clear edifying messages, might encourage a loss of control not only in the artists who produced it but in the audiences who experienced it. Brunetière believed the aesthetic experience should serve as an edifying point of focus for the reasoning mind. He charged that the “empty forms” and “hollow rattling words” of symbolism would “dissolve the unity of the self in a diversity of successive states … give it over to the wandering voluptuousness of dream,” which would lead to “the glorification of egoism” rather than the betterment of society (Shaw, p. 192). Nordau’s book Degeneration described symbolism as a symptom of a general decline in Western civilization. Yet the very qualities that critics such as Nordau abhorred were the things that made symbolism a turning point in the arts. Symbolism opened new aesthetic possibilities of experimentation and abstraction and created space for alternative subject positions. It created the possibility, that is to say, for many of the wide range of avant-garde movements that followed in the early twentieth century.