Symbolism is best defined as a mental attitude manifested in literature and visual art, characterized by unreal motifs and depictions. The underlying idea was that visible and definable reality represents merely the foreground of a universal scheme. Expressing this scheme in art was not possible directly but only through suggestions and allusions. The metaphors and allegories of Symbolist art showed the events impossible in nature that could be experienced in dreams, trance, or ecstasy. The roots of this attitude reach far back into history and extend through various cultures. Romanticism already bore the traits of Symbolist art, which was only amplified in the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. It spread into the art of Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau in France and Hans von Marees and Arnold Böcklin in Germany. These artists, often considered pioneers, later influenced the following younger generation of artists.
1. Arnold Böcklin, Self-portrait with Death Playing Fiddle, 1872
Important to European Symbolism as the artist himself, Self-portrait with Death Playing Fiddle was painted in 1872 by Arnold Böcklin. It is a paradigmatic image of Symbolist art. Böcklin’s self-portrait carries the new image and role of the artists in the late 19th century.
The artist does not need to be a successful citizen but a hero, legitimized through extraordinary experiences or fantasies. The Romantic element of the artist’s loneliness and being misunderstood acquired a positive connotation in Symbolism.
The artist’s contact with experiences of estrangement and hardship, intimate knowledge of dreams and nightmares, and the complex of Eros and Death gave him a new position in society. In Böcklin’s painting, Death playing its tune is listened to intently by the artist trying to gather inspiration for his work. Following his footsteps, many artists explored the death experience as a source of inspiration for their portraits. German painters like Hans Thoma, Oskar Zwinschter, and Lovis Corinth all had their versions of the image.
2. Franz von Stuck, Sin, c. 1908
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Freud and the development of psychoanalysis, the women’s movement, and the struggle between sexes as reflected in 19th-century literature provided a background for the projections of the woman in Symbolist art. These projections often recall terms such as entanglement, ensnarement, and man-eating. These projections peaked at the image of a femme fatale with endless variations in Symbolist art.
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Franz von Stuck painted at least eleven variations of Sin. The pale figure of a woman takes up most of the painting; her head and full, dark hair lie in shadow. A black snake coils around her hips and abdomen, concealing the pubic area. After coiling out of sight behind the figure’s back, its head re-emerges with its mouth slightly open. Both the snake and the woman are staring back at the (presumably male) viewer, enticing and preparing for his destruction.
3. Odilon Redon, Marsh Flower, 1885
The Marsh Flower is a lithograph made by Odilon Redon as part of a series entitled Homage to Goya. The six lithographs in this series were inspired by Francisco Goya’s Los Capricos, whose theme was human beings’ irrational mistreatment of one another, an ode to Goya’s pessimism.
The source of this creature is the artist’s imagination, designed according to the artist’s intuition rather than academic or any other tradition. Redon preferred to work only in black and white (he rarely used color until after 1900) because he felt it best suited the representation of the non-visible. Color created associations with the visible world for most viewers, and it was an unseen world that Redon represented. The marsh flower emerges from a spatially ambiguous void, and like many of other Redon’s creatures, it is a hybrid of a plant and human.
Another source for Redon’s creatures was the works of French naturalists, who, following Charles Darwin’s works, suggested the existence of extinct hybrid species throughout history. Contemporary interpretations of fossils and comparative zoology implied the existence of mammals that looked and behaved like fish and worms that were hermaphroditic.
4. Felicien Rops, Pornocrates, 1878
Felicien Rops, a Belgian illustrator, adopted the Symbolist love of the macabre. His exceptional talent, however, was for the perversely erotic and blasphemous subjects. In these fields, he enjoyed a great reputation and infamy. As expected, the explicit nature of his work caused great scandals.
Pornocratès or Woman with a Pig, his best-known work, was a painting Rops made in 1878. It marked the turning point toward Symbolistic subjects and expressions. It is an image of a nearly naked woman, her gloves and stockings further emphasizing her nakedness. With a blindfold covering her eyes, the woman is led by a pig on a leash, similar to a dog. In the air are three putti, and below is a frieze containing allegories of sculpture, music, poetry, and painting.
In Pornocratès, Rops paid homage to the dominion of uncontrollable urges while mocking the repressive morals and hypocrisy of the modern age.
5. Gustave Moreau, Orpheus, 1865
Gustave Moreau is one of the earliest Symbolist artists whose works inspired a new younger generation of French artists. In Symbolist art, as in Moreau’s work, considerable importance is given to creativity; a person who can create something is seen as an exceptional human being.
Gustave Moreau’s painting Orpheus greatly influenced subsequent Symbolist renderings of the myth. It depicts the moment of victory after the tragic death when the Thracian maiden, holding the head in her arms and contemplating it peacefully, has become aware of its power.
The Symbolist artists of the late nineteenth century found a profound expression of their complex aesthetic-religious attitude in the figure of Orpheus. The head of Orpheus is here an image of the eternal isolation of the artist, misunderstood and martyred and venerated only after his death. The death by dismemberment transforms Orpheus into a victim and a martyr. It simultaneously sets the stage for the triumphant victory of his transcendence of death with the power of song and music.
6. Puvis de Chavannes, The Poor Fisherman, 1881
Puvis de Chavannes was a French painter usually considered to be the forerunner of Symbolist art. Puvis was independent, seldom working in academic tradition nor addressing current events. The Poor Fisherman, his most famous work, was met with great hostility when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1881. Nonetheless, the state purchased it in 1887, and by the 1890s, it came to be generally regarded as a masterpiece of Symbolist art. Other artists greatly admired it, including Gauguin, Seurat, Signac, Maillol, and the Nabis.
While Poor Fisherman‘s title suggests a theme consistent with social realism, the image’s generic quality gives it broader resonance. The undernourished physique and passive pose were non-threatening, and the bowed head and clasped hands suggest submissiveness. The fisherman’s Christ-like appearance, accompanied by the nude baby and young mother, evokes the image of the Holy Family. With nothing explicitly said, the painting’s evocation and suggestion exhibit the essential qualities of Symbolist art.
7. Jean Delville, The School of Plato, 1898
Jean Delville was a central participant in the Symbolist art movement in France and Belgium at the turn of the twentieth century. His monumental work, The School of Plato, first appeared at the 1898 Salon d’Art Idéaliste in Brussels. The focus of the painting is the bearded figure of Plato at the center, surrounded by twelve nude men in an idyllic landscape. Plato is seated on a marble bench beneath a tree brimming with clusters of wisteria flowers. As with all of Delville’s paintings, its complex symbolism is deciphered in the esoteric sources which inform much of his work.
The painting relates to Deliville’s writings on aesthetic theory and his theosophical philosophy. His book The New Mission of Art frequently references harmony and vibration as conditions essential to beauty. The artist’s mission is to create works embodying numerical values and geometrical forms in as unified, balanced, and harmonious a manner as possible. Delville thought that through harmonies and “vibrations,” the artist bridges the divide between the material and the spiritual, between the natural and the supernatural world. The triangle-like composition and patterns of the painting, the placement of figures, and their gestures all suggest the ideas Delville expressed in his book.
8. Giovanni Segantini, The Evil Mothers, 1894
Known best for his Alpine landscapes, Giovanni Segantini’s works demonstrate how Symbolist art and ideas spread around Europe and reached even Italy. Between 1891 and 1896, the artist painted a series of works with women rejecting what was seen as their natural destiny, motherhood.
Painted in 1894, The Evil Mothers is one of Segantini’s most famous works. In this barren landscape, a woman wrapped in black cloth is mysteriously bound by her flowing hair to a bare tree. Its twisted forms suggest her sin and torment, with no hope for salvation.
The painting has been subject to different interpretations. Circumstantial evidence provides some guidance in forming at least a general idea of the painting’s content. During the 1890s, one child in ten died in infancy, and one in seven died of tuberculosis in childhood. Since mothers were primarily responsible for their children, any misfortune befalling them was seen as the mother’s fault. Segantini’s evil mothers could be suffering for offenses as serious as child abuse or tuberculosis. The artist punishes the evil mother for her irresponsibility and neglect toward her offspring.
9. James Ensor, The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889, 1889
The Belgian artist James Ensor was the mask enthusiast among the Symbolist artists. He took his motifs from the Carnival in Ostend and the curiosity shop run by his mother. The normal function of the mask in Symbolist art is reversed, as it serves to unmask. Everything evil, malicious, corrupt, mean, and ridiculous about human beings is emphasized through the exaggerated facial features of the masks. Their loss of personal identity lends the disguised figures a mysterious, eerie, and ambiguous appearance.
Ensor’s Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 satirizes contemporary society. Mysteriously, the work was never exhibited during the artist’s lifetime. Here, Ensor imagined an absurd event: the second coming of Christ during pre-Lent Mardi Gras festivities in Brussels. The title alludes to the biblical entry of Christ into Jerusalem. Ensor viewed the contemporary world as a carnival farce filled with cruelty and stupidity. In this raucous mob of masked faces, Jesus neither figures prominently nor is recognized by the partygoers, yet on the podium is a banner proclaiming, “Long Live Jesus, King of Brussels.”
10. Edvard Munch, Vision, 1892
Edvard Munch, the forerunner of German Expressionism, is famous for his unconventional working methods, experimenting with the creative process and psychological subjects. Vision, an early work of Munch, belongs to the sphere of Symbolist art. For Munch himself, the painting was one of his central images of the 1890s. It was shown in all his significant exhibitions between 1892 and 1898 and was planned as the central image of the Frieze of Life.
This painting, described by art historians as an “unconventional self-portrait,” represents a distorted human head floating in the water. Peacefully gliding above is a white swan, a motif laden with symbolism. It represents a visionary experience that differs from a spiritual vision and enlightenment common in Symbolist art. However, since its first exhibition, its symbolism has been considered both confusing and rich. The swan carries a wide range of associations, from death and eroticism to the unreachable artistic ideal and creative suffering central to Munch’s art. The bodiless head, in Symbolist art in general, suggests the soul or intelligence striving to rise from the corporeal world into the union with a pantheistic spirit.